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UNESCO member countries adopt the first global agreement on the ethics of AI

AI has gradually made its way into our lives. But the algorithms that enable it to function have also been misused in recent years, illustrating its dangers.
AI has gradually made its way into our lives. But the algorithms that enable it to function have also been misused in recent years, illustrating its dangers.   -   Copyright  Canva
By Julie Gaubert  with AFP

Artificial intelligence (AI) is supporting the decision-making of governments, can help combat global issues such as climate change and give us personalised recommendations.

But the UN agency UNESCO also warns that the technology is bringing challenges, such as gender and ethnic bias, as well as threats to privacy.

It is because of this that 193 UNESCO member countries adopted the first global agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence on Thursday.

This is the "first global ethical framework for the use of artificial intelligence," said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

"AI technologies can be of great service to humanity" and "all countries can benefit from them", but "they also raise fundamental ethical concerns," the 28-page recommendation states.

There is a "need to ensure the transparency and intelligibility of the functioning of algorithms and the data from which they have been trained," because they can influence "human rights and fundamental freedoms, gender equality and democracy," the Paris-based international organisation stated.

Since the millennium, AI has gradually made its way into our lives: it decides what news we read on our phones, which films are recommended to us on streaming services, or what routes GPS will take us on.

But algorithms have also presented dangers such as unreliable AI technologies being used for law enforcement and mass surveillance.

Providing responsible guidance

An expert group was set up in March 2020 to develop a draft recommendation on the ethics of AI.

The aim of the text is to "provide a responsible direction for AI technologies".

"We see increased gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy, dignity and agency, dangers of mass surveillance, and increased use of unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now, there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues," UNESCO said in a statement.

In recent years, Meta (formally known as Facebook) has been at the centre of several scandals. The now shut-down British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was accused of misusing the US giant's data to politically influence the referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the US.

In light of this, the adopted text aims to guide the construction of the necessary legal infrastructure to ensure the ethical development of this technology.

"The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit humanity," Azoulay said.

"The Recommendation on the ethics of AI is a major answer. It sets the first global normative framework while giving States the responsibility to apply it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193 Member States in its implementation and ask them to report regularly on their progress and practices".

Not a legal entity

One pitfall of the agreement is that it does not impose anything on companies actively using artificial intelligence, particularly the US internet giants Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple.

David Leslie, a researcher at the Alan Turing Institute for Science and AI, nevertheless saw it as "a step in the right direction". He believes believed other international institutions, such as the Council of Europe and the European Union, will soon follow UNESCO's model.

"Texts like this one put a lot of pressure on the Facebooks of this world, whose "predatory behaviour is increasingly exposed," Leslie said.

"Acting with as much impunity as Facebook has done is no longer possible".

However, UNESCO does not directly address the subject of facial recognition. This is a central theme that the European Union has taken up.

The European Commission is proposing a strictly regulated use of remote biometric identification systems in public places.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, and Iran - states regularly accused of obstructing human rights - are signatories to the text, which UNESCO acknowledges is an "incentive mechanism" without the possibility of sanctions.

"If this text had no power, these countries would not even have come to discuss it," Alessandra Sala, director of the artificial intelligence service of content provider Shutterstock, said.

These three countries ratified the recommendation "because they realise that we are at a pivotal moment in AI and they don't want to be seen as the countries going in the wrong direction," she added.

The United States and Israel, which are very active in new technologies, are not UNESCO member states.

But the US is working on AI legislation and is "ahead of Europe," said Sala.