9 July 2019

UNAI Charter Day Lecture: Technology, Data and the Future of the UN

Technology in the 21st century has brought us at a crossroads: one path leads to a more just, inclusive society, and the other leads to a fundamentally predatory, unequal system.

On 26 June to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, the United Nations Academic Impact invited Dr. David A. Bray, Executive Director for the People-Centered Internet Coalition, to deliver the keynote address examining the impact of technology on the work of the UN that was not envisaged when the Charter was signed in 1946, and the challenges and opportunities it presents for the next 25 years of the UN’s work. 

Dr. Bray characterized technology as exponentially powerful, the most formidable tool of change, an innovation of even greater importance than the printing press. Yet, like every tool, it can be used to have a positive impact through facilitating tasks, creating better standards of living, and bringing people together, or it can slowly erode privacy, manipulate public opinion and polarize public discourse.

During his lecture, Dr. Bray argued that the seeds of future successes or failures, prompted by technological advances are already contained in our present. While globalization is increasingly connecting the world, it has not been universally beneficial, as rural areas are yet to reap the rewards of the digital revolution and people are left behind. Technologies like artificial intelligence, understood by such a small minority, run the risk of provoking a fear of the “other” and a nostalgia, real or false, for an era in which those things were not present.

Indeed, during a time where anybody can write about anything and information is readily accessible online, traditional news outlets face an 80% decrease in subscriptions prompting them to adopt a sensationalist approach to reporting. Even today, this has the direct effect of polarizing debates, frightening people and pitting them against each other. Dr. Bray notes that as technology progresses, this could get worse, citing the example of crypto-currencies that threaten to remove the need for parties to actually meet and work together for a financial transaction.

He noted how technology, especially smartphones, has super-empowered individuals, stating that “Technology for good and for bad allows people to do things that were only possible by nation states 40 to 50 years ago.” By 2045, this will be even more true.

While many questions remain, Dr. Bray stressed the importance of using artificial intelligence and other technologies as a whole to compensate for the flaws of human nature rather than to exacerbate them. He identified and explored some of the choices we will have to make to forge a better world in accordance with the values enshrined in the UN Charter.

A distinguished panel of discussants added on to the points raised by Dr. Bray and examined them from various perspectives. 

Fabrizio Hochschild, United Nations Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser on the Preparations for the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the United Nations, pointed out that the internet and its developments have had an even greater impact than the printing press when it was introduced. However, he stressed the importance of technological literacy: without it, new technologies could create a communication gap between different generations.  Mr. Hochschild said he is hopeful about the potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence, stating that if used appropriately, according to the values of the UN Charter, it could reduce inequalities and create jobs.

Mariko Gakiya, Director, Global Leadership for Health, Peace and Human Security at the Boston Global Forum, emphasized the power of knowledge and the direct link between technology, education and the Sustainable Development Goals. In today’s society those who own the technological means of production can craft and disseminate knowledge and influence society. Consequently, she stressed the importance of decentralizing knowledge and distributing it to every part of the population, and she argued that knowledge shouldn’t be for private profit, but rather a public good as it is integral in creating a fair and peaceful world.

During his intervention David Silbersweig, Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explored the relationship between neuroscience and artificial intelligence and noted the positive possibilities of science and technology. Our brain, having evolved over the course of millions of years, can both serve as a basis for artificial intelligence and be improved by it, and it could bring people and the world together through a web of consciousness, helping the United Nations fulfill its mission. Furthermore, it could grow our cognitive capabilities to be able to tackle problems we couldn’t fully understand without it. 

Moral accountability in science, technology and innovation was needed if we hoped to have positive impacts with new technologies according to Atefeh Riazi, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Chief Information Technology Officer.  She noted that the impacts of technological advances were hard to predict, and thus the scientific community should be extremely cautious and remember the principles outlined in the UN Charter.

Ajeet Mathur, Professor in Strategy and International Business at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, expressed concerns about AI because of its potential to control everything, including collective thought. However, he agreed that the technology could be used in a positive way and that in itself was neither good nor bad, and should be used as a way to complement solutions to social issues.

After the panel discussion attendees had the opportunity to interact with the speakers and raise issues including how technology can be harnessed to address issues like climate change, human trafficking, mental health, access to quality education, youth empowerment and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

You can watch the UNAI Charter Day Lecture here: http://bit.ly/UNAICharterDayLecture

You can learn more about the UN Charter here: https://www.un.org/en/charter-united-nations/