Making artificial intelligence work better for consumers and societies

15 March 2024

A global regulatory framework centred on transparency, accountability, and inclusivity is key to unlocking the benefits of artificial intelligence for all.

A customer interacts with an artificial intelligence robot in a shopping mall.
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© Shutterstock/Zapp2Photo | A customer interacts with an artificial intelligence robot in a shopping mall.

  • The rise of artificial intelligence can mean both progress and peril to societies and humanity

  • Even with milestones like the Artificial Intelligence Act, recently approved by the European Parliament, global governance efforts for AI technology remain insufficient

  • The world must urgently come together, as the stakes are too high for inaction

The growing presence of artificial intelligence (AI) in consumers’ lives has put our societies at a crossroads, said UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan, marking World Consumer Rights Day on 15 March.

The secretary-general was addressing an event in Geneva on consumer experience and generative AI, gathering international organizations, businesses and consumer rights groups.

Advancing at breakneck speeds, data-driven AI holds vast promise for consumer welfare, through personalizing products and services, optimizing customer support, and addressing disputes online.

But at the same time, there are growing concerns over the fair, responsible and ethical use of AI, as efforts to govern the technology continue to play catch-up worldwide.

Currently, a handful of global tech giants control most of the data flows and revenues from digital services.

Such concentration further centralizes the direction and benefits of AI, posing a threat to fair competition, and aggravates already existing technology divides based on geography, gender, income, and race.  

“Rapid changes require rapid reactions,” the UNCTAD chief urged.

UNCTAD, the UN’s lead agency on consumer protection, is intensifying calls for more awareness raising and robust global regulatory frameworks – including a new generation of consumer protection policies – to ensure AI benefits all.

Red flags

Ms Grynspan spotlighted not only the upside of AI, but also the red flags if the technology goes unchecked.

Globally, billions of people risk being left behind in the AI revolution, with two thirds of the population in least developed countries offline and women still trailing men in internet access.

There’s also looming risks of abuse, given how deepfakes could massively mislead consumers, spread misinformation and destabilize societies.

Transparency, accountability, inclusivity

More broadly, UNCTAD contributes to ongoing efforts driven by the UN Secretary-General’s AI Advisory Body, tasked with analyzing and advancing recommendations on the ethical development and use of the transformative technology.

It advocates for a global framework to guide fair and responsible AI, underscoring the need for transparency, accountability, and inclusivity.

This entails making AI algorithms more transparent and data collection practices more responsible, as opposed to tech companies closing off their systems from public scrutiny.

On accountability, developers need to ensure that AI technologies positively impact societies on the whole.

Additionally, AI systems should be as diverse and inclusive as the world they’re designed to serve.

Public policies need to guide innovation and the design of AI to mitigate, instead of perpetuating, human biases rooted in longstanding socioeconomic inequalities.

They must also ensure that AI-powered goods and services reach vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Collective action is the way forward

Reining in AI for the common good requires joint efforts.

For consumers and policymakers, UNCTAD highlights more empowerment through AI literacy, in terms of understanding how AI systems learn, make decisions, and potentially influence users’ choices.

International cooperation will remain crucial to helping develop national strategies aligned with global principles, fostering an environment where responsible AI can flourish and consumer rights are protected.

UNCTAD also calls on tech companies to adopt ethical AI development practices, prioritizing consumer well-being and societal benefit over short-term profits.

“Just as previous generations tackled their technological revolutions, let us work tirelessly to ensure that the AI revolution benefits every human being,” Secretary-General Grynspan concluded, “Let this be our legacy.”