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Unesco launches global consultation on AI ethics

The United Nations (UN) body opens up public consultation to help experts draft new global framework on artificial intelligence ethics

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has launched a global online consultation on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI), which will be used by the organisation’s international group of AI experts to help draft a framework governing how the technology is applied globally.

The multidisciplinary unit of 24 AI specialists, known as the Ad Hoc Expert Group (AHEG), was formed in March 2020, and has been tasked with producing a draft Unesco recommendation that takes into account the wide-ranging impacts of AI, including on the environment, labour markets and culture.

The first draft text of its recommendation was published on 15 May 2020, which Unesco is now inviting the public to comment on until 31 July 2020.

It outlined 11 principles for the “research, design, development, deployment and use of AI systems”, including fairness, responsibility and accountability, human oversight and determination, sustainability, mutli-stakeholder and adaptive governance, and privacy, among others.

The text also outlined six values that would provide the foundation for these principles, which are human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, leaving no one behind, living in harmony, trustworthiness, and protection of the environment.

“It is crucial that as many people as possible take part in this consultation, so that voices from around the world can be heard during the drafting process for the first global normative instrument on the ethics of AI,” said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco.

The final recommendation will be submitted to member states for adoption during the 41st session of Unesco’s general conference in November 2021.

“Unesco is convinced that there is an urgent need for a global instrument on the ethics of AI to ensure that ethical, social and political issues can be adequately addressed both in times of peace and in extraordinary situations like the current global health crisis,” said Unesco in a press release.

“The Unesco Recommendation is expected to define shared values and principles, and identify concrete policy measures on the ethics of AI. Its role will be to help member states ensure that they uphold the fundamental rights of the UN Charter and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that research, design, development and deployment of AI systems take into account the well-being of humanity, the environment and sustainable development.”

According to Gemma Galdon Clavell, CEO and founder of Barcelona-based algorithmic auditing consultancy Eticas, “many AI early adopters… recognise the risks of AI systems – from unintended bias to explainability – and they are interested in adopting specific steps to help mitigate those risks”.

She added: “Unfortunately, even the most savvy adopters don’t know how. The good news is that even though Unesco’s draft is addressed primarily to policy-makers, AI’s early adopters would find sensible actionable steps that they can implement, including a broad deployment of algorithmic audits. Specific guidance on how to implement ethics is always a step in the right direction.”

Jeni Tennison, vice-president and chief strategy adviser at the Open Data Institute, said: “It’s good to see Unesco putting out a broad consultation around something as important internationally as the ethics of AI.

“There should be multiple voices raising concerns and discussing the future for AI that we want to see. But there is a long path between this consultation and the acceptance, adoption and action on the recommendations by member states around the world.”

Galdon Clavell previously told Computer Weekly that too many in the tech sector still wrongly see technology as socially and politically neutral – creating major problems in how algorithms are developed and deployed – and that most organisations using algorithms have very little awareness or understanding of how to address the challenges of bias, even if they do recognise it as a problem in the first place.

She did, however, add that companies are slowly starting to change their ways when it comes to developing algorithms with social impacts, with many beginning to view consumer trust as a competitive advantage.

“I’ve certainly found that some of the clients we have are people who really care about these things, but others care about the trust of their clients and they realise that doing things differently, doing things better, and being more transparent is also a way for them to gain a competitive advantage in the space,” she said.

“There’s also a slow movement in the corporate world that means they realise they need to stop seeing users as this cheap resource of data, and see them as customers who want and deserve respect, and want commercial products that do not prey on their data without their knowledge or ability to consent.”

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