If we are to harness the benefits of artificial intelligence and address the risks, we must all work together - governments, industry, academia and civil society - to develop the frameworks and systems that enable responsible innovation. […] We must seize the moment, in partnership, to deliver on the promise of technological advances and harness them for the common good.
The importance of scientific and technological innovation for meeting many sustainable development challenges and for accelerating human progress is widely noted throughout the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The General Assembly, in its resolutions 72/242 and 73/17, also recognizes that the pace and scope of rapid technological change can have far-reaching implications – both positive and negative – for the achievement of sustainable development, requiring international and multi-stakeholder cooperation in order to benefit from opportunities and address challenges.
Under the chairmanship of Secretary-General António Guterres, the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) and its subsidiary machinery have considered a selection of “frontier issues” to ensure that the United Nations system is positioned to provide timely and informed support and advice to Member States in today's quickly evolving technological context.
At its session in November 2017, CEB started examining the risks and opportunities for sustainable development associated with new and emerging technologies and related developments, specifically considering artificial intelligence (AI), cyberspace, biotechnology, and the peace and security implications of emerging technologies. The aim was to identify appropriate areas for engagement by the UN system on frontier technologies in support of Member States. The discussions were informed by analyses produced by the High-level Committee on Programmes (HLCP).
By May 2019, at the request of CEB, HLCP had completed work on three key frontier topics – artificial intelligence, the future of work and innovative education – presenting three interlinked system-wide strategies for the Board’s endorsement.
United Nations system-wide strategic approach and road map for supporting capacity development on artificial intelligence
The rapid interlinked developments in computational power, data collection and analysis, and algorithmic processing has enabled technologies that can imitate certain functionalities of human intelligence, such as understanding language, visuals and sounds, reasoning and solving problems, and even creating art. Recognizing the transformative power of artificial intelligence, and the need for it to serve as a force for good, HLCP, at its 35th and 36th sessions, addressed the need for significant investment in capacity-building in order to harness AI in a manner that benefits those at risk of being left behind, especially in developing countries. At its 37th session, in April 2019, HLCP Members re-emphasized the transformative effect of AI on societies and approved the United Nations system-wide strategic approach and road map for supporting capacity development on artificial intelligence, which was subsequently endorsed by CEB at its first regular session of 2019.
The approach lays out commitments to promote system-wide action on:
- AI-related capacity-building for developing countries with a focus on the “bottom billion”;
- Supporting broader stakeholder engagement and knowledge exchange within and outside the United Nations system on AI; and
- Promoting the ethical development and application of AI technologies for the public good.
The implementation of the strategic approach and its road map for action are being carried forward through the collaborative efforts of relevant United Nations entities, under the leadership of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), taking into consideration the strengths of each entity, together with relevant inter-agency mechanisms, including those that are operationally oriented.
Ethics of Artificial Intelligence
During the UNESCO General Conference in November 2019, Member States had mandated the organization to support the process of elaborating a non-binding Recommendation on the ethics of AI, for possible adoption by UNESCO’s General Conference at its 41st session in 2021. A first version of the Recommendation was published in May 2020, prepared by a 24-member Ad Hoc Expert Group appointed by the Director-General of UNESCO in their personal capacity.
In keeping with its function as a think tank and a catalyst of ideas, HLCP provided a platform to develop, under UNESCO’s leadership, a joint United Nations system input on the draft Recommendation and to elaborate further possible UN system-wide actions on the ethics of artificial intelligence. Subsequently, at an inter-sessional meeting in July 2020, the Committee approved the UN system-wide contribution to UNESCO’s Ad Hoc Expert Group in the preparation of a Recommendation to UNESCO's General Conference on the ethics of AI. The draft Recommendation will be submitted for adoption to UNESCO’s General Conference in late 2021.
Inter-agency Working Group on Artificial Intelligence
At its 40th session in October 2020, HLCP decided to create an inter-agency working group on AI (IAWG-AI), co-led by UNESCO and ITU, to bring together United Nations system expertise on artificial intelligence in support of the CEB and HLCP workstreams on the ethics of AI and the strategic approach and road map for supporting capacity development. It will aim to combine the ethical and technological pillars of the United Nations to provide a solid foundation for current and future system-wide efforts on artificial intelligence with a view to ensuring respect for human rights and accelerating progress on the SDGs.
The IAWG-AI held its inaugural meeting in March 2021, approving its terms of reference, which were developed at the working-level through a consultative process. HLCP subsequently endorsed the terms of reference. The IAWG-AI is in the process of developing its workplan. It is anticipated that several workstreams will be carried forward by sub-teams and workstream leads. The IAWG-AI will work in collaboration with related interagency and multistakeholder mechanisms on matters relating to AI.