Transcript of Minister For Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Opening Address At The Nobel Prize Dialogue 2022, 13 September 2022

13 September 2022

Thank you all for being here. What is most pertinent is the fact that we have young people here. The purpose of this session really is to inspire the young people, to benefit from the brains, the achievements, and the values of the Nobel Prize winners. It is very humbling to stand here as the Foreign Minister and wonder what in the world I am going to say that is going to be of any use. But if you are going to forget everything else that I am going to say, I just want the young students to know that it is a wonderful time to be alive. It is a time of great danger, but also a time of exhilarating opportunities. And it is a time in history when science, technology, politics, global affairs, and humanity are all telescoping into a focal point. I suppose George Smoot would say, this is almost like a black hole with grave and great opportunities. Let me make a ramble through some of these issues. It is not going to be a comprehensive lecture, but hopefully enough for you to start thinking, and then to ask questions from the real Nobel Prize winners when they get on stage.
Science has been the key driving force for human progress. It has shaped the past, and where we are today is a large result of the Industrial Revolution. It will continue to shape the mega trends of the future. The development of the steam engine, railways, electricity, aviation, shipping, modern medicine, and now the digital revolution. These are just some of the examples in which science and technology have transformed our societies, and have disrupted societies, families, politics, and diplomacy. I will confess to being a techno-optimist, and that means I believe that the emergence and continuing progress of science and technology will bring more good than bad. But it is important to have your eyes wide open and to realise and acknowledge that technology has always been a double-edged sword.
Much of the progress that we have seen, especially in the last 200 years during the Industrial Revolution, has been because science has been a global, collaborative effort. What has happened in the last two centuries, is that we have all been working off the same common stack of basic science, applied research, techniques and technologies, and (have) shared it across the world. The access to ideas, the ability to disseminate those ideas, the creation of patents and intellectual property, a system in which there will still be sufficient fiscal and profit motives for inventors, and yet, information, technology and ideas will be disseminated worldwide, and the ability to collaboratively on a global scale, work on this single stack, has been a key reason why science has advanced at such an accelerating pace in the last two centuries. It is also equally important to understand (that) it is not just about the global scale, but also getting the right balance between academia, private enterprise, and governments. Translating basic science and applied research into novel products and services requires a functioning ecosystem of rules, finance, and ideas. Rules, finance, and ideas – if you do not get these three things right, you will not get the accelerating wheel of innovation moving.
In the digital revolution, the area which has attracted a lot of attention is Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, we have seen a unique constellation of top universities collaborating with enterprises, fuelled by money and ambition, and also a facilitative set of social rules and government support. We need to get the balance right between the profit motive on one hand – and that really animates the private sector – and you do need to get the ethical rules right because technology is always double-edged and you want to make sure that it is used for the welfare of humanity, rather than just for the sake of generating more money, or worse, just to accumulate power. In more recent decades, there has been a third dimension to this, which is the impact on the ecological balance of the planet. Understand that there is a triad – private profits, ethical rules and ecological impact. Let us cast our minds to some recent examples of these factors in play, or when they are not in play, or worse, when they are unbalanced.
The most recent is the COVID-19 pandemic. From a purely scientific perspective, the unprecedented pace of the development of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, the publication of the genome of the virus, literally, within weeks, the incredible pace at which vaccines were created and then made available to the world – this is a cause for celebration of the triumph of science. We also had the COVAX Facility to help to organise and distribute vaccines across the world and the term ‘vaccine multilateralism’ that Prime Minister Lee (Hsien Loong) coined, I think back in June 2020, has become mainstream. Even as you celebrate the achievements of science in dealing with this pandemic, the brutal fact is (that) the pandemic also exposed major gaps in the world’s collective pandemic prevention, preparedness and our response. The truth is, with all the knowledge and with all the tools that we had at hand, we did not do as well as we could have, and as we should have.
Even if you look within societies – and there are now papers which analyse the differential mortality rates resulting from COVID-19 across different countries –it turns out it is not just a matter of wealth of a nation or sophistication of our hospital care systems, but the crucial dimension has been the element of trust, of social capital. Whether citizens trust each other to do the right thing, whether we are able to collaborate to look out for each other, the credibility of scientific authority and political authority as well. It is not good enough to know the scientific facts or to have all the vaccines and techniques and tools available if you cannot persuade people to do the right thing. This has been another key insight from COVID-19. Yet, the doctors in this room will tell you (that) COVID-19 is not the first, it is not the last, and it is not even the most severe global pandemic that we will face. Given the state of the world now, and the way we have organised our economies and our societies, the risk of successive pandemics has gone up, not gone down. We will need to continue to emphasise research in public health and epidemiology, but we will also equally need to focus our minds on humanity, on how we relate to one another, how information is disseminated, (how it) is believed or not, and how we overcome the echo chambers and the cesspools of misinformation which are proliferating in modern society. This goes beyond what I am sure we will continue to do very well, which is the development of new diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines across the globe. I am not so worried about the ability of scientists and healthcare professionals within our own domains. But it is a whole of society response which is lacking.
