UN high commissioner calls for ban on harmful AI tools

Comments follow UN report detailing potential human rights abuses associated with use of AI

A view of the United Nations building with each nation flag lined up outside beneath a blue sky

The UN high commissioner for human rights has called for a moratorium on AI systems that threaten human rights until governments can set up safeguards.

AI applications that violate human rights law should be banned, said High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, in a statement issued on Thursday.

Her comments coincide with the release of a UN report warning of existing human rights abuses involving AI systems across various sectors, including law enforcement.

The report warned of potential abuses through the irresponsible use of AI, including the erroneous assumptions by AI algorithms that could miscategorize people as terrorists or fraudsters, for example.

The report also voiced concerns about the inability for most AI models to explain their results, which it called the 'black box problem'. Machine learning algorithms are not based on rules, instead using matrices of numbers, or 'weights', between large numbers of digital neurons.

The UN's document also raised privacy concerns, arguing that AI tools don't need to train themselves on personal data to infer results about a person's behavior.

"AI tools can make far-reaching inferences about individuals, including about their mental and physical condition, and can enable the identification of groups, such as people with particular political or personal leanings," it warned.

The report suggested several measures to mitigate adverse effects on human rights. These include legislation and regulation, collaboration between the public and private sector, and due diligence when implementing AI systems. It also called for transparency about the nature of systems used, who is using them, and what for, along with what data they are using.

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Transparency is something that the Federal Trade Commission has also advocated, but the UN has now gone further, advising governments to create registers containing this information.

“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times," said Bachelet. "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 UN has been outspoken about the use of technology in the past, calling in August for a moratorium on the sale of surveillance technology and pointing out the use of spyware tools to tap smartphones.

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