Opening Remarks by Ms. Beate Trankmann at the 2021 Tsinghua University International AI Cooperation and Governance Forum

December 4, 2021

尊敬的 汪永清 副主席、(Vice-chairman Wang Yongqing)

尊敬的 李萌 副部长、(Vice-minister Li Meng)

尊敬的 徐晓兰 副部长、(Vice-minister Xu Xiaolan)

尊敬的 邱勇 校长、(President Qiu Yong)

尊敬的 马升琨  副司长、(Deputy Director-General Ma Shengkun)

尊敬的 薛澜 院长、(Dean Xue Lan)

各位来宾 (Esteemed Guests)

女士们,先生们 - 大家 上午 好!(Ladies and gentlemen, good morning!)

On behalf of the United Nations Development Programme, it is my pleasure to join you at the Tsinghua University International AI Cooperation and Governance Forum 2021!

We live in a rapidly evolving world. Innovation is occurring at an exponential rate as digital technologies permeate society, redefining how people live, work, and interact. In the midst of this “4th Industrial Revolution”, humanity has developed sophisticated new tools and methods to address some the world’s most pressing issues – and at the forefront of this transformation is Artificial Intelligence.

If harnessed correctly, AI can be a powerful force for good. We have already seen how during the COVID-19 pandemic, various AI technologies have been used around the world for critical functions such as virus detection and diagnosis, contact tracing, recovery monitoring, and the extension of essential services during the lockdown.

AI is also being leveraged in the fight against climate change. For example, AI algorithms can accurately predict the power output from wind turbines in advance of actual generation using weather forecast data and historical turbine data. This reduces the unpredictability of wind making it more attractive as a source of renewable energy.

Innovative solutions such as these are critical if the world is to halt global warming and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

At the same time, however, we must be cautious. Technologies have enormous potential for positive change, but can also reinforce and magnify existing fault lines and deepen inequalities.

AI, for example, is only as objective as the algorithms that power it, and those algorithms are written by people. As such, human biases can potentially find their way into AI technologies and perpetuate prejudice, discrimination, and misinformation. In addition, the effectiveness of an AI system relies on data. This can incentivize data abuse, and infringement on individual privacy.

Without proper governance, these harmful aspects of AI technologies will have negative, real-world consequences on people’s lives.

So what needs to be done?

The UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation released last year, highlights the need to support and strengthen global cooperation on artificial intelligence as one of the key actions to help ensure that all people are connected, respected, and protected in the digital age.

Indeed, while there are currently over 160 organizational, national and international sets of AI ethics and governance principles worldwide, there is no common framework or standards bringing these separate initiatives together. As the application of AI becomes more and more omnipresent across the world, international cooperation will be essential to build consensus on common approaches to AI governance that are ethical and fair, in order to safeguard against abuse and misuse.

In addition, it will be critical to ensure that engagement with AI is open to all countries. Currently, the majority of AI innovation has been concentrated in specific regions around the world. According to estimates, China and North America could represent as much as 70% of AI’s global economic impact by 2030.[1] Meanwhile, most developing countries are largely absent in many prominent forums driving forward the conversation on AI. This is despite the significant opportunities for AI to benefit their economic and social development.

In order for AI to support human development, it must be inclusive.  

This is also true within countries. In many cases, fully harnessing the opportunities of AI requires advanced skills and expertise, which are only accessible to a small portion of the population.

Investments in both digital infrastructure and education are needed to make sure that all people can benefit from technological innovations. Enhanced capabilities are becoming necessary to not just engage in the new world of work, but also to simply access basic services, which are being increasingly digitalized. If the current imbalance remains unaddressed, the digital divide will continue to widen, potentially leading to the rise of a “digital underclass” that gets left behind.

In order to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation at the forefronts of technology, policy makers must be forward-looking. We can’t simply address the problems of today, but must also anticipate the challenges of tomorrow. If we don’t, we will always be one step behind.

At UNDP, we recognize that digitalization is a key enabler of development. It is therefore a core component of our new strategic plan. We aim to work across countries, to support a holistic, multi-stakeholder approach to digital transformation. We are committed to bringing together government, private sector, academia, and international organizations, striving to be both convener and adviser in helping to build inclusive approaches to AI governance that are aligned with the SDGs.

It is precisely for this reason that we have come together with Tsinghua University to help support this forum. Over the next two days, experts and leaders from all over the world will gather, both online and offline, to discuss the critical issues and frontier topics surrounding international cooperation on AI.

Our hope is that the joint insights, shared knowledge, and mutual learnings that come out of this forum will help shape a global consensus that works to harness the great potential of AI, safeguards against risks, and directs future AI development around the world towards a more sustainable, equitable, and inclusive path.

In closing, I want to thank Tsinghua University and the Institute for AI International Governance for organizing this important event. I wish the forum a great success and I look forward to hearing from all the invited speakers and panelists.

Together, we can channel AI technologies towards a more sustainable future for all. Thank you.