Another example is climate change. It is in fact, the most pressing. People used to say long term, but it is now a near term challenge facing humanity. Just look at the newspapers. In the last couple of months, (there were) extreme weather events in different parts of the world. No region is spared. You see sweltering heat waves with record temperatures, you see more severe rainfalls, floods, and even colder winters. (I can see this) at my own level because I travel all over the world. Even in my journeys, I have experienced temperatures in the high 40s, to the negatives. The requirement for us to cooperate and collaborate diplomatically to deal with these disasters has become more urgent. The drumbeat of alarm is real. We do have a responsibility to ensure a sustainable future for the young people. The young people, I am glad, have embraced this cause with fervour because in a sense, I suppose they realise that they have more at stake, because they are going to be around here on this world longer than the older generation. We know that we are not going to reach our targets. I spent years negotiating the Paris Agreement, we hoped we would be able to keep the temperature rise at 1.5 degrees. But today, we are already 1.1 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. The World Meteorological Organisation warns there is a 50% chance of temporarily breaching the threshold for at least one of the next five years. From a medical perspective, we can quote these statistics to patients, but when it happens to you, it is 100%. So, we cannot afford to take this lightly.
It is true that there will be new research breakthroughs and new technologies that will help us deal with climate change. There are available sources of renewable energy, clean energy, including solar, wind, geothermal, small modular nuclear reactors, green hydrogen, etc, which can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and cut our greenhouse gas emissions. But whether or not we achieve it, will depend on politics and economics. We will require collaboration across the globe because human beings are always susceptible to the free rider temptation, which means if everyone else reduces, and I do not have to make the sacrifices, I will try to get away with it. This is not the time when we can afford free riding, either at an individual level, or at an international level.
Let me change topics and give you another source for concern: geostrategic rivalry. We watch the difficult and complicated relationship between the United States and China. Right now, there is a war in Europe – in Ukraine. Apart from all the risk of war and the human calamity that results, there is also an impact on science. If there is a real attempt at technological bifurcation and breaking apart innovation systems and supply chain switches – which isĀ­ as I said earlier, the fact that we could work at global scale before is a key reason why we made so much progress – but if geostrategic rivalry breaks this apart, there will be a big problem. It means a world that is more divided, more volatile, more unstable, it means a world with higher inflation because supply chains will no longer work on the basis of efficiency, “just-in-time” becomes replaced by “just-in-case”. “Just-in-case” is more expensive because you have to pay an insurance premium. My worry is that in the scientific field, it will shut off avenues for cooperation, and it will deepen divisions at a time when we need more cooperation, not less. Even for scientists, you will know that sometimes even your passport matters. This is not healthy for science. This is not good for diplomacy or for world peace. The point is we have a problem with the global commons, whether it is about pandemics, or whether it is about the management and application of science and technology, or the global economy. Here (in Singapore), all we can do because we are a tiny city state is to appeal to the better angels, of leaders in countries which are bigger, and whose decisions have a more profound impact on what will happen in the world.
Although I have talked about geostrategic rivalry, it is also worth remembering that if you can get the balance between competition and cooperation right, many good things can happen. I will refer to what the United States, I think, called the Sputnik moment, when they suddenly realised that the Soviet Union had got to space first. It focused their minds, brought all the elements of science and economics and government together. And yes, America reached the moon first. But what is also worth remembering is that right now, we have a 23 year old International Space Station, about 400 kilometres above us in low Earth orbit. It is a collaborative effort between Russia, United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe. American astronauts have accessed the International Space Station via Soyuz flights. Likewise, Russian cosmonauts may use SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Now, if we can maintain these patterns of cooperation in the midst of competition, without succumbing to geostrategic rivalry and war, then there is hope.
One other area I want to draw attention to is Artificial Intelligence. We are on the cusp of a profound technological breakthrough. Because until recently, pattern recognition was an exclusive domain of human beings. Today, machines are able to use pattern recognition and systems can hear, can see, can speak, and can organise. We are only just beginning. But I also wanted to remind you that this is an extremely sharp, double-edged sword. Let me just give you two dimensions to think about.
