Digital technologies such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and blockchain will add up to 34 percentage points to trade growth by 2030 thanks to lower costs and higher productivity, according to the World Trade Organization’s 2018 World Trade Report. However, these benefits are contingent on adequately addressing important public policy challenges such as inclusiveness, privacy protection, and cybersecurity.
According to the WTO, this year’s report discusses how digital technologies can unlock savings, such as through better route planning, autonomous driving, and smart inventories made possible by AI and robotics. Blockchain solutions can reduce time spent on customs compliance and logistics. The Internet of Things – the networking and processing capabilities of everyday objects – can help improve operational efficiency through better preventative maintenance of machinery and products. These technologies can reduce transportation and storage expenses, which represent a major share of overall trade costs.
Digital technologies can also significantly affect what the world trades, the WTO finds. For example, remote-controlled robotics have led to revolutionary advances in trade in services and the emergence of new services such as telesurgery. Enhanced technological capacities that allow faster and simpler processing of traded products could also foster trade in time-sensitive, certification-intensive, and contract-intensive goods.
Moreover, the report argues, new technologies are likely to change how the world trades. AI, 3D printing, and advanced robotics could reduce the role of labor as a source of comparative advantage, while factors such as the quality of digital infrastructure and market size as well as institutional and regulatory determinants of comparative advantage (e.g., intellectual property protection) might become more relevant. 3D printing could also reduce to some extent the need for outsourced assembly, the number of production steps, and other factors related to global value chains.
In light of these possibilities, the report identifies several areas that may warrant international cooperation. These include facilitating a favorable legal and regulatory framework, competition-related issues, intellectual property rules, supporting micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, promoting digital inclusion, and addressing challenges related to trade facilitation and infrastructure for information communication technology.