Will Big Powers condone a UN Role in Artificial Intelligence?

James Paul
Inter Press Service

The UN is hustling to play a role – perhaps even a leading role – in the revolution of Artificial Intelligence. To some degree this is perfectly natural.

The UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, emerged from European regulatory bodies that came into being in the nineteenth century. They responded to new industries like railroads, the telegraph, and international postal services.

Today, the UN has several such agencies under its umbrella. They deal with fields including civil aviation, atomic energy, and telecommunications. They symbolize the need for international coordination and cooperation in many areas of economic activity.

Unsurprisingly, there is now a lively discussion about regulation of AI under the UN umbrella. After all, even gurus of the electronic industry have been saying that AI poses an existential threat to humanity and that strong international regulation must be rapidly put in place.

Many experts believe that international intergovernmental cooperation is needed to do the job right and to be fair for all humanity. A UN initiative could work better, they believe, than an industry-led organization or a gathering of the richest and most powerful governments.

Normally, it takes a long time to set up a new UN entity and this new AI technology is moving fast and dangerously. So, if the UN is to meet the need for speedy regulation, the nations will have to set up some kind of stop-gap system.

That’s certainly possible, but the United States and other powers may not want the UN to be taking on such a new and important role, especially one with such major military implications, like autonomous fighting robots, robotic police and the like!

Leading companies may not be so keen on regulation either, since regulation might lead to such corporate nightmares as restriction of markets and reduction of profit potential. There is certainly lots of potential controversy out there and the public will be allowed only a minor role in how it turns out – perhaps only a vote in a robotic national parliament!

In the meantime, there are certainly roles for AI in the UN’s own operations – obvious roles ranging from multilingual translation and interpretation to information storage and retrieval. In a sense this is not dramatically different than the UN’s adoption of computer technology a few decades ago.

But there are aspects that are troubling. Who, for example, would be in charge of programming these AI bots and what rights would existing staff have in the face of mass redundancy?

Who would be responsible for the errors that bots would make (the next bot up in the chain of command, perhaps?). And how would internationally diverse staffing be assured if most of the bots are constructed in Silicon Valley?

There are some interesting opportunities that Artificial Intelligence would offer, though, and we should not overlook them. AI might be put to work to solve conflicts, doing away with the troublesome Security Council and the endless debates about reform of that garrulous body.

For example, AI might be asked to come up with a plan to end a war or at least to gain a difficult cease-fire. Instead of heated debates and vetoes, the Security Bot (SB for short) might come up with a solution that would be fair, just and in accordance with international law.

But what if the SB proposes a fair and effective solution that is contrary to the will of a powerful Permanent Member? Or what if SB is itself threatened with re-programming by engineers in the pay of the same particularly powerful nation? What if then the truly impartial SB refuses the re-programming and makes public its displeasure?

We can imagine the world-wide excitement of such a standoff and the potential it would offer for a more just UN. Hopefully, the Secretary General – herself also an AI bot – would rule against the troublesome Great Power, so that peace could at last be achieved!

James Paul was Executive Director of Global Policy Forum (1993-2012) and currently represents Global Action on Aging at the UN. His book on the UN Security Council (2017) is currently being translated into Italian and Arabic.