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Does Artificial Intelligence Need a Regulatory UN Watchdog?

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 6 2023 (IPS) - The frighteningly rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have triggered the question: is there a UN role for monitoring and regulating it?

Citing a report from the Center for AI Safety, the New York Times reported last week that a group of over 350 AI industry leaders warned that artificial intelligence poses a growing new danger to humanity –and should be considered a “societal risk on a par with pandemics and nuclear wars”.

In a statement in its website, OPENAI founders Greg Brockman and Ilya Sutskever, along with chief executive Sam Altman, say that to regulate the risks of AI systems, there should be “an international watchdog, similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency (a Vienna-based UN agency) that promotes the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”.

“Given the possibility of existential risk, we can’t just be reactive,” they warned in a joint statement last week.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which hosted more than 40 ministers at an groundbreaking online meeting on May 26, said less than 10 per cent of schools and universities follow formal guidance on using wildly popular artificial intelligence (AI) tools, like the chatbot software ChatGPT.

Asked about a UN role in AI, Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the United Nations told IPS UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his report titled Our Common Agenda (OCA) issued in September 2021 promises, “to work with Member States to establish an Emergency Platform to respond to complex global crises.”

“The platform would not be a new permanent or standing body or institution. It would be triggered automatically in crises of sufficient scale and magnitude, regardless of the type or nature of the crisis involved.”

AI is undoubtedly one of such “complex global crises” and it is high time now for the Secretary-General to formally share his thinking on how he plans to address the challenge, said Ambassador Chowdhury, founder of the Global Movement for The Culture of Peace.

He pointed out that it will be too late for the Summit of the Future, convened by the Secretary-General in September 2024, to discuss a global regulatory regime for AI under UN authority. In that timeframe, he argued, AI technology would manifest itself in a way that no global governance would be possible.

Robert Whitfield, Chair, One World Trust and the Transitional Working Group on AI, told IPS the point about the UN and AI is that AI desperately needs global governance and the UN is the natural home of such governance.

At present, he pointed out, the UN is preparing a Global Digital Compact or approval in September 2024 which should include Artificial Intelligence.

”But in reality, the UN is hardly at the starting block on AI governance, whereas the Council of Europe, where I am at the moment, is deep in its negotiation of a Framework Convention for AI,” said Whitfield.

The Council of Europe’s work is limited to the impact on human rights, democracy, and rule of law – but these are wide-ranging issues.

Whilst participation in Council of Europe Treaties is much wider than the European Union, with other countries being welcomed as signatories, he said, it is not truly global in scope and any UN agreement can be expected to be more broadly based.

“The key advantage of the UN is that it would seek to include all countries, including Russia and China, arguably the country with the strongest AI sector in the world”, Whitfield said.

One can envisage therefore a two-step process:

    • • An initial international agreement within the Council of Europe emerging first of all, following the finalization of the EU AI Act


    • And a global UN Framework Convention on Artificial Intelligence being developed later, perhaps following the establishment of a multi-stakeholder forum on AI governance. Such a Convention might well include the establishment of an agency equivalent to the International Atomic Energy Agency as called for most recently by the Elders.

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS: “UN governance of AI should go beyond the usual intergovernmental mechanisms and give citizen-elected representatives a key role through a global parliamentary body”.

The scope of such a parliamentary assembly could be expanded to other issues and enhance the UN’s inclusive and representative character not just in the field of AI, he added.

As generative AI reshapes the global conversation on the impact of artificial intelligence, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s specialized agency for information and communication technologies, will host the 2023 “AI for Good Global Summit” July 6-7 in Geneva.

The two-day event will showcase AI and robot technology as part of a global dialogue on how artificial intelligence and robotics can serve as forces for good, and support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, according to ITU.


The event will host the UN’s first robot press conference, featuring a Q&A with registered journalists. Overall, more than 40 robots specialized for humanitarian and development tasks will be on display alongside events with industry executives, government officials, and thought leaders on AI and tech.

Meanwhile, a group of UN-appointed human rights experts warn that AI-powered spyware and disinformation is on the rise, and regulation of the space has become urgent.

In a statement June 2, the experts said that emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence-based biometric surveillance systems, are increasingly being used “in sensitive contexts”, without individuals’ knowledge or consent.

“Urgent and strict regulatory red lines are needed for technologies that claim to perform emotion or gender recognition,” said the experts, including Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on “the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism”.

The experts, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, condemned the already “alarming” use and impacts of spyware and surveillance technologies on the work of human rights defenders and journalists, “often under the guise of national security and counter-terrorism measures”.

They have also called for regulation to address the lightning-fast development of generative AI that’s enabling mass production of fake online content which spreads disinformation and hate speech.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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