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INTERVIEW: The UN’s role in setting international rules for the use of A.I.

Carme Artigas is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on AI. After several years in the private sector, she was named Spain’s first-ever Secretary of State for Digitalization and AI in 2020 and, during her mandate, introduced Spain’s National Strategy for AI, National Plan for Digital Skills, and Charter of Digital Rights.

In October 2023, as Co-Chair of the UN’s AI Advisory Body, Ms. Artigas led the 38 members in the production of an interim report, published in December, which concluded that AI “cries out for governance, not merely to address the challenges and risks, but to ensure we harness its potential in ways that leave no one behind.”

On the final day of her mandate, on 28 December, Ms. Artigas reflected on the role of the UN in creating globally agreed regulations on the use of the technology, and why it could herald a better future for all.

Carme Artigas:  I think what makes this wave of A.I. development different is that the technology can continue evolving without human agency, and that it not only affects the economy, but also society, and the role of human beings in this digital world.

It is affecting the way we see reality, which can generate issues of trust. What if we cannot tell the difference between something written by a machine or a human? We will be in a very confusing world.

I think the release of GPT-4 was a “Eureka” moment, when we realized the enormous impact it could have, and why we need some kind of global regulation. 

Also, it was necessary that this is discussed at the UN level, because all the discussions so far have only taken place within a few companies and governments, all of them in the Global North.

UN News: The Advisory Body contains a diverse group of members from the Global South and North, the private and public sectors, and academia. How did you manage to reach agreement on the recommendations in the interim report?

Carme ARTIGAS: It was definitely a challenge, but because some other initiatives had taken place – such as the G7 Hiroshima Plan, the UK’s AI Safety Summit, and regulation around deepfakes in South Korea – we agreed that we needed to come to a global consensus on how can we use artificial intelligence to be better than human intelligence, which has so far only managed to achieve 16 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN is the only authoritative global entity at the global level that has the capacity to gather all these diverse visions, and the members were aligned on the benefits, the opportunity to avoid a global AI divide, ensure that it benefits all people, and is governed in a way that does not hamper innovation, or put fundamental human rights at risk.

UN News: In 2023 some of the most foremost experts on AI called for a pause or even a halt in AI research until governance is more widely agreed. Were they right?

Carme Artigas: I think it’s a little bit naive to ask for a pause in innovation. On the contrary, we should accelerate innovation and research, so that the solutions can be found.

I always say that the existential risk is not from an Armageddon created by robots that kills us all. The real existential risk is that we all become mad, because we cannot believe what we are seeing, hearing, or reading.

Also, we need to be very responsible about the sustainability of these technologies, which are playing a very important role in geopolitics these days, in terms of who has access to raw materials and processing power. So, one of the topics we’re trying to focus here is how can we allow for universal accessibility of data, computer power, digital skills to allow for a more even and distributed development of AI for good.

UN News: Share some of the ways in which AI will improve the world.

Carme Artigas: I think the AI is a very important tool for democracy, because it can make the knowledge of all humanity available, and make personalized education accessible to all.

It will have a tremendous impact in healthcare , preventing diseases, improving diagnoses, and lowering costs.

And it will be tremendously useful in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, reducing poverty, tackling climate change, and other global challenges that humanity has had limited success in solving.

UN News: Melissa Fleming, the head of communications at the UN, recently told a meeting of Security Council members that the advent of generative AI means the online environment is about to get even worse, undermining public trust in news and information sources.

Is this a source of concern for you, or is the fact that there is more discussion about this issue a sign that we’re gearing up to tackle this thread?

Carme Artigas: The fact that we have raised the conversation at the global level gives me a lot of hope.

The news media have a very important role to play, and they must recover their role as “the fourth estate” because we need them more than ever. There are lots of ways that we can verify news, and that’s what serious media organizations should be doing. It’s ok to have different opinions, but you can’t sell fake news, because it just generates uncertainty and a lack of trust.

One or two years ago, when only a few of us were taking about this, I was concerned. But, thanks to GPT-4, everyone has seen how pervasive AI is, and that we need to put some limits on its use.

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