Picture: Supplied – United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres. Setting up the UN’s AI council is timely, as AI and Generative AI (Chat GPT etc) are penetrating all sectors, disrupting sectors with potentially negative impact on public goods such as education, healthcare, and the 4th estate – news media.
By Ashraf Patel
Artificial Intelligence AI has, alongside climate change and peace emerged as one of the core global grand challenges of 2024. In a space of just one week the UN Secretary General, the IMF Director, and the Holy See Pope Francis have weighed in on the grand challenges – and dangers of AI in society.
Speaking at the WEF in mid-January, United Nations (UN) secretary-general, António Guterres, has warned of the “existential threats” posed by the reckless use of artificial intelligence (AI) by tech companies in pursuit of profits.
He went on further to decry the current big data profiteering model:
“Powerful tech companies are already pursuing profits with a reckless disregard for human rights, personal privacy, and social impact. Meanwhile, every new iteration of generative AI increases the risk of serious unintended consequences. This technology has enormous potential for sustainable development, but the International Monetary Fund has just warned that it is very likely to worsen inequality.” – Guterres, January 2024, Davos, WEF
A day later, IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, also made a public statement on the dangers of AI, its job impacts and rising inequalities. Citing IMFs recent study on AI and its impact
The findings are striking: almost 40 percent of global employment is exposed to AI. Historically, automation and information technology have tended to affect routine tasks, but one of the things that sets AI apart is its ability to impact high-skilled jobs. As a result, advanced economies face greater risks from A I— but also more opportunities to leverage its benefits — compared with emerging market and developing economies.
It is generally unusual for IMF directors to stray beyond monetary policy, but this statement underscores the current glaring inequalities that AI and the 4IR are having on the social agenda – and the current transitions leading to large scale unemployment in the short term.
When Klause Schwab of the WEF introduced the concept of the 4th Industrial Revolution, 4IR, it was filled with promise of new cyber-industrial age with distributed benefits. However, the profit maximisation model and intensification of automation in manufacturing and AI, algorithm bias and Big Data’s ad tech model has opened up a Pandora’s box.
The dark underbelly includes disinformation, digital sweetshops, and social media’s impact on emotional health and political extremism. The meteoric the rise of Chat GPT and Open AI and Generative AI in 2023, has created unprecedented disruptions in most industries,
Hence a new AI model of policy and regulation is urgently needed.
Setting up the UNs AI council is thus timely, as AI and Generative AI (Chat GPT etc) are penetrating all sectors, disrupting sectors with potentially negative impact on public goods such as education, healthcare, and the 4th estate – news media.
Another goal with AI’ is also concerned with global safety – with an approach that’s sometimes called ‘responsible innovation’ which aims to maximise the gains and minimise the risks that can (and can’t yet) be foreseen. That goal can be found in the UN Secretary-General’s approach to digital co-operation (and the new advisory board that he’s set up to consider what it means) as well as other initiatives concerned with AI ethics. (APC, November 2023)
According to the Association for Progressive Communications:
The race to be first – between big tech corporations and the countries where they’re based (particularly the US and China) – is well and truly under way, and the prize of winning is considered crucial to future commercial success and national economic power. Tech firms are used to innovating first and dealing with the consequences later (‘permissionless innovation’) rather than the culture of precaution, which has been familiar in other innovative sectors such as genetics, nuclear energy and pharmaceuticals, or with some environmental impacts.” – APC, November 2023
The key AI Grand social challenges that require social and inclusive agenda:
4IR and the World of Work and Job Disruptions-losses
Leading MIT economists, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the fourth industrial revolution “could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labour markets”. As automation substitutes for labour across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labour. As automation substitutes for labour across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labour. The ILOs Global Commission on the Future of Work has produced detailed assessment on the impact of technology on the new world of work, with recommendations on a new social compact and workplace inclusion, skills development etc.
The WEF’s post-Covid Report the Great Reset 2021 report further points to a dystopian reality awaiting workers everywhere and especially for Africa.
