Let's make AI better

December 27, 2022

Artificial intelligence presents tremendous potential to not only advance our progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, but also ensure that we continuously build resilience along the way.

We have seen, for example, how AI can play a vital role in disaster prevention, climate adaptation and resilience. For instance, geospatial satellite data can help to identify and prevent impending disasters, as well as aid in damage mapping. AI-enabled solutions are also being implemented to promote information integrity. For example, the United Nations Development Programme has developed iVerify, an open source, automated fact-checking tool that can be used to help identify false information and prevent and mitigate its spread. iVerify is now listed as a Digital Public Good and has been deployed in Zambia, Kenya and Honduras, and will soon be in Liberia, to tackle misinformation during elections.

We are witnessing how AI is supporting behavioral change at scale and empowering people by enabling data-driven decision-making at crucial junctures.

However, at the same time, we are also seeing an alarming need to address the potential risks and harms it can pose. For instance, data collected and analyzed in untransparent ways can lead to discriminatory outcomes.

Examples of this include predictive policing and automated judicial decision-making that in some cases appear to present a bias against minorities and marginalized groups, including women.

AI-driven systems can also be used in ways that undermine the right to privacy and fundamental freedoms. AI-powered de-anonymization tools can be used to disclose private data and track people across devices, in private and public spaces.

While efforts have been put in place in several parts of the world, governments continue to struggle when it comes to mitigating the risks and harms of AI.

Recognizing that digital technology is not a panacea, the UNDP's digital strategy lays out a bold vision, to help create a world in which "digital is an empowering force for people and the planet".Our observations and interactions with governments have underlined the urgent need for governance and ethical guidance on the use of data and AI.

We should promote and champion a safe, responsible, and inclusive governance of AI.

First, adopt a people-centered, rights-based approach to data availability, quality, transparency, and accountability as a precondition to an ethical deployment of AI.

For example, the UNDP is part of the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on AI, which, thanks to leadership from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has put forward guidance on the Ethical Principles on AI.These include abiding by international and human rights laws, including the right to privacy, fairness and nondiscrimination, and data responsibility.

This means — among other things — that people should have the right not to be subject to decisions based solely on automated processing, including profiling. Look, for instance, at automated decision-making being used to prioritize and determine eligibility for permanent or temporary housing, where people should have the right to request human intervention.

Second, take an intentionally inclusive approach which brings together not just governments and businesses but also civil society, academia and citizens. This is critical to address the current digital divide with 2.7 billion people offline; 95 percent of whom live in developing countries.

The UNDP is developing an AI Readiness Assessment to help governments understand the current state of AI adoption through multi-stakeholder engagement, including with marginalized groups.

Third, support capacity-building, including raising public awareness and understanding of AI technologies, governance, and the value of data.

To address this key issue, the UNDP has launched a Joint Facility for Digital Capacity Development for those underserved by existing efforts.

We are also supporting countries such as Moldova, Senegal, Mauritania and Kenya to develop Data Governance frameworks to support responsible and inclusive use of data in policymaking.

Additionally, the UNDP is currently developing a model governance framework for digital identity systems, which will be open-source and made easily accessible for governments to adopt.

These capacity-building efforts and tools will ensure that data that feed into AI systems are governed in an ethical, transparent and accountable manner in accordance with international standards.

While these efforts are aimed toward supporting governments and people to harness the power of AI in positive ways, wider engagement is still required.

As the field develops at a rapid pace, we must continue asking ourselves critical questions, such as, who is invited to the table to design and implement global norms and standards on the responsible use of digital technology, how decisions are made, and for whom and to what end?

We should work together to co-develop a digital future that benefits everyone, everywhere.


Author: XU Haoliang, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and the director of the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at the United Nations Development Programme

Published in China Daily