11 July 2020

UN75: AI in the Next Century of the United Nations

2020 marks the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.  To commemorate this milestone, United Nations Academic Impact has asked academics, educators and leading figures in the fields of science, technology and innovation to share their views on the multilateral experiment born of war to foster peace, what they see as the role of the organization in the 21st Century and beyond, and what the world might look like in 25 years when the UN celebrates its 100th anniversary. UNAI will be running this series throughout the year and invite you to engage in the global conversation using #UN75 and #ShapingTheFuture.

This article was contributed by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, president of the World Leadership Alliance – Club de Madrid, and the sixth president of Latvia. Having left Latvia as a child refugee at the end of World War II, Vaira started schooling in a refugee camp in Germany in 1945, continued it in French Morocco, and then obtained higher education in Canada, with a B.A. and M.A. at the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology (1965) at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Vīķe-Freiberga emerged as a prominent spokesperson on politics and science whilst Professor of psychology and interdisciplinary scholar at the University of Montreal (1965-1998). She has held leading positions in national and international scientific and scholarly organizations, as well as in a number of Canadian governmental, institutional, academic and interdisciplinary committees, where she acquired extensive administrative experience. Since the beginning of her career, she has been actively engaged in community service, focusing on questions of Latvian identity and culture, and the political future of the Baltic States.

By 2045, when the United Nations Organization will be entering the second century of its existence, the world will have changed in many substantial ways. A significant part of these changes will be due to the pervading influence of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which will have become more powerful and flexible than it is now and more omnipresent in people’s lives.

The development of AI so far has been going hand in hand with rapid technological advances in electronics, telecommunications and robotics, with the result that the number of tasks heretofore considered as needing a human operator has been inexorably decreasing. Not only are cities populated by highly paid auto industry workers a thing of the past, but human drivers of cars will also soon be an anachronism. The areas once considered as the ultimate bastions of the exceptionalism and singularity of human cognitive functioning are melting away like snow under spring sunshine. Machines beat humans at chess, AI algorithms make better medical diagnoses than highly experienced specialists, they solve problems faster by avoiding the fallacies inherent in human reasoning and are at least as good at facial recognition. Not only that, but they can search through staggering masses of Big Data at lightning speed and have already made former notions of human privacy as outdated as the beliefs that witches are the ones responsible for storms.

A major consequence of progress in AI will be continuing increases in wealth generation, unhampered by the limitations imposed on it by human frailty, human rights, ideological principles, political agendas, national laws and regulations, and the power of workers’ unions.  At the same time, the number of jobs will be decreasing, and the remaining ones will require skill levels impossible to attain by more than half of the population. Since people will have longer life-expectancies, the numbers of older people no longer active in the workforce will inevitably keep rising, as will the number of people requiring assisted living. In countries with high birth-rates, there will be more young people ready for the job market who will find themselves unable to enter it. The major challenge this will create for leading institutions like the UN will be to establish principles by which aggregate wealth will be redistributed fairly, with sufficient regard for human survival and dignity, not just for the profits of the investors and major shareholders of international corporations. This will mean entering boldly the fields of ethics and moral principles, continuing to seek consensus on overarching guidelines that can be accepted as transcending differences in culture and religious beliefs (or the lack thereof).

The last few decades have already shown that productivity may keep increasing spectacularly, but the purchasing power of the workers who still have jobs has remained constant. In other words, there has been an increasing concentration of wealth, rather than the kind of fair redistribution that is presumably one of the pillars of democracy. Considering that even now only 1% of the world’s population holds up to 80 to 90% of the world’s wealth concentrated in their hands, one shudders to think about a Brave New World in which, thanks to AI, a small handful of individuals would wind up holding more power than nation-states, supra-national organizations like the EU, and international organizations like the UN. Add to this the increasing concentration of media in ever fewer hands, and the scene will be ripe for an automated world dominated by robots and AI applications, while humans as unemployed worker ants are kept under control by brain-washing and sophisticated manipulation of information.

During the first decades of the new millennium, the UN was rightly concerned about the effects of the digital divide on economic development world-wide.  As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the digital divide has been shrinking at a truly impressive rate, but the same concerns remain about the accessibility to the benefits of AI for developing as well as for developed countries. In a Post-Information age in which AI is going to be a major player, the UN needs to maintain a leading role and keep reminding its member nations about achieving not just the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, but to work toward forming a consensus about global Development Goals for the new century starting in 2045.

Even as we keep in mind the possible negative effects that AI might create or contribute to, we should also remember that AI, just like other advances in science and technology, will undoubtedly produce enormous benefits to humanity.  Just as the Industrial revolution relieved people and horses from some burdens of physical labor (while replacing them with others!), AI is already making life easier, safer, more interesting and more enjoyable for a growing number of people. 

As rapid progress has occurred in the speed and memory capacity of computers, as well as in the miniaturization of electronic circuits, the increasing sophistication of artificial devices, together with advances in neurophysiology, has allowed for spectacular innovations in man-machine interactive systems that can serve as increasingly powerful and flexible prostheses or extensions of the human body. The enhancement or substitution of sensory-motor processes, such as demonstrated with artificial limbs capable of voluntary control and finger manipulation, navigation guides for the blind, nerve implants for the deeply deaf, etc. has already allowed for radical improvements in the quality of life for many disadvantaged. Smart, self-driving cars, Smart Houses and Smart Greenhouses are already making inroads, municipal and national governance is getting more and more automated while more and people spend more time interacting with their Smart phones than with their family, friends and neighbors.

The only thing missing in the AI world is smart people who will be smarter all on their own, without aid or support of electronic props and prostheses. Who needs to be able to quote poetry or remember any facts, when they can be instantly summoned by a few flips of the finger? But what happens to human faculties when they all but go dormant, especially after a certain number of generations? There used to be a story told to biology students about a species of salamander that had been discovered in underground caves completely cut off from any access to daylight. Not surprisingly, they were completely white, without the least trace of pigment in their skins. Equally unsurprisingly, they were also blind. The reason for this, however, was not just an atrophy of visual functions, but the total loss of eye development early in their embryonic development. The moral of the story is that morphological structures as well as the functions they perform will atrophy without use, that is, without continued feedback from the environment in which they had originally evolved.

This is why it is comforting to know that UNESCO has already started to work on a vast program which will delineate the features of the kind of Education for Tomorrow that humans will need in the next century. We have to be careful, as a species, that we do not lose all the advantages that millions of years of evolution have left as our heritage, whether through inertia, laziness or overweening pride and arrogance. And, while we are at it, of course we also have to think of preserving our planet in a shape where it continues to be fit for human habitation. The planet will not care whether its dominant species are humans, salamanders or cockroaches. We are the ones who do care. Or should.

To join the conversation on UN75 and learn more about the United Nations’ Charter and history, check out these resources: