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UN chief blasts AI companies for reckless pursuit of profit

The United Nations general secretary has blasted technology companies and governments for pursuing their own narrow interests in artificial intelligence without any consideration of the common good, as part of wider call to reform global governance

Technology companies are pursuing profits from artificial intelligence (AI) “with a clear disregard” for human rights, privacy and other social consequences, all while governments around the world fail to act, according to United Nations (UN) chief.

Addressing the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos in mid-January 2024, UN secretary general António Guterres issued a dual call to the world’s business and political elites to reign in the “runaway” development of AI, and to reform the international system established after World War II so that effective action can actually be taken on global challenges.

Linking the risks of AI’s unrestrained development to the threat posed by climate change, Guterres noted that “people everywhere are losing faith” in governments, institutions, and economic systems as a result of the global inaction on both issues.

“In the face of the serious, even existential, threats posed by runaway climate chaos, and the runaway development of artificial intelligence without guard rails, we seem powerless to act together,” he said.

“As climate breakdown begins, countries remain hellbent on raising emissions… At the same time, every new iteration of generative AI increases the risk of serious unintended consequences.”

Citing a January 2024 study from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which warned that AI is likely to worsen global economic inequality, Guterras said although the technology has “enormous potential” to boost sustainable development, “powerful tech companies are already pursuing profits with a clear disregard for human rights, personal privacy, and social impact. This is no secret.”

Guterras added that while the fallout from AI’s proliferation and the looming climate catastrophe are already “exhaustively discussed”, the international community still does not have an effective strategy to deal with either threat.

Noting that the UN should play a central convening role in efforts to address AI, Guterras said that governments and tech companies must urgently work together to create risk management frameworks for current AI development; as well as plan how to monitor and mitigate future harms.

However, he emphasised the stark power disparities throughout the international system as a major barrier to progress on both AI and climate change, noting, for example, that many member states were under colonial rule when the UN was set up, and therefore have “minimal weight” in the discussions that take place today.

Highlighting these longstanding global power disparities, as well as the deep geopolitical divides that have emerged since the brief period of unipolarity enjoyed by the US in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Gutteras said that it was possible to prevent the fissures deepening further by building “a new, multipolar global order” based on balance and justice in international relations.

“Multipolarity creates complexity. Left to itself, it could deepen fault lines: between North and South, East and West, developed and developing economies, within the G20, and between the G20 and everyone else,” he said.

“The only way to manage this complexity and avoid a slide into chaos is through a reformed, inclusive, networked multilateralism. This requires strong multilateral institutions and frameworks, and effective mechanisms of global governance – without them, further fragmentation is inevitable, and the consequences are clear.”

Commenting of the “epidemic of impunity” on display across the world – from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine to Israel’s bombing of civilians in Gaza – Guttares said he is “personally shocked” by the systemic undermining of international standards, and “outraged that so many countries and companies are pursuing their own narrow interests without any consideration for our shared future or our common good”.

He added that there needs to be a “systematic effort to increase access to AI so that developing economies can benefit from its enormous potential. We need to bridge the digital divide instead of deepening it.”

Speaking during a separate WEF session on AI’s direction of travel, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman called for an iterative approach to AI deployment, arguing it would give institutions the “time to have these discussions to figure out how to regulate this and how to put some guardrails in place”.

He added that it is the responsibility of the tech industry to get input from society into decisions, such as what values and safety thresholds are built into systems, so that the benefits outweigh the risks.

“I have a lot of empathy for the general nervousness and discomfort of the world towards companies like us...We have our own nervousness, but we believe that we can manage through it and the only way to do that is to put the technology in the hands of people.

“Let society and the technology co-evolve...step by step with a very tight feedback loop and course correction, build these systems that deliver tremendous value while meeting safety requirements.”

On 10 January 2024, the WEF warned in a report that online misinformation and disinformation generated by AI is the top short-term risk facing countries, with roughly three billion people expected to vote in elections worldwide between now and 2026.

It added that AI also poses new risks to computer systems by allowing hostile states and hacking groups to automate cyber attacks, while in the longer term, dependence on AI for decision-making will create further risks.

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