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UNESCO adopts a global agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence

By Elizabeth Eastwood, Contributor. 08 December 2021, 9:12 am

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last week adopted the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, which will help guide the development and use of AI all over the world.

UNESCO achieved this huge landmark as an outcome of consultation with the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), which is a global federation of societies of ICT professionals. ITP NZ is a full member of IFIP. This means we, in New Zealand, have an influence on the world stage.

IFIP aims to increase public appreciation for ICT by acting as a voice for ICT. As such, it has a formal consultative partnership relation with UNESCO.

Announcing the adoption, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said the recommendation was unprecedented in its substance, scope and degree of precision. Its adoption by the 193 states of UNESCO marks the end of a lengthy process that began in 2018 and offers common ground on the ethical principles to guide the development of AI. 

"After years of work we have been rewarded by this important victory for multilateralism - a text which is equal to the challenges of the 21st century … on an important subject for the future of all of us," said Azoulay.

Azoulay said the advances in AI development and its growing use across a wide range of fields and applications made a global agreement on AI ethics essential. 

"Given that situation and these risks, we wanted to come up with a framework of values and principles which are precise and pragmatic and shared by the whole world," she said.

"The Recommendation aims to realise the advantages AI brings to society and reduce the risks it entails. It ensures that digital transformations promote human rights and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues around transparency, accountability and privacy, with action-oriented policy chapters on data governance, education, culture, labour, healthcare and the economy."

IFIP President-elect Anthony Wong, said that IFIP is "well placed to explore with UNESCO ways to assist UNESCO and member states on the range of implementation activities arising from the new Recommendations in the months and years ahead." 

The four UNESCO Recommendations are:

Protecting data 

Action should go beyond what tech firms and governments are doing to guarantee individuals protection by ensuring transparency and control over their personal data. It states that individuals should all be able to access or even erase records of their personal data. 

Banning social scoring and mass surveillance

The recommendation bans the use of AI systems for social scoring and mass surveillance. These types of technologies are very invasive, they infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms. When developing regulatory frameworks, Member States should consider that ultimate responsibility and accountability must always lie with humans and that AI technologies should not be given legal personality themselves. 

Helping to monitor and evaluate

The recommendation sets the ground for tools to assist in implementation. Ethical impact assessment is intended to help countries and companies developing and deploying AI systems to assess the impact of those systems on individuals, on society and on the environment. Readiness assessment methodology helps member states to assess how ready they are in terms of legal and technical infrastructure. This tool will assist in enhancing the institutional capacity of countries and recommend appropriate measures to be taken to ensure that ethics are implemented in practice. The Recommendation also encourages Member States to consider adding the role of an independent AI Ethics Officer to oversee auditing and continuous monitoring efforts. 

Protecting the environment

AI actors should favour data, energy and resource-efficient AI methods that will enable AI to become a prominent tool in the fight against climate change. The Recommendation asks governments to assess the direct and indirect environmental impact throughout the AI system life cycle. This includes its carbon footprint, energy consumption and environmental impact of raw material extraction for supporting the manufacturing of AI technologies. It also aims at reducing the environmental impact of AI systems and data infrastructures. 

Read the full details in the UNESCO press release. 

Elizabeth Eastwood is a Wellington-based IT professional and a IFIP councillor.


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