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UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay speaks during a November 25, 2021 press conference announcing the adoption of a global artificial intelligence framework agreement by all 193 member states. (Photo: Christelle Alix/UNESCO/Flickr/cc)

UNESCO Members Adopt First Global AI Ethics Agreement 'To Benefit Humanity'

"We're at a critical juncture in history," said Ethics in Tech founder Vahid Razavi. "We need as humans to come together and decide what is the best course of action to take with these technologies before they surpass us in their abilities."

Brett Wilkins

Tech ethicists on Friday applauded after all 193 member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization adopted the first global framework agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence, which acknowledges that "AI technologies can be of great service to humanity" and that "all countries can benefit from them," while warning that "they also raise fundamental ethical concerns."

"It's a good step, but there are a lot more steps that we need to take, like a ban on autonomous weapons, on killer robots."

"AI is pervasive, and enables many of our daily routines—booking flights, steering driverless cars, and personalizing our morning news feeds," UNESCO said in a statement Thursday. "AI also supports the decision-making of governments and the private sector. AI technologies are delivering remarkable results in highly specialized fields such as cancer screening and building inclusive environments for people with disabilities. They also help combat global problems like climate change and world hunger, and help reduce poverty by optimizing economic aid."

"But the technology is also bringing new unprecedented challenges," the agency warned. "We see increased gender and ethnic bias; significant threats to privacy, dignity, and agency; dangers of mass surveillance; and increased use of unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now, there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues."

Vahid Razavi, founder of the advocacy group Ethics in Tech (EIT), told Common Dreams Friday that "it's a good sign" that the United States joined the rest of UNESCO members in signing the agreement.

"It's a good step, but there are a lot more steps that we need to take, like a ban on autonomous weapons, on killer robots," he added. "We're first and foremost in the development of these weapons."

David Leslie, the ethics theme lead at the Alan Turing Institute, Britain's national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, said that the UNESCO framework "puts forward values and principles—such as human dignity, social and economic justice, environmental flourishing, and the interconnectedness of all living creatures with each other and the biosphere—that provide a compass for a global AI innovation ecosystem in dire need of directions for principled navigation."

UNESCO says the new recommendation "aims to realize the advantages AI brings to society and reduce the risks it entails" by:

  • Protecting data through action "beyond what tech firms and governments are doing to guarantee individuals more protection by ensuring transparency, agency, and control over their personal data";
  • Banning social scoring and mass surveillance, which "are very invasive... infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and... are used in a broad way";
  • Helping to monitor and evaluate "countries and companies developing and deploying AI systems to assess the impact of those systems on individuals, on society, and on the environment"; and
  • Protecting the environment to "help ensure that AI becomes a more prominent tool in the fight against climate change and on tackling environmental issues."

"The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit humanity. The recommendation on the ethics of AI is a major answer," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement. "It sets the first global normative framework while giving states the responsibility to apply it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193 member states in its implementation and ask them to report regularly on their progress and practices."

Marek Rosa, chief technology officer at the Prague-based advocacy group GoodAI, said in a statement that UNESCO's new framework is "an excellent basis not only for the ethics of current AI technologies but also for a strong AI of the future."

"We're at a critical juncture in history," said EIT's Razavi. "It's like we invented the wheel but we don't know what to transport on it. It's a matter of guiding the future of AI to make sure that we don't create a surveillance state, that we don't create a state full of Amazon Ring technology, that we curb the use of facial recognition technology."

"We need to make sure we don't create a world where we have autonomous weapons," Razavi added. "There's a lot of harm that can be done with AI and so we need an ethical framework and we need as humans to come together and decide what is the best course of action to take with these technologies before they surpass us in their abilities."

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