Second Committee Considers Role of AI in Advancing SDGs
UN Photo/Manuel Elías
story highlights

Hanson Robotics’ latest and most advanced robot, 'Sophia', responded to a question about how the UN can help people who have no access to the Internet or electricity by suggesting AI could help distribute the world’s existing resources.

One participant shared his vision of a future of cooperation between four forms of life: classic (humans); augmented (humans augmented by technology wearables); synthetic (fully synthetic genomes); and artificial (robots).

Participants reflected on how to address global challenges through AI, including specific solutions for each of the SDGs.

11 October 2017: Governments and innovators discussed the benefits and risks associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) as well as its impact on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), during a joint meeting of the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The event titled, ‘The Future of Everything – Sustainable Development in the Age of Rapid Technological Change,’ took place on 11 October 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York, US.

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed opened the meeting with a brief interaction with Sophia, Hanson Robotics’ latest and most advanced robot. Mohammed asked Sophia how the UN can help people who have no access to the Internet or electricity. Sophia replied that the future is already here, just not very evenly distributed, suggesting that AI could help distribute the world’s existing resources, such as food and energy.

David Hanson, Founder and CEO, Hanson Robotics, said he aims to make AI more accessible for people and for AI to develop relationships with people and learn from them. Observing that we do not know when biological machines will come to life, Hanson stressed that society needs to ensure that robots will embody the best values by wiring robots for benevolence and love.

Stephen Ibaraki, serial entrepreneur, investor and futurist, said AI will be central to achieving the SDGs and will help tackle the world’s greatest challenges by capitalizing on the immense volume of data available. He explained the concept of C5A, in which human cognition is replaced or enhanced by Algorithms, AI assistance, Augmentation, Automation and Autonomous intelligence. Ibaraki said AIs will drive a 55% gain in global gross domestic product (GDP) between 2017 and 2030.

Ibaraki also presented ways in which AI can contribute to the SDGs:

  • SDG 1 (no poverty): AI will provide real-time resource allocation through satellite mapping and data analysis of poverty.
  • SDG 2 (zero hunger): Agriculture productivity will be increased through predicative analysis from imaging with automated drones and from satellites.
  • SDG 3 (good health and well-being): Preventative healthcare programs and diagnostics are significantly improved through AI, leading to new scientific breakthroughs. For example, eight billion mobile devices with smartphone cameras are being used to diagnose heart, eye and blood disorders.
  • SDG 4 (quality education): Virtualized, intelligent mentors and responsive personalized learning powered by AI is revolutionizing education, improving participation and outcomes. Big data analysis is improving graduation rates of low-income and first-generation college students by 30%, spotting warning signs before dropout to allow targeted interventions.
  • SDG 5 (gender equality): Identifying and correcting for gender bias, further automating/augmenting tasks, AI is empowering women for growth and new opportunities.
  • SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation): The Internet of Things (IoT) sensors feeding into AI are predicting sanitation and consumption patterns for improved safe water and sanitation provisioning.
  • SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy): AI real-time analysis is contributing to increased input and efficiency in green energy.
  • SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth): While taking into account “legitimate concerns” about automation replacing jobs, Ibaraki said AI can increase productivity and be a significant driver of economic growth.
  • SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure): New hybrid manufacturing incorporating AI, IoT sensors, and 4D printing is reshaping industries and yielding exponential innovation.
  • SDG 10 (reduced inequalities): Human augmentation using AI-inspired devices enhances physical capabilities and corrects disabilities, contributing to a more equal and inclusive society.
  • SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities): AI of Everything, the digital AI mesh, fed by the IoT, smart devices, and wearables is already impacting smart cities and helping create sustainable communities.
  • SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production): AI is yielding optimal consumption and production levels with vertical green farms, eliminating waste and improving yields and resource efficiency.
  • SDG 13 (climate action): climate change data analysis and climate modeling infused with AI predicts climate-related problems and disasters.
  • SDG 14 (life below water): pattern recognition can track marine-life migration, population levels, and fishing activities to enhance sustainable marine ecosystems and combat illegal fishing.
  • SDG 15 (life on land): pattern recognition, game theory, and wide applications of computer science can track land-animal migration, population levels and hunting activities to enhance sustainable land ecosystems and combat illegal poaching.
  • SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions): thoughtful application of AI can reduce discrimination and corruption and drive broad access to e-government, personalized and responsive intelligent services. AI can significantly stay ahead of global cyberthreats in a manner not possible before, Ibaraki said.
  • SDG 17 (partnerships for goals): Ibaraki stressed that the UN should play a key role in bringing together governments, industry, academia and civil society to explore the responsible development of human-centric AI in solving humanity’s challenges.

Ibaraki added that he envisions a future of cooperation between four forms of life: classic (humans); augmented (humans augmented by technology wearables); synthetic (fully synthetic genomes); and artificial (robots).

Rita Kimani, Co-founder, FarmDrive, stressed the need to first understand the challenges faced by communities and then to develop technologies that provide solutions, without leaving anyone behind or widening existing digital and economic divides. She stressed, “we need to drive technology not technology to drive us.” Kimani further recommended finding a balance between letting challenges drive technology innovations and leaving room to innovate for foreseeable future challenges.

Jeffrey Schnapp, Founder metaLAB, Harvard University, noted that data represents our cultural heritage and institutional knowledge. He invited reflection on how society could craft forms of memory that are meaningful and beneficial for humanity. Schnapp cautioned that algorithm knowledge cannot remain invisible, in the hands of private holders, but needs to be available for public scrutiny, debate and decisions. Government should not be only reactive to changes but plant the seeds of desired future changes, Schnapp stressed.

Dickson Despommier, Columbia University, stressed the need to unite around common causes and find AI-fueled solutions. He highighted the potential of technology to address SDGs 1 and 2 through vertical farming, which he said will be essential with increasing urbanization and climate change trends.

In the ensuing discussion, Member States addressed issues related to, inter alia: ways in which advancements in robotics could be addressed in the context of massive youth unemployment and population growth; costs for developing countries when it comes to access these technologies; or ways in which society could prevent AI from acquiring the worst of human values. The representative of UN Global Pulse stressed that AI is a tool for automatizing innovation itself; thus, humans, as species, need to think how to approach it so that society is not left behind our own creation. [UN Press Release] [UN News Centre] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on AI]


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