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.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and other frontier technologies hold significant potential for supporting inclusivity, reducing inequalities, rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and bolstering the operations of the United Nations (UN) system. However, harnessing the positive impact of AI necessitates careful attention to its potential downsides, including by safeguarding data privacy, mitigating biases, and ensuring transparent decision-making processes. It is therefore important to make the most of AI’s opportunities while addressing risks and harms.
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 number of “frontier issues” since 2017 to ensure that the United Nations system is well-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 AI, cyberspace, biotechnology, as well as their peace and security implications. 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. In 2020, to promote the responsible use of AI the Board endorsed the Principles for the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence in the United Nations System. The Board further deliberated on the topic of the digital commons in October 2022, and the governance and use of artificial intelligence for the common good in November 2023, which was informed by a joint session of HLCP and the High-level Committee on Management (HLCM) in October 2023.
Governance of artificial intelligence
In light of the rapid development and deployment of AI and other frontier technologies, the need for appropriate governance of these powerful technologies has been stressed by Member States, the United Nations Secretary-General, civil society and the private sector, including representatives of the tech industry. The global governance of AI was an important focus of the 2023 joint session of HLCP and HLCM, where opportunities as well as risks of the technology were widely acknowledged. The impacts of AI were viewed as affecting all areas of work across the United Nations system, including peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, and humanitarian action. Global AI governance was also linked to international data governance, a topic that HLCP continues to address through its working group on international data governance.
The joint session agreed that the United Nations Charter, international human rights laws, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other normative multilateral instruments offered a values-based foundation for the governance of AI. The UN system had at its disposal many mechanisms and instruments that were relevant for AI governance. Agile and anticipatory action was also seen as an important element of AI governance. To further deepen its understanding of global governance of AI and the role of the UN system, the joint session requested the HLCP inter-agency working group on AI (IAWG-AI) to develop an analytical paper on UN system models and frameworks related to the governance of AI.
The IAWG-AI was established by HLCP at its 40th session in October 2020 to bring together United Nations system expertise on artificial intelligence in support of the CEB and HLCP workstreams on AI, integrating both normative and programmatic dimensions. The IAWG-AI is co-led by UNESCO and ITU.
Use and adoption of artificial intelligence within the United Nations system
The UN system is committed to taking a proactive, ethical, human rights-based and mandate-led approach to adopting AI internally in its work. Under the vision outlined in the UN 2.0 Policy Brief, the Secretary-General is promoting a proactive approach for UN system organizations to use new technologies, such as AI, to support all steps of the innovation process, to address gender inequality, discrimination and bias in artificial intelligence data models, and to invest in predictive and prescriptive analytics, enhanced with machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Discussions at the October 2023 Joint Session of the HLCM and HLCP focused on the opportunities, challenges, and capacities for safe and responsible AI adoption. The Committees affirmed UN’s role in leading by example, as AI technologies are already reshaping the way UN organizations do business. Some of the key priorities identified by the Committees for adopting AI included building internal capacity, leveraging common partnerships with technology providers, encouraging experimentation, and supporting multifunctional teams to bring together necessary skillsets from different parts of the house. The Committees agreed on the need to take joint bold steps to stay ahead, considering the speed in which the technology is evolving, and decided to establish a Task Force under the HLCM with the following objectives:
i. to develop a system-wide normative and operational framework on the use of AI in the UN system
ii. to identify and promote mechanisms for pooling technical capacity and knowledge sharing on AI, including exploring the feasibility of developing a UN Generative AI platform
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. 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. UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the Recommendation on the Ethics of AI in November 2021.
Following the adoption of the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence by UNESCO's General Conference at its 41st session in November 2021, HLCP through the Inter-Agency Working Group on AI translated the Recommendation into a set of principles to guide the use of AI by United Nations system entities. The Principles for the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence in the United Nations System was approved by HLCP at an intersessional meeting in July 2022 and subsequently endorsed by CEB in September 2022.
United Nations system-wide strategic approach and road map for supporting capacity development on artificial intelligence
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.
ToR -HLCM AI Task Force - final 11 Jan 2024 (1).pdf
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