The United Nation’s flagship event dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI), “AI for Good,” is back in 2023 after a gap of four years since its last convention in 2019. This year, the summit brings together AI industry experts, government representatives, and academia in Geneva to discuss the future of this technology and the governance structures needed to steer its development in a responsible manner. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s agency organizing the event, expects around 3,000 participants, including government and UN officials, private sector executives, and academics.
From Innovation to Governance
The focus of the summit has shifted from the previous years, given the rapid advancements in AI technology, particularly the rise of generative AI systems, such as ChatGPT. These AI models can create text, images, and even computer code in response to user prompts, sparking both excitement and concern among stakeholders worldwide. As ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin puts it, “It’s a real opportunity for the world’s leading voices on AI to come together on the global stage and to address governance issues since the rise of generative AI.”
However, ITU Chief Doreen Bogdan-Martin also painted a darker possibility, where unchecked AI advances could lead to “social unrest, geopolitical instability, and economic disparity on a scale we’ve never seen before.” Hence, an essential part of the summit’s discussions is the “guardrails needed for safe and responsible AI and the potential development of global AI governance frameworks.”
AI for Good: A Global Platform
Since its inception in 2017, the “AI for Good” summit has transitioned from an annual event to an all-year online platform that has, so far, hosted approximately 500 webinars featuring AI experts. The event has become the UN’s top conference dedicated to AI and strives to promote the use of AI for societal benefits, focusing on how AI can be used to advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of 17 targets for 2030 that include ending poverty and hunger.
However, the summit isn’t without its critics. Angela Müller, head of the NGO AlgorithmWatch CH, points out that the “‘AI for Good’ narrative often disregards the fact that the development and use of AI systems can have a huge impact on humans and society, reinforce existing inequalities and consume enormous resources.”
Robots Among Us
The summit also features various AI manifestations, including humanoid robots and AI-generated artists. Attendees have the opportunity to interact with robots that can track movement, respond to queries, and display human-like expressions. A standout is the Jam Galaxy Band’s Desi, a humanoid robot that sings AI-generated lyrics, and Nadine, a humanoid social robot that can answer questions on the spot.
Though the level of sophistication achieved by these robots is undoubtedly impressive, Thalmann, a pioneer in AI robotics and the creator of Nadine, believes it will still take years to develop robots that are self-aware and understand the context of their speech.
Though the AI for Good summit does not expect to reach a formal agreement on AI governance, it hopes to converge ideas on addressing the challenges AI presents and to generate concrete recommendations on AI governance mechanisms. The summit serves as a platform for the exchange of ideas and collaboration, and its discussions have previously led to the creation of focus groups working on new standards. A notable example is a group launched in partnership with the World Health Organization that evaluates diagnoses and treatment decisions made by AI.
The Role of Governance in AI
The need for global AI governance frameworks is more apparent than ever before. As ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin stated, the rapid development of generative AI, capable of creating novel content like text, images, and even computer code, has created new challenges that need to be addressed. While Bogdan-Martin does not anticipate the adoption of a formal declaration or negotiated statement on AI governance at the summit, the event is an important step towards the convergence of perspectives on managing AI’s challenges.
Several focus groups, born out of conversations at the summit over the years, have been working on creating new standards for the use of AI. These groups have even extended to partnerships with important international bodies, such as the World Health Organization, demonstrating the significance of AI across various sectors.
The Pioneers of AI
The AI for Good Global Summit presents an opportunity for attendees to witness firsthand the possibilities of AI technologies. One example is the Jam Galaxy Band’s Desi, a humanoid robot capable of generating and singing lyrics, showcasing how AI can be used creatively and unexpectedly.
Then there is Nadine, a humanoid social robot designed to interact with people. Developed by University of Geneva professor and AI pioneer Nadia Thalmann, Nadine can answer questions on the spot, a skill indicative of AI’s potential to revolutionize customer service, education, and healthcare. However, Thalmann believes we are still years away from robots achieving self-awareness and understanding the context of what they say.
Looking ahead, the discourse at the summit will likely continue to influence the global AI governance landscape. In addition to serving as a catalyst for new focus groups and partnerships, the insights shared at the summit will continue to shape our understanding of AI’s opportunities and challenges, guiding us as we strive to harness the power of AI for the good of society.