An AI future worthy of humanity

Ethicist Peter G. Kirchschlaeger highlights how artificial intelligence can be regulated worldwide – and is pleased to have the support of leading international figures.
Peter G. Kirchschlaeger advises creating an agency for data-​based systems at the UN. (Photograph: Adobe Stock)

Artificial intelligence would be more accurately described as data-​based systems (DS) because their performance is due to their ability to analyse vast amounts of data, and some areas of intelligence are beyond the reach of DS: social and emotional intelligence remain inaccessible to them because they are unable to experience real feelings. Moreover, they lack the freedom required to possess moral capability.

DS present humanity with enormous opportunities as well as risks. In the form of assistance systems, for example, DS can help people with disabilities lead a more autonomous life. But such assistance systems and search engines can also violate our privacy and data protection. They can even subvert people’s self-​determination: since they can draw on such vast amounts of data about us, DS can manipulate us. Figuratively speaking, this means they know precisely which piano keys to press to produce the desired tune – in other words, to make us buy the things or vote the way they want us to. Along with fake news and disinformation, this kind of political manipulation poses a massive threat to democracy.

«Human rights are focusing on the essentials and encourage innovation.»      Peter G. Kirchschlaeger

To make long-​term use of the ethical opportunities of DS – and to be able to overcome or avoid the ethical risks – DS must be subject to international regulation. The EU’s proposed AI Act1 is a step in the right direction because it puts people and their rights ahead of the business interests of a few multinational tech companies and limits the scope for governmental misuse. This legislation could be improved by adding protections for refugees and by simplifying the options for lodging complaints in cases where DS have caused damage to people.

Based on human rights

Due to the vastness of the opportunities and risks associated with DS, and since this is a global issue, the approach taken must also be global. When considering all the relevant ethical factors and decisions involved in designing and using DS, it is worth using human rights as a guide. Human rights offer the major benefit of being based on a simple concept and focusing on the essentials: they define the minimum standards that guarantee people can lead a life worth living. They also encourage innovation by protecting people’s freedom to think, express their opinion and access information, and promote pluralism by respecting each person’s right to self-​determination.

Two years ago, I proposed that DS should always be developed and operated according to human rights, and that the UN ought to establish an International Data-​Based Systems Agency (IDA) – similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).2 An IDA would serve as a platform for technical collaboration in the field of DS to promote the human rights, security and non-​oppressive use aspects of DS, and as a global supervisory and approvals agency.

Embraced by The Elders

The Elders – an independent group of world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela that includes former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-​moon and Ireland’s first female President Mary Robinson – recently took up my concrete recommendations for human-​rights-based DS and a global agency to monitor them, and called upon the UN to take appropriate action.3 Current UN Secretary General António Guterres has also referenced human-​rights-based DS and a coordinated global response towards an institutional solution in his most recent policy brief.4 This gives me both pleasure and confidence.

What makes the establishment of an IDA realistic is that in the past, humanity has shown that when the well-being of people and the planet is at stake, it can focus on what is technically feasible rather than blindly pursuing all that is technically possible.

Humanity did pursue nuclear technology, develop the atomic bomb and even deploy it more than once. But to prevent yet worse events, we then massively restricted the research and development of nuclear technology despite overwhelming opposition. That nothing worse has happened is largely due to international guidelines, concrete enforcement mechanisms and the IAEA – a UN agency.