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UN adopts ‘landmark’ resolution on making AI safe and trustworthy

A UN draft resolution promoting the use of artificial intelligence in sustainable development and the protection of human rights was backed by over 120 member states

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly has approved a “landmark” draft resolution on the opportunities that regulated artificial intelligence (AI) systems present for sustainable and inclusive development globally.

The assembly adopted the draft resolution with the backing of 123 member states in mid-March 2024, marking the first time it has taken a step in regulating the field of AI.

Led by the United States, the non-binding resolution aims to “bridge the artificial intelligence and other digital divides between and within countries” by encouraging member states, the private sector, civil society, research organisations and the media “to develop and support regulatory and governance approaches and frameworks related to safe, secure and trustworthy artificial intelligence systems”.

The resolution comes just two months after UN secretary general António Guterres accused technology companies and governments of pursuing their own narrow interests in AI “with a clear disregard” for human rights, privacy and other social consequences, likening its unregulated development to the escalating risks posed by the climate crisis. 

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, introduced the draft resolution, highlighting the opportunity for and responsibility of the international community “to govern this technology rather than let it govern us”.

“Let us reaffirm that AI will be created and deployed through the lens of humanity and dignity, safety and security, human rights, and fundamental freedoms,” she said.

Collaboratively bridging the digital divide

Acknowledging the “varying levels” of digital development between countries, the draft resolution invites member states and other stakeholders to combat digital inequalities by “[taking] action to cooperate with and provide assistance to developing countries towards inclusive and equitable access to the benefits of digital transformation and safe, secure and trustworthy artificial systems”.

Let us reaffirm that AI will be created and deployed through the lens of humanity and dignity, safety and security, human rights, and fundamental freedoms
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador and permanent representative to the UN

Actions being encouraged as part of the move towards digital equality include “raising public awareness and understanding” of how AI systems are used; increasing media and information literacy through enabling users to “identify information manipulation, distinguish or determine the origins of authentic digital content” against AI-generated or manipulated content; and promoting AI systems that preserve cultural and linguistic diversity, “taking into account multilingualism in their training data and throughout the lifecycle” of the system.

Highlighting the collaborative effort towards international digital equality, Thomas-Greenfield said: “Let us commit to closing this digital gap within and between nations and using this technology to advance shared priorities around sustainable development.”

In pushing for more active regulation of the field, the resolution also called on countries to “refrain from or cease the use of artificial intelligence systems that are impossible to operate in compliance with international human rights law or that pose undue risks to the enjoyment of human rights”.

It affirms that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online”, doubling down on the UN General Assembly’s emphasis on safety and security.

Forward-facing discussion of AI

Looking to the future, the resolution acknowledges the importance of continued discussion on developments in “artificial intelligence governance” to ensure that international regulation aligns with the rapid evolution of AI systems. 

Specialised agencies or programmes, and related organisations within the UN system, are also encouraged to continually “assess and enhance their response” to capitalise on opportunities and address challenges posed by AI systems in a “collaborative, coordinated and inclusive manner”.

Speaking before the adoption, Thomas-Greenfield also expressed hope that the “inclusive and constructive dialogue that led to this resolution would serve as a model for future conversations on AI challenges in other arenas – for example, with respect to peace and security and responsible military use of AI autonomy”.

She added: “We intend for it to complement future UN initiatives, including negotiations toward a global digital compact and the work of the secretary general’s high-level advisory body on artificial intelligence.”

When issuing his warning to governments and tech companies in January 2024, secretary general Guterres also emphasised the stark power disparities throughout the international system as a major barrier to progress on AI, 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 long-standing 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, Guterres said it was possible to prevent the fissures deepening further by building “a new, multipolar global order” based on balance and justice in international relations.

“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,” he said.

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