United Nations University (UNU)


The United Nations University (UNU) is a global think tank and postgraduate teaching organisation headquartered in Japan. The mission of the UN University is to contribute, through collaborative research and education, to efforts to resolve the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare that are the concern of the United Nations, its Peoples and Member States.

Description of Activities on AI

Project 1: Strategic Foresight to Applications of Artificial Intelligence to Achieve Water-related Sustainable Development Goals

This report uses strategic foresight to study applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to achieve water-related SDGs. The report discusses motivations, applications, and opportunities related to the adoption of AI for sustainable development.

Project 2: AI & Ethics Consortium

UNU Institute in Macau is assembling a research team consisting of post-doctoral fellows and senior researchers well-known in the field of AI & ethics, focusing on the Global South. The Institute is setting up a consortium on AI for social inclusion, which aims to bring together experts in higher education institutes from America, Europe, Asia and Africa, international organizations, and other experts in AI policy, governance, design and deployment. It plans to develop capacity-building programmes for policy-makers, other UN entities, and general public, as an integral component of its research design.

Project 3: Code 8.7

There are an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery, despite a blanket global ban on such practices. To bring this figure close to zero by 2030 – to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals Target 8.7 – we would need to reduce the number of people affected by over 10,000 individuals per day. AI and computational science can be an important tool for both preventing and detecting modern slavery, human trafficking, forced labour and child labour. Code 8.7 fosters collaboration between artificial intelligence (AI), computational science and anti-slavery leaders to accelerate progress toward SDG Target 8.7.

Challenges and Opportunities

UNU researchers have voiced concerns that the development of AI technologies remains predominantly in the Global North, which risks excluding the voices from the Global South to decide the future pathway of AI. Global participatory AI narrative – that both preserves cultural diversities, while demystify AI – will enable all citizens to participate in the discussion of AI’s roles in society. Advice and guidelines on AI must be geared not only towards the Global North but inclusive of the Global South.

UNU research has also identified the ethical challenges associated with AI convergence with other emerging technology. With AI and bio-power convergence, coercive forms of surveillance and use of personal data could open the door to control and manipulation of bio-data with risks to large populations. AI convergence could also create drastic shifts in the future of work, where urbanized populations face new and rapidly changing socio-economic risks.

UNU’s 2019 report on The New Geopolitics of Converging Risks: The UN and Prevention in the Era of AI as well as multiple articles on the AI & Global Governance Platform outline principles for responsible deployment of artificial intelligence in the international development setting. At a time of technological rupture, the risks of global insecurity are heightened by trends of isolationism and lack of collective responsibility. To meet these challenges, a common understanding of opportunities and risks across the international community is needed, driven by responsible innovation and incentives for a shared approach to prevention.

The AI & Global Governance platforms reinforces the need to have an open and inclusive discussion about the modalities of global governance in the era of AI and other emerging technologies. A diversity of perspectives is essential to an effective dialogue, not just from those who run leading AI research programs and corporate labs or AI in humanitarian contexts, but also from citizen science and democratized innovation ecosystems.

Related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

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