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AI for Good Summit: Digital and technological divide is no longer acceptable

Organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the annual forum is the place where humans meet artificial intelligence. It is popular to the extent of being oversubscribed for attendance, with the queue to enter stretched for hundreds of metres, along one of Geneva’s biggest conference centres, and internet bandwidth barely coping with the flood of digital information.

The venue has become a showcase for advanced technology, including AI-powered robots, brain-controlled tools, generative AI solutions as well as the hardware, the backbone of the global AI ecosystem.

However attractive to the eye and entertaining, the machines are not the highlight of the summit.

With people in mind

On the centre stage, both metaphorically and literally, are the people. The two-day summit’s main stage will see a tight line-up of presentations and panels discussing all aspects of human interaction with artificial intelligence, both pros and cons.

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Opening the summit, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the ITU Secretary-General, underscored the transformative potential of AI and emphasised the necessity for inclusive and secure AI governance.

“In 2024 — in the age of AI and unimaginable opportunities — one-third of humanity remains offline, excluded from the AI revolution, and without a voice,“ Ms. Bogdan-Martin stated. “This digital and technological divide is no longer acceptable.”

Underlining the critical digital divide – with 2.6 billion people globally still without internet access – she urged collective action to bridge this gap, stressing that equitable access to AI technology is essential for inclusive progress.

Global coordination

“We are in a race against time. Recent developments in AI have been nothing short of extraordinary,” she said. 

To secure global coordination in building safe and inclusive AI accessible to all, the ITU chief said, three key aspects should be observed – risk and security management, infrastructure and resource development and international collaboration.

Ms. Bogdan-Martin praised initiatives like the UN General Assembly’s historic resolution promoting trustworthy AI systems and ITU’s collaboration with UNESCO on applying existing laws to AI. She called for continued momentum, particularly highlighting the upcoming UN Summit of the Future.

Bionic limbs and prenatal care

The ITU chief shared inspiring examples from the AI for Good Innovation Factory, including the start-ups Bioniks, a Pakistani-led initiative designing artificial limbs, and Ultrasound AI, a US-based women-led effort improving prenatal care.

Speaking to UN News at the forum, founder and CVO (Chief Visionary Officer) of Bioniks Anas Niaz explained that the idea behind his start-up was to produce affordable prosthetics for amputees, including children. Use of a smartphone for scanning, brain-controlled technology and simplified fitting process, which does not require travelling to a hospital, help to reduce costs, making the company’s products ‘the world’s most affordable bionic limbs”.

Bioniks startup from Pakistan presents brain-controlled bionic limbs at ITU's annual AI for Good Global Summit 2024.
UN News/Anton Uspensky

Bioniks startup from Pakistan presents brain-controlled bionic limbs at ITU’s annual AI for Good Global Summit 2024.

“You can send the measurements by a mobile phone, and we send your prosthetics to your doorstep. These prosthetics are waterproof, and people in humid climate can use them for practically anything. Kids are writing with them,” Mr. Niaz explained, adding that being a social enterprise, Bioniks helps find sponsors for those who need a bionic limb, but cannot afford to buy it.

Fighting fake news during world’s largest election year

As 2024 marks the largest election year across the world in history, Ms. Bogdan-Martin warned of the threats posed by deepfakes and disinformation. She announced ITU’s commitment to developing robust standards for AI watermarking and digital content verification, stressing that “standards build trust; they’re the cornerstone of responsible AI.”

Some of such solutions are already used by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), who helps governments to apply AI to identify misinformation and disinformation attacks.

“When we deliver electoral support to countries during their elections, we have an AI-based platform that serves as a misinformation detection platform and flags suspicious content for [further] human fact check,” UNDP’s chief digital officer Robert Opp told UN News.


‘AI Generation’

ITU chief Ms. Bogdan-Martin called on the global community to embrace its role as the “AI generation”, advocating for a future where artificial intelligence serves humanity’s best interests.

“Let’s remember that the future starts not with algorithms, but with us,” she said. “Right here, in our brain…the most complex, powerful and creative computer the world has ever known.”

Turbocharging sustainable development

Addressing the AI for Good Summit through a video message, UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasised the transformative potential of AI in advancing sustainable development worldwide.

Highlighting the dual nature of AI, Guterres outlined its immense promise and underscored the necessity for its responsible and inclusive governance.

“Artificial intelligence is changing our world and our lives,” Mr. Guterres declared. “And it can turbocharge sustainable development.”

ITU's annual AI for Good Global Summit 2024, Geneva.
UN News/Anton Uspensky

He elaborated on AI’s multifaceted applications, noting its capability to revolutionise sectors such as education, healthcare, agriculture, housing and disaster management. He also illustrated how AI could deliver educational and healthcare services to remote areas, enhance agricultural productivity, design eco-friendly housing and transportation systems and provide early warnings for natural disasters.

“AI could be a game-changer for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” UN chief asserted. However, he cautioned that realizing AI’s full potential requires addressing its risks, including bias, misinformation and security threats.

“We need global coordination to build safe and inclusive AI that is accessible to all,” he said, commending ITU for its early work on AI standards and for convening the summit.

Business community aboard

These calls by leaders of international organisations are well-heard by the digital community. Talking to UN News, Melike Yetken Krilla, head of international organisations at Google, discussed a handful of projects that the data giant is assisting the UN with.

That includes one where Google data and AI are used to track progress toward the SDGs and to map it around the globe, and a project developed jointly with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to create a flood hub, allowing users to forecast natural disasters up to seven days in advance as part of an early warning system.

“Last year, with the creation and launch of large language models and generative AI, it was the year of ‘Wow!’ I would assert that this year is the year of ‘How?’ How we are going to partner with international organisations to identify and establish AI rules of the road and the guardrails,” Ms. Yetken Krilla said, adding that the UN is leading the process by drafting and creating the Global Digital Compact and other initiatives, including the Summit of the Future.

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