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UNESCO Highlights the Ethical Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence at the WSIS Forum 2019

24 April 2019

If we are to make the most of the possibilities offered by AI to the world, we must ensure that it serves humanity, with respect for human rights and human dignity, as well as our environment and ecosystems. Today, no global ethical framework or principles for AI developments and applications exist. UNESCO is a unique universal forum with over twenty years of experience in developing international instruments related to bioethics and the ethics of science and technology. It has the responsibility to lead an interdisciplinary, pluralistic, universal, and enlightened debate, in this regard, on the ethical dimensions of artificial intelligence.

In light of this responsibility, UNESCO held a High Level Dialogue on 10 April at the WSIS Forum 2019. The session looked at the ethical dimensions of Artificial Intelligence that can contribute towards sustainable development, but also posed questions related to the use of this emerging technology and the respect of universal ethical principles and fundamental human rights. In the framework of UNESCO’s work as facilitator for action line C10 (Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society) of the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) process and follow up and its work on information ethics as part of IFAP (Information for All Programme), the Organization has tirelessly promoted cooperation to ensure the development of universally held values and principles to further inclusive knowledge societies. 

In the opening of the high level dialogue, UNESCO underlined that it is playing a lead role to sensitize different stakeholders on the ethical dimensions of the use of Artificial intelligence and ensuring multi-stakeholder reflection on challenges to be addressed with regards to its development and use. UNESCO shared that the Organization is currently working on translating its ROAM principles of Internet Universality to the field of AI through ongoing research, including a summary preview in the area of Communications and Information entitled “Steering AI for Knowledge Societies: a ROAM perspective.” This publication examines changes that AI is bringing, and its multiple implications, risks and opportunities in areas of Rights Openness, Accessibility and Multi-stakeholder participation, as well as cross-cutting issues including gender equality, youth empowerment, trust and ethical dimensions. 

The high level dialogue took stock of ongoing discussions and existing initiatives and studies on the ethical dimensions of Artificial Intelligence and made recommendations so that Artificial Intelligence can contribute towards fundamental values that leave no one behind.  Specifically, the high level dialogue looked at what is meant by human centred and ethical AI, the immediate and potential long-term ethical challenges raised by AI, and the challenges in establishing ethical frameworks and principles in this field.

In his opening remarks, Peter Paul Verbeek, a member of COMEST (World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology) underlined key findings in the recently published preliminary study on the ethics of artificial intelligence, and stressed that “Artificial Intelligence will not take over the world. We shouldn’t frame our conversation like this.  AI will directly influence how we achieve the sustainable development goals and is directly linked to democracy, and the future we want.” Amandeep Singh Gill, Executive Director of the Secretariat of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation emphasized that “in the development of an ethical AI, we must ensure investment for good, inclusive incubation to scale solutions that work. We can ensure good governance of AI through ecosystems of shared practice.”

Underlining the need to ensure a multi-stakeholder approach in the development of artificial intelligence, Karine Perset, Economist at the OECD, stressed that “no stakeholder group can do this alone.  We must develop tools to measure and monitor AI and its development, and emphasize a multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary approach.” Echoing the OECD, Nicolas Miailhe, Co-Founder and Director of The Future Society stressed that “ethics do not exist in a vacuum. Governing the rise of AI means seeking to reconcile problems and preoccupations of the end of the world, with those of the end of the month, and those of end of the day. Given the complexity of the AI revolution doing this requires a multi-stakeholder approach.” "Nobody can do it alone, and nobody who has something to contribute should remain idle” reiterated Konstantinos Karachalios, Managing Director of IEEE: “It is time to pass from principles to action.”

In the framework of the high-level dialogue, particular emphasis was placed on the need to involve the private sector in these conversations.  “In the development of an ethical AI, private sector companies must be held accountable. The development of an ethical AI is a question of urgency,” stressed Dr Salma Abbasi, Chairperson and CEO of the eWorldwide Group. Mei Lin Fung, co-founder of the People Centered Internet, drew on her experience in shaping Internet Governance and work in the private sector to further underline that “ethics for AI are the guardrails we need to put in place to assure that humanity can trust the digitally transformed world we are going to be living in.”

Katie Evans, PHD in Philosophy, recalled that at the heart of artificial intelligence is the question of use of data and the need to preserve individual agency; “data, when it is collected properly, can tell us a lot about how the world is, but it is comparatively quite silent regarding how the world ought to be. In other words, we have to be careful how our data defines us in the age of AI. At the very least, we have to preserve the freedom to surprise algorithms,” she highlighted. Adriana Eufrasina Bora, a student at Sciences Po, stressed the additional need to focus on equipping youth with the necessary AI literacy to participate in the building of tomorrow; “the future will be bright but only if we appropriately educate and actively include the youth in shaping it,” she underlined.

In closing, Monique Morrow, President of the VETRI Foundation, concluded that there is a need to ensure continued conversation on this urgent issue: “Let's develop the future we would like to have together, not the one we wish to avoid.”