In introducing the agenda item, the Chair emphasized the cross-cutting nature and transformative potential of artificial intelligence as a driver of accelerated and structural change, which was elevant to the entire agenda of the Committee at its thirty-fourth session: it was therefore critical to move towards a common understanding of its implications for the work of the United Nations.
The Chair presented a draft discussion paper on artificial intelligence prepared by ITU in collaboration with 26 entities. While artificial intelligence had enormous potential for social good and for contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the transformative yet possibly disruptive powers of artificial intelligence yielded complex challenges spanning the ethical, technical and socioeconomic spheres, including human rights, inequality, employment, privacy, accountability and weaponization.
A set of recommendations that built on important functions of the United Nations, including in the areas of international dialogue (multi-stakeholder platform for dialogue, panel of experts to advise the United Nations system on artificial intelligence challenges and an inter-agency collaborative mechanism, possibly within the Committee), research (common United Nations system-wide position and a review of the impact of artificial intelligence on current United Nations frameworks) and capacity development and knowledge-sharing (capacity-building programme for developing countries, data-sharing repository, publicly available universal repository, artificial intelligence standards and a global fund) were outlined.
The Committee strongly agreed that the transformational role of artificial intelligence presented the United Nations system with complex, multifaceted, interlinked and immediate challenges. The “fourth industrial revolution” — the development and introduction of smart autonomous systems capable of self-cognition and self-optimization — was not an event of the distant future but an immediate reality. Advances in artificial intelligence brought a range of development benefits and could be a “force for good” for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by enabling developing countries to leapfrog over traditional stages of development. The United Nations system, owing to its near universal presence, had an important role to play in helping countries in this process, including by building the capacity of programme countries. A firmer integration of artificial intelligence into the core programmes of United Nations entities would be critical.
Unique to the new technologies was that their development and introduction were predominantly driven by non-State actors, sometimes with little regard to whether Governments were capable of regulating and protecting their citizens from the potential negative impacts of those technologies. The “digital divide” between developed and developing countries was widening as power and profits from frontier technologies were rapidly concentrating in a few countries and within those countries in the hands of the very few. The Committee affirmed that the United Nations system had an important role to play in ensuring that developing countries, especially least developed countries and the most vulnerable and disadvantaged within each society, were not left further behind in this technological revolution. Members stressed that, given the private sector-driven environment of artificial intelligence development, the United Nations system needed to be proactive because it could not be assumed that the Organization would be automatically called upon to assist with its norm-setting and governance. The Committee broadly supported the proposal for an articulation of a common United Nations system-wide position on artificial intelligence and a general engagement strategy on frontier technologies that would help, through multi-stakeholder partnerships, to minimize the risks associated with advanced technologies while maximizing their benefits and addressing issues of accountability and oversight. The Committee emphasized that the Secretary-General, in addition to his leadership of the United Nations system as a whole, had an especially critical role to play in upholding United Nations norms, standards and values and promoting a rightsbased perspective when addressing frontier technologies, such as artificial intelligence. The United Nations needed to assert itself on issues of human rights, social justice, equity and other ethical concerns and should make full use of its convening power to address complex issues of international concern. The Committee also emphasized the importance of engagement by intergovernmental bodies, including the General Assembly, in addressing the multifaceted implications of frontier technologies. As a global platform for dialogue among multiple State and non-State stakeholders, the United Nations had a number of existing mechanisms and instruments at its disposal that could be utilized for the purpose of addressing artificial intelligence issues (Commission on Science and Technology for Development, Internet Governance Forum, Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights etc.). Members broadly supported the proposal put forth in the paper for the establishment of a multi-stakeholder panel of experts to advise the Secretary-General and United Nations system leadership on emerging technologies and their implications for the work of the United Nations. On the question of the establishment of a universal data-sharing repository and a “global fund for artificial intelligence for good” proposed in the paper, the membership was divided and some members referred to previous similar undertakings in other areas that had been unsuccessful. While data fragmentation within the United Nations system was seen as a challenge, several members cautioned against a centralized approach to data-sharing owing to security and privacy concerns. A feasibility study would need to be undertaken as an initial step. Existing instruments, such as the United Nations Development Group guidance note on big data for Sustainable Development Goals, could be relevant in this context. Several members pointed to the proliferation of global funds, which had led to a notable fragmentation of the global funding structure. In addition to using existing funds for advancing the application of artificial intelligence to the implementation of the Goals, a suggestion was made to consider the launch of a grant challenge linked to a specific public policy goal as a possible alternative, with a special focus on youth.
In conclusion, the Committee agreed that the complex multidimensional nature of technological breakthroughs, such as artificial intelligence, required an integrated, cross-sectoral and collaborative approach that mobilized and engaged the entire United Nations system. The system needed to come together in unity with ambition and clarity of vision to ensure that new technologies improved the human condition and served for the betterment of humankind. The Committee agreed to further deepen its reflections on a United Nations system-wide engagement on the issue of artificial intelligence and requested ITU, in consultation with interested Committee members, to examine in greater depth ways to pursue a coherent and coordinated approach to respond to the challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence, including addressing the impact on human rights and gender equality, for consideration by the Committee at its thirty-fifth session.
The Committee’s decided to finalize the draft discussion paper on artificial intelligence for onward submission to CEB as an input for its upcoming discussion and for further guidance.