2021 Tsinghua University International AI Cooperation and Governance Forum

Keynote Speech

Posted December 7, 2021

2021 Tsinghua University International AI Cooperation and Governance Forum

UNDP Photo

Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to deliver this keynote speech at the 2021 Tsinghua University International AI Cooperation and Governance Forum.

The UN Development Programme was delighted to support the inaugural event last year, which generated important recommendations on the need for more effective and inclusive engagement on AI.

Let me express my gratitude: to the University’s Institute for AI International Governance for organising this second Forum; and to all the partners and speakers joining us to advance the conversation. Your contributions today, as well as your ongoing work to promote inclusive, equitable and sustainable technological innovation, are vital as we seek to harness these fast-changing developments for the benefit of all.

That is the core objective of UNDP’s work in this space. In line with the Forum’s focus on how AI is currently being used, I will highlight some projects that we have co-created with governments. By engaging with real-life opportunities and challenges through these projects, we have generated insights that will help us support governments and other stakeholders in constructing a balanced and inclusive AI governance framework.

And we have brought to this work the principles of effective governance agreed between Member States of the United Nations[1], which include transparency, participation, inclusion, and accountability. These are principles which are woven through the fabric of the United Nations[2] and which we think should also apply to the governance of AI.

AI is already changing our world, we need to use it

At UNDP, working in more than 170 countries and territories, we are seeing profound changes to every aspect of our operating environment, turbocharged by the COVID-19 pandemic. To continue to deliver for people and planet, we must harness the opportunities that technologies bring - from empowering individuals through digital services to providing governments with better data, analysis and foresight.

At the same time, we need to manage the risks and trade-offs that inevitably arise - to privacy, security, inclusion and human rights. And we need to do so in the context of longstanding challenges, including geopolitical headwinds and deep inequalities. Nearly half the world’s population - 3.5 billion - still lacks access to the internet. The digital space is particularly complex - informal and decentralised, with a host of different stakeholders.

AI exemplifies these challenges perhaps more than any other technology. It has vast, untapped potential to accelerate our efforts to promote sustainable development, improve our response to crises, better target our programmes and make our institutions more effective, responsive and accountable to the people they serve.

Indeed, it is already furthering the Sustainable Development Goals across the world, from supporting smart cities in East Asia to helping farmers in sub-Saharan Africa identify crop pests. In China, you have seen firsthand the value of AI tools in responding to COVID-19 - through diagnostics, for instance. Our UNDP Country Office, meanwhile, deployed an AI chatbot to disseminate health information.

AI has become a driving force in other sectors as well, from education to transportation. Prior to the pandemic, AI was forecast to generate some $4 trillion in added value for global markets by 2022 - this figure may well now have been exceeded as a result of increased demand.[3]

But the pandemic has also highlighted the inhibiting - and adverse - impacts of AI. In some areas, these reflect the social and economic consequences of technological transition. For instance, the International Labour Organization has called for more strategic education and workforce planning in light of increased machine use.

In others, our governance of this technology needs to be developed in concert with AI. Just as AI can help to scale up programmes, it can scale up bias and exclusion too - through lack of knowledge, negligence or malicious intent. Discrimination can become more acute, inequalities more entrenched.

AI is not a silver bullet. It is only as good as the humans that deploy it, the data on which it is based, and the standards that govern its use.

We need more cooperation - across borders, sectors and generations - to develop the necessary governance frameworks. We need to look at AI holistically - understanding issues around ethics and human rights; human capital and infrastructure; data availability and quality; and transparency and accountability.

Insights from UNDP’s experience 

At UNDP we are committed to supporting our partners navigate these issues, while delivering development impact on the ground.

It is often said that one of the challenges of AI governance is that technology moves faster than policymaking. Our agile approach helps us to identify real-life issues in real-time, and to craft solutions and best practices based on lessons learned.

In the Philippines, for example, we supported a poverty assessment tool that was significantly faster and cheaper than traditional on-the-ground surveys. Open geospatial datasets were merged with demographic and health surveys to estimate the wealth of people by micro-location, thereby enabling better targeting of poverty alleviation programmes.

In Ukraine, we worked on a system that enabled communities to track forest fires and identify vulnerable communities, helping to reduce economic damage, ecosystem loss, pollution and deaths. And in Brazil we used an AI solution to analyse court data, assisting authorities with smarter resource allocation. These are just a few examples from our rapidly growing portfolio.

Insights from these experiences have helped to shape our thinking on AI governance. For instance, we have seen firsthand the value of multistakeholder approaches that include governments, international organisations, tech companies and civil society. Adopting an inclusive approach from the outset can build trust, flag risks in areas such as discrimination, and speed up implementation.

We have also seen the need to engage excluded segments of society, including those who are off-line, so that AI tools can be used by those who stand to gain the most. This means investment in the digital sector more broadly, to ensure that the digital divide does not deepen inequalities, including gender inequality.

And there is a need to build strong data foundations - including data governance - to avoid exacerbating gaps and algorithmic biases and mitigate risks. This is not only a matter of inclusion. There is an economic imperative too: the potential cost of data breaches worldwide could be as much as $5 trillion by 2024.[4]

UNDP support going forward / opportunities for collaboration

Going forward, UNDP will learn from these experiences to strengthen our support to our partners. One important tool currently being developed is an AI readiness assessment that will identify gaps in policies, planning, staff and tools, as well as implementation and evaluation.

More broadly, UNDP will continue to work with all stakeholders to achieve a fair and sustainable digital transformation in the wake of COVID-19. Currently, for example, we are facilitating a virtual global consultation for youth on democracy and technology.  At a time when many people, including many young people, lack trust in governance institutions, we need to explore how technology can contribute to supporting governance systems to deliver, especially for young people.

And we will continue to work with partners across the UN to support international cooperation on AI.

In his recent report, Our Common Agenda, the UN Secretary-General calls for the development of a ‘global digital compact’ that outlines shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future. He notes that such a compact could address issues related to AI that are already being discussed in different fora. The recent adoption of the UNESCO recommendation on ethics and AI, supported by many Member States[5], is a positive step forward.

As Fu Ying, honorary dean of I-AIIG and former Vice Foreign Minister of China said at last year’s Forum[6]: “this is a challenge for all of humanity, not an issue that one or two countries can solve alone. It is vital that international agencies and countries work together.”

UNDP stands ready to support governments and other stakeholders in constructing a governance framework for AI to become the force for sustainable development, for all people, everywhere.

I would like to end by thanking once again the Institute for AI International Governance of Tsinghua University for organising the conference and facilitating the discussion around this crucial theme.

I wish you all a fruitful discussion. Thank you.


[1] ECOSOC “Principles of effective governance for sustainable development”

[2] UN (2009) Secretary General’s Guidance Note on Democracy

[3] Roadmap for Digital Cooperation https://undocs.org/A/74/821

[4] Roadmap for Digital Cooperation https://undocs.org/A/74/821

[5] Including China

[6] https://www.cn.undp.org/content/china/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2020/undp-supports-tsinghua-university-in-organizing-global-dialogue-.html