Our global agreement on AI could reduce bias and surveillance
Nearly 200 countries have signed up to UNESCO’s agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence. This could help make the technology fairer for all, says Gabriela Ramos
26 November 2021
Artificial intelligence is more present in our lives than ever: it predicts what we want to say in emails, helps us navigate from A to B and improves our weather reports. The unprecedented speed with which vaccines for covid-19 were developed can also partly be attributed to the use of AI algorithms that rapidly crunched the data from numerous clinical trials, allowing researchers around the world to compare notes in real time.
But the technology isn’t always beneficial. The data sets used to build AI often aren’t representative of the diversity of the population, so it can produce discriminatory practices or biases. One example is facial recognition technology. This is used to access our mobile phones, bank accounts and apartment buildings, and is increasingly employed by police forces. But it can have problems accurately identifying women and Black people. For three such programs released by major technology companies, the error rate was only 1 per cent for light-skinned men, but 19 per cent for dark-skinned men and up to a staggering 35 per cent for dark-skinned women. Biases in face-recognition technologies have led to wrongful arrests.
This is no surprise when you look at how AI is developed. Only 1 in 10 software developers worldwide are women and only 3 per cent of employees at the top 75 tech companies in the US identify as Black. But now there’s hope that the world is about to pivot to a much better approach.
Yesterday at UNESCO, 193 countries reached a groundbreaking agreement on how AI should be designed and used by governments and tech companies. UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence took two years to put together and involved thousands of online consultations with people from a diverse range of social groups. It aims to fundamentally shift the balance of power between people and the businesses and governments developing AI.
Countries that are members of UNESCO – and this is nearly every nation in the world – have agreed to implement this recommendation by enacting legislation to regulate the design and deployment of AI.
This means they must use affirmative action to make sure women and minority groups are fairly represented on AI design teams. Such action could take the form of quota systems that ensure these teams are diverse.
Another important principle countries have just agreed to is banning mass surveillance and other invasive technologies that breach fundamental freedoms. Of course, we don’t expect a complete withdrawal of CCTV everywhere, but we do expect such mass surveillance to be limited to uses that comply with human rights. UNESCO will use “peer pressure” and other multilateral tools that UN agencies employ to enforce global norms.
In the coming months, UNESCO experts will work to create a set of monitoring tools, ensuring that the development and deployment of AI complies with human rights, but doesn’t stifle innovation. This will be a difficult balance to achieve and will require the full commitment of the scientific community.
The new agreement is broad and ambitious. It addresses online bullying and hate speech and obliges countries to lower their carbon footprint from tech – the amount of energy used to store our data has risen significantly since AI innovation began to expand.
All players in the AI world are aware that they cannot continue to operate with no rule book.
UNESCO now expects two things to happen. Firstly, governments and companies will voluntarily begin to make their AI systems comply with the principles laid out in the recommendation – similar moves happened after UNESCO’s declaration on the human genome set out norms for genetic research. Secondly, governments will begin to legislate using the recommendation as a manual. UNESCO will monitor the progress of the legislation and countries will be obliged to report on their progress.
With this agreement, we are confident of putting AI to work where it can have the most impact on the world’s greatest challenges: hunger, environmental crises, inequalities and pandemics. We are optimistic we have built the momentum for real change.
Gabriela Ramos is UNESCO’s assistant director-general of social and human sciences
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