“In emerging and developing countries (particularly those with a ‘youth bulge’), technology runs the risk of transforming the ‘demographic dividend’ into a ‘demographic nightmare’ because automation will make it much harder to get on the escalator of economic growth,” – Schwab and Malleret, 2020, WEF
Key global institutions ranging from the WEF to G20 to BRICS and the ILO are now calling for a social market approach – with social protections.
Disinformation an extremism: Meta-Facebook, X
One of the most visible and concerning spaces is the daily divisive discourse of the public sphere as encapsulated by social media. The rise of disinformation and extremism is an existential crisis and danger, and Meta-Facebook facing regulatory and congressional scrutiny on the role of AI and algorithms in influencing extremist agendas – the Pandora box has been opened with no letting up. The case of Myanmar and other milestone cases that enabled community hate leading to acts of genocide. Politics is in fact national and ‘lives in the local’, thereby exacerbating dangers within communities. One only needs to recall the role that radio played in promoting ‘’hatred of the other in the Rwandan Genocide.
The Gig Economy and the new precariat: In recent years – Uberisation have come to describe the conditions of the new precariat – Gig and Uber workers the world over have face daily dangers and squeeze at the margins in the App economy. In recent years, Berlin, City of London etc have formally classified Uber drivers as core workers, with social wages and health benefits. But Digital sweatshops are rife in the Global South.
They social rating workers in Philippines, the multitudes of research and education Gig workers in Kenya and India that services the Higher education market in the North point to knowledge and data extraction. Even in the US, the 2023 Amazon workers struggles for workplace recognition, and the Hollywood writers’ strike has been unprecedent.
One of the contentious issues is how AI and Chat GPT appropriates creative labour and squeezes them out of the value chain. As shareholders and large media houses extract ever more value from Copyright and IP, it is the “real workers who create real wealth” that are at the margins of the value chain. News media faces downsizing and closure as the ad-tech model eats up their revenues, thus eroding the vital 4th estate. The list goes on.
Digital Divide in the Global South: Finally, although much progress has been made in update of the internet -primarily via mobile networks, and smartphones, the Global South faces many uneven challenges. At least 2 billion persons in the Developing South do not have access to affordable and quality communications.
The ITUs 2023 Digital Divide unpacks statistics and explains that the volume of Internet traffic across fixed-broadband networks, which remain common in office and home settings, far exceeds that of mobile-broadband networks. However, the dominance of fixed networks underscores the global connectivity disparity between high- and low-income countries, with only one fixed-broadband subscription per 100 people in low-income countries due to high prices and a lack of infrastructure, and high-cost structures:
“The further and faster technology advances, the more urgent our mission to connect everyone becomes,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, ITU Secretary-General. “Fulfilling the promise of universal and meaningful connectivity is one of the most important causes of our time in our effort to realise the sustainable future we want and need.” 9 ITU, Nov 2023),
It is for these- and many other socio-economic reasons that a new Social Compact on AI for Society is required. The UN Secretary Generals AI Council and UNESCOs Tech Platform frameworks are important foundational frameworks- and only starting points that need public attention and education in line with UNs founding values; and that require critical conversations and public policy debate.
Other global formation such as the G20 has a role to play, particularly on the need for Multinationals and Big Tech to pay the base 15% global tax rate. The new BRICS nations Partnership on 4IR (P4IR) also offers an inclusive model on digital industrialisation. The African Unions AU Digital Transformation 2030 report is rooted in meeting an inclusive digital society with goals for ICT infrastructure, access, services and affordability, but needs to be upgraded to include AI and digital content for development, as well as deal with range of privacy issues.
More importantly, national governments, parliaments, and city-states need to be proactive- working in concert with stakeholders – unions, educators, academics, civil society and entrepreneurs to craft relevant and contextual AI policy frameworks in order to avoid the current Orwellian and dystopian model where the collective wealth of the top 5 Tech billionaires exceeds $ 500 Billion in the context of massive layoffs.
More equitable, and inclusive development pathways – in line with the original UN Charter and the current UN SDGs goals has become an existential priority. Time is running out.
Ashraf Patel is Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), an independent foreign policy think tank based in Tshwane, South Africa.