unctad.org | Technology, AI could help make global goals a reality
Technology, AI could help make global goals a reality
14 May 2019
United Nations
New technologies offer unprecedented opportunities to boost development, but they also present issues that require inclusive dialogue.


Frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) can, if properly harnessed, help solve the world’s most intractable problems, said speakers at the opening session of the United Nations’ top forum on science and technology for development on 13 May.

The twenty-second annual session of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) started with experts discussing the pace, challenges and promises offered by rapid technological change.

 “We need to ensure science, technology and innovation (STIs) contribute to sustainable and inclusive development,” said UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant, while opening the event held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ms. Durant said the CSTD could be a catalyst for closer collaboration to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to address development challenges.

The role of technologies in fostering sustainable development was undeniable, but they also presented issues whose solutions required inclusive dialogue, Ms. Durant noted.

For instance, rapid technological change could exacerbate inequalities within and between countries, slowing down progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“We need a global dialogue on harnessing technology while at the same time protecting our social and economic well-being,” Ms. Durant said.

Conversation with great minds

Three distinguished scientists shared their perspectives in a session entitled “A Conversation with Great Minds”, livestreamed on Facebook.

AI, which involves using technology to solve problems that used to require human intelligence, will shape our future in ways not seen before, said Jürgen Schmidhuber, one of the “great minds”.

“We will see the rise of machines that don’t slavishly imitate,” said Mr. Schmidhuber, director and professor at the Swiss AI Lab IDSIA and co-founder and chief scientist at the AI research company NNAISENCE.

Instead, the machines would ‘learn’ from examples and generate solutions, which would have a huge impact on many aspects of our lives, Mr. Schmidhuber said.

He said through “active AI” machines could learn just about anything, like babies do, and develop their own solutions to many problems.

Though currently expensive, AI would gradually become more affordable people, said Mr. Schmidhuber, citing the example of mobile phones, which had become cheaper over time.

“In the long run, AI will be very cheap and democratic. We are going to see the ideas and techniques that make robots smart spreading. Everyone will benefit,” Mr. Schmidhuber said.

However, in the transition period, there would be winners and losers, he warned, necessitating measures to soften the blows of rapid technological change.

The other “great mind”, Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, said when the internet was created 30 years ago, greater focus was laid on its positive impact – the democratization of knowledge.

“Little did we know it would be used to launch attacks on our democracy,” said Ms. Hall, who co-founded the Web Science Trust with Sir Tim Berners Lee and others. “We have to work on how to fix the negative impacts of our technologies.”

Ms. Hall said lessons could be learned from mistakes made in the past to minimize the potential negative impacts of frontier technologies.

“This is a live experiment we have done over the last 30 years,” said Ms. Hall, who helped develop the United Kingdom’s AI strategy review.

She said discussions taking place at the Commission could help guide the development of policies to ensure such technologies are safely deployed.

“We have to look at the ethics of what we are developing. We have to lay the groundwork now,” Ms. Hall said.

For instance, she said people creating AI software needed to be diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, culture, race, religion, age and accessibility. “If AI isn’t diverse, it is not ethical,” underlined Ms. Hall.

Equally important was developing skills in developing countries to spread the benefits of AI and other frontier technologies, Ms. Hall said.

Ms. Hall also noted the importance of maintaining a human presence in the design and deployment of frontier technologies.

“Imagine when machines go wrong, for example, in an old age home. Who fixes them?” posed Ms. Hall. “Or when we put something in our home and the company that build it goes out of business?”

New technologies also presented the means to face the climate challenge and reduce the ever-rising emissions of carbon dioxide, said Carlo Rubbia, the third “great mind.”

“Elimination of carbon dioxide emissions is of importance to the future of mankind,” said Mr. Rubbia, a former director-general of CERN, the European organization for nuclear research, and joint Nobel prize winner in physics for his contributions to particle physics, which led to the discovery of the field particles W and Z.

Renewable energy was one the most effective tools in the fight against climate change, as it could help in reducing emissions from fossil fuels, Mr. Rubbia said.

Mr. Rubbia noted that science had been become international, with countries such as China creating technological solutions in areas previously dominated by Europe and the United States.

The “great minds” discussion was moderated by award-winning journalist Didi Akinyuelure. 

In a video message to the attendees, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) President Inga Rhonda King said STIs were cross-cutting and pertinent to all SDGs.

The Commission is taking place from 13 to 17 May. It is a subsidiary body of the ECOSOC and provides the General Assembly and ECOSOC with high-level advice on relevant science and technology issues. 

UNCTAD is responsible for the substantive servicing of the Commission.


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