on April 15th, 2024

As we head inexorably towards an automated future and the almost infinite possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI). the United Nations says it is imperative that we identify the ethical implications of this emerging technology and address the unprecedented legal and social challenges that arise. 

Certain advancements in the ever-evolving landscape of technological innovation prompt deep reflection on humanity’s essence. The rise of AI demands such introspection. While the concept of AI has long captivated our imagination, its integration into our daily lives now confronts us with profound questions. 

Recent strides in AI technology, particularly in machine and deep learning, demonstrate its ability to outperform humans in various cognitive tasks. This potential for efficiency and effectiveness holds promise for humanity’s advancement but also threatens to disrupt existing socio-economic and political structures. 

Amidst considerations of AI’s implications, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has issued a call to action, urging proactive measures to address AI’s ethical dimensions before it’s too late. 

The United Nations: Working For Not Against Humanity 

United Nations Gabriela Ramos speaks on AI
Gabriela Ramos at the 2nd Global Forum

In her address to international stakeholders at the 2nd Global Forum on the Ethics of AI: Changing the Landscape of AI Governance, Gabriela Ramos, the UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, highlighted how the ethical compass is more relevant in no other field than artificial intelligence. 

“These general-purpose technologies are reshaping how we work, interact, and live. The world is set to change at a pace not seen since the deployment of the printing press six centuries ago. AI technology brings major benefits in many areas, but without the ethical guardrails, it risks reproducing real-world biases and discrimination, fueling divisions and threatening fundamental human rights and freedoms,” said Ramos. 

For example, in healthcare, AI diagnostic tools offer faster diagnoses, but without ethical oversight, they may reinforce biases. For instance, if training data lacks diversity, diagnoses may be less accurate for certain groups, widening healthcare disparities. Ethical AI development is crucial for equitable healthcare access. 

The rapid rise in AI has created many opportunities globally, from facilitating healthcare diagnoses to enabling human connections through social media and creating labor efficiencies through automated tasks. However, these rapid changes also raise profound ethical concerns. These arise from the potential AI systems embed biases, contribute to climate degradation, threaten human rights, and more. Such risks associated with AI have already begun to compound on top of existing inequalities, resulting in further harm to already marginalized groups. 

AI has optimized hiring processes, but it can also perpetuate biases. For example, if AI learns from biased hiring data, it may unfairly disadvantage certain groups, worsening existing inequalities in job opportunities. Ethical oversight is crucial for fair hiring practices.

With its unique mandate, UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector has led the international effort to ensure that science and technology develop with strong ethical guardrails for decades. Be it on engineering, genetic research or climate change, they have delivered global standards to maximize the benefits of scientific discoveries, while minimizing the risks, and ensuring they contribute to a more inclusive, sustainable, and progressive world. 

United Nations: AI’s Impact on Engineering: 

The engineering field experiences the transformative influence of AI, revolutionizing traditional practices and unlocking new possibilities: 

Enhancing Robotics and Automation 

AI-driven robotics optimize manufacturing processes, boosting precision and productivity while paving the way for advanced production systems. 

Augmenting Engineering Expertise 

AI empowers engineers with powerful analytical tools, facilitating complex problem-solving and innovation through data-driven insights. 

Optimizing Energy Efficiency 

AI algorithms analyze energy usage patterns, identifying opportunities for optimization in engineering systems, particularly in building management, for enhanced sustainability. 

Automating Engineering Tasks 

AI streamlines maintenance and operation tasks by identifying issues and providing recommendations, freeing engineers to focus on strategic endeavors. 

However, alongside these benefits, AI poses ethical dilemmas that demand thoughtful consideration. 

Ethical Considerations 

UNESCO noted that there is currently no consensus about whether ethics and morality can be taught even to humans, based only on rational thinking, let alone to AI. Even if AI was eventually programmed to be ethical, whose ethics would we use? Would they only be the ethics of the developers? 

“Given that the private sector primarily drives the development of AI, it is imperative to consider the possibility that the ethics of the private sector could be inconsistent with the ethics of society,” said Ramos. 

She stressed that if we are to ensure that AI works for us, instead of against us, we must engage in a comprehensive dialogue that includes the different ethical perspectives of everybody affected by it. “We must make sure that the ethical framework we use to develop AI also takes into account the larger questions of social responsibility to counterbalance the potential disruptions to human society.” 

Engineers play a pivotal role in steering this narrative. As AI becomes more prevalent, engineers must ensure that AI systems are designed and used responsibly. This includes addressing issues such as bias in AI algorithms, ensuring transparency and accountability, and considering the potential social and economic impacts of AI implementation. 

References 

Act now on AI before it’s too late, says UNESCO’s AI lead 

Global AI governance is currently like the Tokyo Shibuya crossing – scrambled 

The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on the Engineering Profession 

Ethics of Artificial Intelligence 

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