UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Calls for Moratorium on Use of Artificial Intelligence

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Ms Michelle Bachelet
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, has issued an urgent call for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence (AI) systems that pose a serious risk to human rights until adequate safeguards are put in place and the banning of AI applications that cannot be used in compliance with international human rights law.

The UN Human Rights Office, as part of its work on technology and human rights, published a report that analyses how AI – including profiling, automated decision-making and other machine-learning technologies – affects people’s right to privacy and other rights, including the rights to health, education, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of expression.

Expatiating on her call, on September 15, 2021, Michelle said: “Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights.”

The report looks at how States and businesses alike have often rushed to incorporate AI applications, failing to carry out due diligence with the resultant numerous cases of people being treated unjustly because of AI, such as being denied social security benefits because of faulty AI tools or being arrested because of flawed facial recognition.

Speaking further, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states. AI systems are used to determine who gets public services, decide who has a chance to be recruited for a job, and of course they affect what information people see and can share online.”

The report details how AI systems rely on large data sets, with information about individuals collected, shared, merged and analysed in multiple and often opaque ways. It points out that data used to inform and guide AI systems can be faulty, discriminatory, out of date or irrelevant, adding that long-term storage of data also poses particular risks, as data could be exploited in the future in yet unknown ways.

“Given the rapid and continuous growth of AI, filling the immense accountability gap in how data is collected, stored, shared and used is one of the most urgent human rights questions we face,” Michelle said.

The report points out that the inferences, predictions and monitoring performed by AI tools, including seeking insights into patterns of human behaviour, also raise serious questions. The biased datasets relied on by AI systems can lead to discriminatory decisions, and these risks are most acute for already marginalized groups.

Michelle warned that “The risk of discrimination linked to AI-driven decisions – decisions that can change, define or damage human lives – is all too real,” adding “This is why there needs to be systematic assessment and monitoring of the effects of AI systems to identify and mitigate human rights risks.”

The report says there also needs to be much greater transparency by companies and States in how they are developing and using AI.

“The complexity of the data environment, algorithms and models underlying the development and operation of AI systems, as well as intentional secrecy of government and private actors are factors undermining meaningful ways for the public to understand the effects of AI systems on human rights and society,” the report says.

Michelle stressed that: “We cannot afford to continue playing catch-up regarding AI – allowing its use with limited or no boundaries or oversight, and dealing with the almost inevitable human rights consequences after the fact. The power of AI to serve people is undeniable, but so is AI’s ability to feed human rights violations at an enormous scale with virtually no visibility. Action is needed now to put human rights guardrails on the use of AI, for the good of all of us.”

To download the full report, please go to: https://mediarightsagenda.org/docs/Annual_Report_of_the_UNHCR-The_right_to_privacy_in_the_digital_age_2021.docx.