Great care is needed to ensure AI supports human development
Beate Trankmann

Editor's note: Beate Trankmann is the UNDP Resident Representative for China. The following is the transcript of her welcome remarks at the Tsinghua University International AI Cooperation and Governance Forum 2020, edited for brevity. The article reflects her views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Artificial intelligence is transforming our world. Increasingly sophisticated technologies are redefining how societies function and people live, work, and interact. Rapid innovation brought on by AI is impacting everything from education to transportation to health care. Just this year, we've seen how during the COVID-19 pandemic, here in China and around the world, various AI technologies have been used for critical functions such as virus detection and diagnosis, contact tracing, recovery monitoring, and of course for the extension of essential services during the lockdown in keeping businesses going.

The potential of AI for social good is undeniable. However, there are also risks. AI technologies are only as objective as the algorithms that determine how they function. As such, they are vulnerable to the same biases as the people who program them and can be manipulated in ways that perpetuate prejudice and discriminatory practices. In addition, the effectiveness of AI systems relies on data. This can lead to data abuse and infringement on individual privacy, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of data at an exponential rate in the digital age.

We therefore must be cautious. Great care is needed to ensure that AI supports human development, rather than expanding inequalities and creating new challenges, which would consequently undermine global progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – global goals to end poverty and protect the planet.

From a development perspective, there is also the issue of access and skills. If the advantages offered by AI are not made available to everyone, existing "digital divides" will continue to widen. Investments in both digital infrastructure and education are needed to ensure people can benefit from technological innovations and have the enhanced capabilities necessary to engage in the new world of work being shaped by AI and automation.

So what's to be done? How can we work together to create policies that ensure that AI is inclusive? And what would an international framework for AI cooperation look like – one that ensures that the power of AI is channeled towards sustainable development, while safeguarding against risks?

These are the kind of questions that industry experts and leaders from all over the world have gathered here today, both online and offline, to shed light on. How we answer them will help shape the future and have massive implications for achieving the SDGs by 2030.

At UNDP, working in more than 170 countries and territories around the world, we recognize that the consequences of the changes that AI is bringing will not stop at borders. In the same way that international cooperation and multilateralism has been essential to the pandemic response around the world in 2020, the conversation surrounding AI must also be a global one.

In the future, we look forward to continuing supporting stakeholders worldwide – including government, private sector, academia, and international organizations – to exchange lessons learned, develop mutual understanding, and engage in further cooperation on AI for sustainable development.

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