First, Artificial Intelligence and the decision making that will be delegated to artificial systems means we will now have decision-making mechanisms which exceed the speed of human thought. What it means, just to put a political dimension to this, is that the timeframe for top leaders to make (decisions) in high pressure situations, war or peace, life or death, that time is going to be compressed to a moment. It is worth remembering that human thought, wisdom, and time to exercise judgement has not increased, although our machines have increased. The probability of mishaps, miscalculations and miscommunication in the future will greatly increase. If you cast your mind back to the Cold War, when supposedly mutually assured destruction between nuclear powers was supposed to secure the peace. Now, when you read the declassified papers, you know we had a few close shaves. Can you imagine a future when nuclear buttons are actually outsourced to Artificial Intelligence (AI)? Even if you say there is going to be a human in the middle (of the decision-making process), the decision time is reduced to an instant. I think it is a more dangerous future.
There is another aspect to AI, which bears thinking about, without getting into the mathematics of how you train and enable deep learning by simulated neural nets. A lot of conclusions or meta decisions of AI have layers of incalculability, or perhaps, I should say inexplainability, in human terms. The machine will make the right call, but it may not be able to explain to humans why it made that decision. Once you start getting into black boxes, where even the creator no longer understands how the decision was arrived at, you also take the risk of algorithmic failure, which can result in catastrophic situations and consequences, wittingly or unwittingly. AI holds the potential to augment conventional nuclear and cyber war capabilities, and also makes strategic interactions between superpowers and even middle powers more unpredictable. If you think that nuclear weapons were confined to a few states, AI, and the ability for autonomous killing machines will not be confined to just a few states. My point is that we need to integrate the power of Artificial Intelligence into a responsible pattern based on humanity and ethics, and international relations in a constructive way. If we fail to do this, we are entering very dangerous waters.
My final example I want you to think about is synthetic biology – genetic engineering. In the last two decades, the simultaneous and mutually reinforcing revolutions in genetics, computing, nanomaterials and robotics, just to cite for some dimensions, have opened up grand vistas for synthetic biology, genetic engineering, surgery, treatment. We have the potential to completely revolutionise the way we deliver healthcare. Yes, (Professor Chong, Dean of Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore) Yap Seng is right, we will live longer, and hopefully a higher quality of life. But there are huge ethical and social quandaries that we need to navigate together. For instance, gene editing allows us to eliminate genetic diseases, sometimes even before a child is born. But where do you draw the line when it comes to germline editing? Right now, we know of at least one scientist who is in jail for embarking on an experiment that was completely unethical. When you get down to actually editing human genomes and germlines, we have reached the stage when you can edit human nature. Until recently, progress has been the result of science and technology. But what has not changed is generally the human genome, human nature. Once we edit human nature, all bets are off, because now we become part of that phenomena of great change too.
I do not want to go on and on, and I particularly do not want to scare the young people into a pessimistic view of the future. But coming back to the theme of this dialogue – “The future that we want together”. The key word is “together”. Global problems require global solutions. They cannot be solved by any one person or one country, no matter how smart or how wealthy you are. Despite all our differences in nationality, culture, political leanings, I believe there is far more that unites us as humans than divides us. Even if the politics takes time to be worked out, my message to you today is that all of us have agency. Commit to scientific development and progress, in search of a better world and better outcomes for human beings. I am very glad that the Nobel Laureates are here. I have had the chance to have private conversations with them. You will find that all Nobel Laureates are not just about science, or about (their) domain (expertise), but they come with values, and a very broad worldview.
Platforms like the Nobel Prize Dialogue are more important – Laura, you have got to have more of these sessions all over the world. It is an opportunity to share ideas, learn from one another, discover our common humanity, look for global solutions to global problems, find new networks of collaboration Expand your minds, but do not lose your grounding in humanity. Understand that through collaboration, we can create a better future for the next generation to come. To all the young people, I will conclude with where I began. This is an exhilarating moment to be alive, (in) a dangerous world, but a world replete with opportunities – seize it. For those of us in STEM, also with a sensitivity to humanity. I can think of no greater intellectual challenge with a profound impact on the future.
Thank you and have a wonderful session ahead.
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Nobel Prize Dialogue Address

Photo Caption: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering the Opening Address at the Nobel Prize Dialogue on 13 September 2022

Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore


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Photo Caption: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering the Opening Address at the Nobel Prize Dialogue on 13 September 2022

Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore


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