How AI Will Shape the UN’s Policies and Activities

Ahead of the UN Summit of the Future, the organization must embrace AI while maintaining its core values

Jovan Kurbalija, Founding director of the DiploFoundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform

July 10, 2024

4 Min Read
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When world leaders meet for the United Nations (U.N.) Summit of the Future in New York this September, they will discuss AI as a technology that will shape our future. But how can the U.N. change to ensure an AI transformation while maintaining its core values?

The U.N. is not immune to the revolution in AI technology currently exploding worldwide. Like all large organizations, the global body will not only need to find ways to work with AI but also harness its potential, lest it is left behind. But AI’s built-in and well-documented struggles with impartiality pose particular concerns, for the U.N. especially.

It’s a challenge the U.N. cannot ignore, as member states will increase pressure on the organization’s secretariat to use more AI to costs amid budgetary pressures and ongoing financial crises, among other applications. As a result, there will likely be a parallel push to automate a wide range of U.N. activities, from interpretation and translation to reporting and drafting texts.

If history is to be a guide, the U.N. will react by obtaining off-the-shelf proprietary AI solutions that, typically, have built-in biases, low transparency and limited explainability. Doing so will inevitably bring problems around the impartiality, transparency and fairness of these solutions. To successfully confront the unique modal challenges intrinsic to AI systems, the U.N. needs to adopt a different approach.

Related:China Promotes Global AI Cooperation With New Shanghai Declaration

This starts with acknowledging that this technology requires the U.N. to change tack in terms of its previous significant forays into digital innovation. From data migration to the cloud in the 2010s to online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic in the early 2020s, digital technology at the U.N. has been a largely passive tool for U.N. negotiations, analysis and reporting. 

However, AI will be an active participant in shaping the U.N.’s policies and activities. 

So far, the U.N. seems to have failed to navigate the transition and the organization is struggling to reconcile AI’s top-down characteristics with ensuring the objectiveness of its policy process is grounded in evidence and is sensitive to diverse perspectives. 

Impartiality, a core driver of the U.N.’s ‘operating culture’, is rarely a binary dynamic of right and wrong. It is a more nuanced analysis of trade-offs requiring a good grasp of history and policy context. Incorporating factors such as this poses major obstacles for AI at the U.N.

Solutions for the U.N.’s AI pivot lie in devolving core aspects of AI’s management within the U.N.’s existing structures to allow for the kind of transparent, inclusive and accessible outcomes/trajectories the global organization requires. 

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This means founding its AI development on an open-source, transparent and inclusive AI platform, to inculcate a culture of ethics, technical possibility and financial affordability throughout.

This model would be in keeping with the U.N.’s aims, overcoming the dilemma it faces in the crush between digital technology and analog humanity. 

Practically speaking, the approach should allow partners and stakeholders worldwide to contribute their models and modules. The open-source approach would then be applied to address impartiality through traceability and explainability of AI-generated texts and analysis in a way that contextualizes and adapts to different circumstances as required.

Security will be enhanced as many eyes will scrutinize the AI code and algorithms and report bugs and risks as the open-source community has been doing for decades.

Beyond technology, openness would contribute to a better understanding of AI as useful technology beyond the prevailing simplistic contrast between naive optimism and doomsday projections, forwarding the U.N.’s goals of international cooperation and ongoing dialog.  

Finally, this approach faces head-on the U.N.’s problematic ‘diplomatic asymmetry’ by helping small and developing countries to participate in multilateral negotiations in more equalized, informed and impactful ways. 

An open-source AI approach would allow the U.N. to “walk the talk” by showing that knowledge, as the common heritage of humankind, could become a practically usable public good for U.N. countries and communities worldwide.

Such a path forward requires courage, collaboration and a commitment to the U.N.'s founding principles. By doing so, the organization would harness the potential to enhance its role as a custodian of global peace, development and human rights. 

In embracing this challenge, the U.N. can transform a potential crisis into a beacon of hope, leveraging AI to foster a more inclusive, impartial and effective international governance system.

About the Author(s)

Jovan Kurbalija

Founding director of the DiploFoundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform, DiploFoundation

Jovan Kurbalija is the founding director of the DiploFoundation and head of the Geneva Internet Platform. He previously served as executive director of the U.N. High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (2018-2019). Kurbalija has been a leading expert on the impact of AI and digitalization on diplomacy and modern society. His book ‘Introduction to Internet Governance’, translated into 11 languages, is a textbook at many universities worldwide.

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