Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Remarks by the UN Deputy Secretary-General at the Opening of the ECOSOC Special Meeting

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

I thank Ambassador Narváez, President of the Economic and Social Council, for inviting me to part of this important event.

Our world is grappling with complex challenges — from conflict and climate change to chronic poverty and rising inequalities.

We all know that the 2030 Agenda towards a more equitable, resilient and sustainable future is woefully off track.

Today’s topic on how to harness Artificial Intelligence for SDGs cannot be timelier. Applied safely, it can accelerate progress towards the SDGs, enhance decision-making, and drive innovation. It can and it must.

This is not a future dream but today’s reality.

AI is already optimizing energy use, improving medical diagnostics, monitoring biodiversity, expanding educational opportunities – and so much more.

Many of you are seeing the benefits of AI across all sectors in your countries.

Yet these technologies also pose grave risks. They can displace jobs, exploit gaps in global governance, and exacerbate bias, discrimination, and misinformation. And they can do so on a monumental scale.

Excellencies,

Our task is to harness this powerful technology to accelerate sustainable development, while mitigating its harms.

This means accountability for those who create AI systems and for those that use them. The power, speed, and impact of AI is truly global, and accountability must be part of the package.

To do this, we must ensure that AI is effectively governed, that it is equitable, accessible, and ethical.

First, on equity. It is essential that we have an equitable access to AI tools, applications and infrastructure – including quality data and computational resources.

Equity also requires capacity development and technology transfer. We cannot allow all the benefits and opportunities of AI to be concentrated in the hands of those who are already way ahead.

We cannot allow the digital divide to widen.  

Second, it is essential that AI is accessible.

That means that skills are developed through education and lifelong learning – particularly for vulnerable groups to ensure that they are not pushed further behind.

It means individuals and societies using this technology to advance employability and seize the opportunities of new jobs that will be created by AI rather than passively allowing AI to replace jobs.

And it means adopting collaborative approaches that align responsible development with solutions that would respect diversity of cultures, while promoting locally generated data. The “Data commons” is one example.

To help us get there, Governments must invest in digital infrastructure, support new business opportunities, and leverage the data that they have for economic use in their countries. This should go hand in hand with training for government officials and re-skilling programs for the broader work force.

Third, it is imperative that AI is ethical and transparent. We cannot simply take current AI models and data sets, which have bias and discrimination baked into them, and hope that they will rescue the SDGs.

We need inclusivity in data that underpins these models, and diversity among the people that are building them.

Fourth, we need effective governance. This requires a shared sense of responsibility.

I welcome the urgency and ambition of the zero draft of the Global Digital Compact. What we need for this Compact is more ambition, not less, and we need Member States to adopt a global perspective, beyond narrow national interests.

I am encouraged by the potential of the high-level AI Advisory Body and the Global Digital Compact, as well as by the AI safety initiatives that are been developed at regional, national, and community levels by our agencies.

The Global Digital Compact must accelerate the application of ethical and diverse AI tools to solve the challenges facing the SDGs.

I urge Member States to be ambitious in these negotiations. And to engage fully and actively in global conversations on AI governance, while advancing a common understanding.

It will take a concerted and coordinated approach from governments, businesses, civil society, international institutions to develop responsible, ethical and inclusive AI governance.

We must ensure that standards are common, that regulation is harmonized, and that human rights are at the core.

As we look to September’s Summit of the Future here in New York, we must recognize that an open, safe, and secure digital future can only be achieved through international cooperation.

What we are seeing with AI is only the beginning of more technological advancements.

Developments in quantum computing, biotechnology, synthetic biology and advanced robotics will continue to transform our societies in a significant way.

We need a global conversation on the best way to leverage these technologies to advance sustainable development for all.  

Let us get the SDGs back on track and close the digital divide by safely harnessing technology opportunities for those who need them most.

I urge Member States to make the most of this opportunity and make that vision a reality in people’s lives.

Together, let’s build a world where AI and other technologies will serve the entire humanity and leave no one behind.

Thank you.

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