“Generative artificial intelligence holds great promise, but it could also lead us beyond a Rubicon and into danger greater than we can control,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. to world leaders gathered at the opening of the summit. He noted that only two world leaders had mentioned AI during his first appearance as head of the UN in 2017. “Now AI is on everyone’s lips – a subject of both awe and fear “, did he declare.
The sudden visibility of AI over the past year has turned heads. It’s already used in war zones including Ukraineand there are serious fears that technology will disrupt the livelihoods of everyone, from Car manufacturers has Hollywood writers. As Today’s worldview notedmany see it as an “Oppenheimer” moment – a reference to Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who led the creation of the atomic bomb.
After making the bomb, Oppenheimer became a supporter of nuclear nonproliferation and worked with the fledgling United Nations. Now, more than half a century later, industry and government officials are once again looking to the world’s largest multilateral institution, the United Nations, for leadership.
Guterres rose to the challenge. At the United Nations last week, the secretary-general continued his push for a high-level advisory body on artificial intelligence, with the aim of eventually creating a UN agency dedicated to AI – a demand formulated in particular by the CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, an American. An AI researcher sometimes compares, often alone, to Oppenheimer. Altman has suggested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could serve as a model for global coordination of AI governance.
But for those following the global nuclear debate of recent years, the comparison with AI may not be reassuring. More than 65 years after the creation of the IAEA, the war in Ukraine and the sudden increase in nuclear tensions it created raise the question of whether a fractured and divided UN is serving its purpose. Why would AI be better?
The UN’s AI plans are still in their early stages, but are expected to evolve quickly. Applications to join the High-Level Consultative Body already number in the thousands. The aim is to form the board by October, so that it can prepare its final report with recommendations by September 2024, when Guterres will host the “Future Summit” at the high-level meeting of the UN next year.
Signs of division are already appearing. THE idea of an IAEA model for AI regulation enjoys support because of the nuclear watchdog’s history of working and promoting cooperation on certain issues. However, some within the UN system do not believe that the IAEA, by focusing on physical nuclear materials, offers the right model for safeguarding a digital and intangible technology like AI.
Other potential models have been suggested, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which focuses more on expert advice. Some believe that it is not necessarily necessary to create a new agency. Aki Enkenberg, team leader for innovation and digital cooperation at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently told Time Magazine: it seemed like a “hasty gesture» to insist on the creation of a new agency while existing organizations could function.
The challenge posed by AI is complicated by the still uncertain nature of its impact and the “possible pathways” by which AI could threaten humanity. “It took decades to build an effective atomic energy control system, even with a shared view of the risks,” said Ian Stewart, executive director of the James Martin Center in Washington and a former official. with the British Ministry of Defense, wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in June. Private sector dominance in AI worsens governance problems, he added.
It is also shaped not by academic researchers, but by newcomers at tech companies – people who likely have very different values than the UN diplomats stationed at Turtle Bay and far greater power. Is Altman, for example, really willing to cede control of AI to the United Nations? His harshest critics say no, he’s just cynical.
“You say, ‘Regulate me,’ and you say, ‘This is a really complex and specialized subject, so we need a complex and specialized agency to do it,’ knowing full well that this agency will never be created”, technical editor. and podcaster Jathan Sadowski was quoted as saying in a sharp profile of Altman in New York Magazine. “Or if something is created, that’s good too, because you built the DNA of it.”
The dichotomy between political and technology leaders was highlighted by the surprising voice of a world leader at an event hosted by Elon Musk in San Francisco ahead of the UN summit.
“You have these trillion-dollar AI companies that are produced overnight, and they concentrate enormous wealth and power with smaller and smaller numbers of people. » said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative icon and staunch supporter of the free market.. “It will create greater and greater distance between the haves and the have-nots, and that’s another thing that’s causing enormous instability in our world.” And I don’t know if you have any idea how you overcome that?
While dealing with these new “superintelligence” issues, the UN will still have to confront the all-too-familiar problem of geopolitical divisions. A previous AI-related initiative, known as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, was founded without support from big countries like the United States. This time, Russia has indicated it will not support the creation of a new UN agency to combat AI, undermining any potential consensus Guterres hopes to build.
At several side events in New York last week, concerns were also raised that AI could become another area of divide between rich countries and the Global South. Speaking at the New York Public Library, Nigerian Communications Minister Olatunbosun Tijani noted that “even the governance debate (on AI) has been driven from the West.”
Recent lessons from nuclear governance are hardly encouraging. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, order has collapsed, with deep divisions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council – all of whom are nuclear-armed. The IAEA found itself, literally, in the middle of the fighting in Ukrainewhile key agreements like the Multilateral Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and bilateral agreements New start face huge divisions between member states.
Non-nuclear countries pushing for disarmament agreements, such as the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, have not only found little support for such efforts from the governments of countries with nuclear weapons. nuclear weapons, but have also seen little evidence that the goal of delegitimizing the use of nuclear weapons is succeeding. “We seem unable to come together to respond” to existential threats, Guterres said in his speech last week.
AI could be a giant leap forward for the United Nations system, helping countries tackle major problems like poverty and hunger. However, disruptions caused by AI could one day make nuclear weapons look like firecrackers. The United Nations will have to fight not only self-interested global powers, but also the tech barons who shape the world. This is a fight she can’t afford to lose.