Global governance framework needed to bridge AI divide

UN's trade and development chief Rebeca Grynspan warned that a widening digital divide may breed new forms of marginalization fueled by algorithmic bias, lack of digital literacy and dwindling state capacities.

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A teacher instructs as a student uses a computer in a programming class at a primary school in Yuhu District of Xiangtan City, central China's Hunan Province, April 11, 2024. (Xinhua/Chen Zeguo)

Three decades ago, during the nascent stages of the Internet, mobile phone addiction was unheard of, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) remained a concept confined to the realm of science fiction. To say that the times have changed rapidly is perhaps the greatest understatement of a lifetime.

As anticipated, AI took center stage this week at the annual UN session on science and technology in Geneva. Attended by scholars, industry leaders, and heads of UN agencies, the event at the Palais des Nations featured a plethora of panel discussions with attendees delving into strategies for harnessing the potential of AI while also addressing its inherent risks.

Experts agreed that AI-powered tools are capable of spectacular feats. With such frontier technologies, the world is embracing an era brimming with technological advancements and innovations that promise to push the boundaries of what is possible.

However, the risks are real, too, ranging from cybercrime to the danger of disinformation and hate speech. The biggest one, as UN’s trade and development chief Rebeca Grynspan put it, is the risk of leaving billions of people in the developing world behind, with cutting-edge AI technologies ending up in the hands of a few.

She warned that a widening digital divide may breed new forms of marginalization fueled by algorithmic bias, lack of digital literacy and dwindling state capacities.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Governments worldwide are moving to establish a robust regulatory framework around AI. Such momentum is good, but not enough. As noted by Maxime Stauffer, co-founder and CEO of Simon Institute for Longterm Governance, there is arguably a gap at the international level.

A global governance framework is needed for this rapidly developing suite of technologies and its use by various actors. To ensure that AI guardrails translate into tangible progress, all stakeholders, from industry leaders and policymakers to academia, should actively engage in the critical norms-setting process.

More investment is needed to fill data gaps and improve quality. Data is the “essential oil” behind most frontier technologies, including AI, an economic resource crucial in the future for all decision-making. In particular, accurate and timely data enables researchers to understand complex issues, identify trends, measure progress toward development goals, and design more effective and targeted interventions.

However, developing countries often face challenges in data collection due to limited resources, infrastructure and capacity, according to a delegate from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s tech agency.

Digital literacy should not be ignored, either. ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin disclosed that an estimated 2.6 billion people had no Internet access in 2023. Countless others are on the “wrong side” of the digital divide, struggling with slow Internet speeds, inadequate skills, affordability issues and other challenges.

These disparities underscore the urgent need for comprehensive efforts to bridge the digital divide. Access to the Internet is not just a matter of convenience; it’s increasingly becoming a fundamental requirement for participation in modern society, education, and economic opportunities.

Governments, international organizations, and private sector entities must collaborate to expand Internet infrastructure, improve affordability, and provide training programs to enhance digital skills. Initiatives aimed at fostering digital literacy and empowering marginalized communities are crucial steps towards creating a more inclusive and equitable digital world.

Humanity is navigating uncharted waters as AI and other frontier technologies have been seamlessly woven into the fabric of daily lives. Harnessing their power for good instead of evil requires guardrails and preparedness. And that’s never an understatement.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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