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UNESCO completes major progress on establishing foundation of ethics for AI

UNESCOs Member States have announced there has been ‘major progress’ in the development of a global normative instrument for the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI).

In November 2019, the United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres congratulated the organisation for taking up this challenge, declaring that AI is a critical frontier issue for the whole UN system and the whole world.

In March this year, UNESCO asked 24 experts with multidisciplinary experience in the ethics of artificial intelligence to develop a draft recommendation on the ethics of AI.

UNESCO then launched a wide process of consultations to obtain the many points of view of stakeholders.

This involved experts from 155 countries, members of the public (through a global online survey), United Nations agencies, major stakeholders from the sector such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, and the world of academe with the University of Stanford and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The resulting draft recommendation was submitted last week to UNESCOs 193 Member States. Negotiations will take place ahead of its planned final adoption by Member States at the organisation’s General Conference in November 2021.

According to a statement, the draft recommendation submitted to the international community establishes a number of overarching concepts. This includes the following.

Proportionality: AI technologies must not exceed what is necessary to achieve legitimate aims or objectives, and should be appropriate to the context.

Human oversight and determination: humans are ethically and legally responsible for all stages in the life-cycle of AI systems.

Stewardship of the environment and peace: throughout their lifecycle, AI systems must contribute to the peaceful interconnectedness of all living creatures with each other and respect the natural environment, notably with regard to the extraction of raw materials.

Gender-inclusion: AI technologies must not reproduce the gender inequalities found in the real world, notably with regard to salaries, representation, access, and stereotyping. Political actions, including measures of positive discrimination, are required to avoid these major pitfalls.

UNESCO states the organisation will assist governments and civil society players (corporations, members of the public, etc) in developing concrete awareness-raising campaigns and ethical impact assessment tools for AI in all fields.

In addition to establishing international consensus on the subject, UNESCOs experts urge Member States and AI players further to raise public awareness and stress that is important for everyone to be made aware of their digital rights.

UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay says, “We must make sure artificial intelligence is developed for us and not against us.

"We need a robust base of ethical principles to ensure artificial intelligence serves the common good. We have made this process be as inclusive as possible since the stakes involved as universal, she explained.”

In recent years and since the outbreak of COVID-19, there have been ever more applications drawing on AI, notably with the aim of accelerating research into vaccines and improving tracing of the virus, UNESCO states.

AI has contributed to the development of telemedicine and distance learning. It has also been used to operate drones for the delivery of medical supplies and the need for a global regulatory instrument has grown on a par with the spread of AI applications.

According to UNESCO, the potential of artificial intelligence, as described in both scientific publications and works of fiction, results in fear that machines will take decisions out of human hands, that it will erode individuals right to and that it will expose people to manipulation to the detriment of their rights.

The quantity of data collected and processed daily raises concerns over confidentiality, privacy, and the reproduction of discriminatory practices and stereotypes. Hence the motivation to create a strong foundation of ethics.

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