UN secretary-general warns of existential threats of AI

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 18 Jan 2024
United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres.
United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres.

United Nations (UN) secretary-general, António Guterres, has warned of the “existential threats” posed by the reckless use of artificial intelligence (AI) by tech companies in pursuit of profits.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) annual meeting in Davos this week, Guterres discussed the repercussions of the climate crisis, and the unethical use of AI if governments and global stakeholders fail to take decisive and strategic actions to deal with both issues.

Guterres linked the threats from AI to those posed by the climate crisis, noting that in the face of the serious, runaway climate chaos and the runaway development of AI without guard rails, the world seems “powerless to act”.

This, as more companies across the globe are pouring significant investments into the emerging technology in efforts to unlock productivity gains and increase profit margins.

“Powerful tech companies are already pursuing profits with a reckless disregard for human rights, personal privacy, and social impact. Meanwhile, every new iteration of generative AI increases the risk of serious unintended consequences. This technology has enormous potential for sustainable development – but the International Monetary Fund has just warned that it is very likely to worsen inequality,” he cautioned.

According to Guterres, these two issues – climate and AI – are exhaustively discussed by governments, the media, by leaders Davos; and yet, there is still no effective global strategy to deal with either.

“During the Cold War, the world faced terrible regional conflicts and moments of great danger. But there were systems in place to promote stability and predictability, including initiatives on arms control and nuclear hotlines. Today, many of these systems have been eroded or undermined.”

He highlighted the importance of the Global Digital Compact to turbo-charge the Sustainable Development Goals, and help to close the digital connectivity gap, share data, and build digital public goods.

Steered by the office of the UN secretary-general’s envoy on technology, the compact is a proposed roadmap for collective action by UN member states to address the global challenges and opportunities arising from the digital revolution.

Governments need to urgently work with tech companies on risk management frameworks for current AI development; and on monitoring and mitigating future harms, he asserted.

“The private sector is in the lead on AI expertise and resources. We need your full engagement in our multi-stakeholder effort to develop a governance model that is networked and adaptive.

“I believe the UN should play a central convening role. My advisory body on AI has already made preliminary recommendations on AI governance that tap the benefits of this incredible new technology, while mitigating its risks.”

Discussing the climate crisis, he called the phase out of fossil fuels “essential and inevitable”, adding the world must act now “to ensure a just and equitable transition to renewable energy.”

“Here in Switzerland, glaciers are disappearing before our eyes. Some are gone forever; others have lost 10% of their volume in just the past two years. Such rapid changes should disturb us all. 2023 went down as the hottest year on record. But it could be one of the coolest years of the future,” he pointed out.

He referenced the fossil fuel industry’s recent launch of a multimillion-dollar campaign aimed to advertise the importance of fossil fuels to global energy security, labelling the campaign as an effort to “delay progress and keep the oil and gas flowing indefinitely”.

“Let me be very clear: the phase-out of fossil fuels is essential and inevitable. No amount of spin or scare tactics will change that. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late. We must act now to ensure a just and equitable transition to renewable energy,” stated Guterres.