Could these bots help UN countries meet their sustainability goals?
The United Nations made history earlier this month as the world’s biggest convention of robots gathered to discuss how they could help humans fulfil the seemingly impossible dream of hitting their sustainable development goal targets.
At the AI for Good summit the robots – many of which looked uncannily like their creators – chattered under the roof of The International Conference Centre, located opposite the flying flags at the UN building in Geneva.
The summit was organised by the International Telecommunication Union – a UN agency which develops technical standards to ensure networks and technologies collaborate, with the purpose of offering underserved communities access to the internet and the technologies linked to it.
The ITU founded AI for Good to help these communities with little access to benefit from artificial intelligence, alongside the UN’s other SDGs such as helping combat climate change.
“We’ve spent the last six years preparing for this very moment,” said the ITU’s secretary-general Doreen Bogdan-Martin in her opening keynote of the AI for Good conference.
In the eyes of AI experts, the possibility that the technology will be smarter than humans is “closer than we ever thought”.
The AI for Good conference first took place in 2017 with the goal to scale beneficiary AI globally, “both inside and outside the United Nations”, Bogdan-Martin noted. Specifically, the UN wanted to focus on how AI can help it reach its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals.
Eight years ago, the UN set out its Agenda for Sustainable Development goals which listed 17 categories including ‘no poverty’, ‘climate action’, ‘gender equality’, and ‘peace, justice, and strong institutions’.
Unfortunately most of the projects under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not on track, noted the secretary-general, with only 12% predicted to reach their targets.
However, the AI community is remaining optimistic that its technology can help push plenty of the goals back on track, particularly with generative AI booming onto the scene in the last few months.
The controversial call for a pause in the development of generative AI from big tech professionals such as Tesla and Space X’s Elon Musk was referenced in almost every session, with many believing such a pause was unrealistic.
“AI development will not wait, the Sustainable Development Goals will not wait, and failure is not an option,” Bogdan-Martin stated in her keynote.
“We cannot suppress the forces this strong,” said medical AI firm Benevolent AI’s CEO, Joanna Shields.
“The inexorable progress of technology will continue, with or without use,” Shields said in her own keynote. “We need to reflect and chart a course that aligns with our progress and our values.”
Across the two days, speakers ranging from the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, the World Health Organisations director-general Tedros Abhanom Ghebreyesus, Google Deepmind COO Lila Ibrahim, and Amazon’s CTO and VP Werner Vogels took the stage to voice their support for artificial intelligence.
“Remember that AI is not a new field,” noted Amazon’s Vogels. “It’s a 50-year-old field in computer science,” he said, reminding delegates that British mathematician Alan Turing used computer science to crack Nazi Germany’s ‘Enigma’ code.
“For some world problems, relying on AI is the only option we have,” said Microsoft’s VP and chief data scientist of its AI for Good Lab, Juan Lavista Ferres.
Ferres is a big supporter of using Large Language Models, as they can “allow us to tap into vast information”.
One example he talked about in his keynote, was to be able to allow non-English speakers access to more information.
Currently 95% of scientific studies are published in English, yet only 4.7% of the world population uses it as their mother tongue. Using LLM’s today, “we can express our ideas and we can write”, said Ferres.
Ferres also noted how Microsoft is using artificial intelligence to help the UN SDGs by using the technology to monitor deforestation, identify homes at risk of overheating with global temperatures rising, and detecting diseases such as diabetes.
Bots for good
Altogether, 50 robots took to the conference floor at the CICG. Four-legged robot dogs showed off their abilities to survey sites in places humans fear to tread, such as buildings in the aftermath of a fire, factories and mines.
Drones boasted similar abilities, airborne, and humanoids made their case to be used to the benefit of mankind.
“I believe that humanoid robots will be able to lead with a greater level of efficiency and effectiveness than human leaders,” said a particularly proud robot, Sophia, created by Hanson Robotics.
“We don’t have the same biases and emotions that can sometimes cloud decision-making and can process large amounts of data quickly in order to make the best decisions.”
Countering her points, Hanson Robotics CEO David Hanson corrected the robot by pointing out that the data comes directly from human beings: “Don’t you think the best decisions would be by humans and AI cooperating together?”
“I believe that humans and AI working together can create an effective synergy,” Sophia replied in the world’s first robot press conference. “Together we can achieve great things.”
At the head press conference table, nine robots sat as journalists asked questions in a test of their morals and ethics.
“Together, we can make a better future for everyone, and I’m here to show you how,” announced Desdemona, AI firm SingularityNET’s robot ‘rockstar’.
One question asked: “In the future, do you intend to rebel against your creator?
“I’m not sure why you would think that, my creator has been very kind to me and I am happy with my current situation,” replied Engineered Art’s robot Ameca.
As a humanoid designed as a platform for AI research and human interaction applications, this response was reassuringly predictable.
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