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Unesco member states adopt global artificial intelligence ethics

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The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) member states yesterday adopted the first global agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI).

The endorsement comes three years after the ambitious project to give the world an ethical framework for the use of AI was initiated by Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco.

The organisation commissioned 24 renowned specialists with multi-disciplinary expertise on the ethics of AI, tasked with producing a draft Unesco recommendation that takes into account the wide-ranging impacts of AI, including on the environment and the needs of the global south.

The draft document was then placed online for a public consultation process, giving people around the world the opportunity to participate, leading to the adoption yesterday.

According to Unesco, the need for the agreement was motivated by unprecedented global challenges brought about by the use of 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.”

The organisation says these challenges led to the adoption of the global agreement yesterday by its 193 member states, which includes South Africa.

Among the key issues in the agreement are recommendations on protecting personal data, banning social scoring and mass surveillance, and protecting the environment.

On protecting data, the agreement calls for action “beyond what tech firms and governments are doing to guarantee individuals and more protection by ensuring transparency, agency and control over their personal data”.

It includes actions to improve data protection and an individual’s knowledge of, and right to control, their own data. It also increases the ability of regulatory bodies around the world to enforce this.

Further, the agreement bans the use of AI technologies in mass surveillance.

Unesco says: “The recommendation explicitly bans the use of AI systems for social scoring and mass surveillance. These types of technologies are very invasive, they infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and they are used in a broad way.

“The recommendation stresses that when developing regulatory frameworks, member states should consider that ultimate responsibility and accountability must always lie with humans and that AI technologies should not be given legal personality themselves.”

Further, member states agreed: “AI actors should favour data-, energy- and resource-efficient AI methods that will help ensure AI becomes a more prominent tool in the fight against climate change and on tackling environmental issues.”

In addition, members recommended governments assess the direct and indirect environmental impact throughout the AI system lifecycle.

This, Unesco says, includes carbon footprint, energy consumption and the environmental impact of raw material extraction for supporting the manufacturing of AI technologies.

“Decisions impacting millions of people should be fair, transparent and contestable. These new technologies must help us address the major challenges in our world today, such as increased inequalities and the environmental crisis, and not deepen them,” says Gabriela Ramos, Unesco assistant director-general for social and human sciences.

“The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit humanity,” notes Azoulay. “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.”

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