Will the multilateral system survive artificial intelligence (AI)?
We are in the middle of a technological upheaval that will transform the way our multilateral system operates and exerts influence. AI may concentrate power over information in the hands of a few, or it may empower the many. Either way, the resulting power distribution will affect trust — trust in national institutions, trust among states, trust in the rules-based global order.
Though we are only at the beginning of the deployment of AI across our economic, political, and social systems, the effects are already inducing profound anxiety for those states or citizens who fear a loss of power.
Increasingly, AI will impact how countries and powerful tech corporations compete and cooperate to set the rules of the game. AI will shape how they administer and govern our societies. These new forms of control raise urgent policy questions for the international community.
There are growing signs of a global AI arms race, with at least four of the five permanent members of the Security Council placing AI at the centre of their current grand strategies. If misused, algorithms and autonomous systems could undermine human rights, democracy, and the rule of law respectively.
We must open a strategic and inclusive discussion about the modalities of global governance in the era of AI and other emerging technologies.
The United Nations University Centre for Policy Research (UNU-CPR) in New York is an independent think tank within the United Nations system. We combine research excellence with deep knowledge of the multilateral system to generate innovative solutions to current and future global public policy challenges.
Where AI fits into global governance is exactly such a challenge. Spurred on by a mandate given to UNU in the Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies, UNU-CPR has created this “AI and Global Governance Platform” as an inclusive space for researchers, policy actors, corporate and thought leaders to explore this public policy challenge. Leading the Platform will be Eleonore Pauwels, a Research Fellow at UNU-CPR and a global expert on AI, its ethics, and its convergence with other emerging technologies.
The Platform will bring together world-renowned experts and practitioners in a range of fields intersecting with AI, to generate cross-disciplinary discussions on an array of strategic questions, including:
- What kind of international competition will AI spark between political and socio-economic systems?
- To what extent are national and international governing bodies equipped with the knowledge, foresight, and analytical tools to foster multilateral discussions about AI governance?
- How can policymakers give corporate leaders the regulatory certainty they need to take AI innovations to the scale needed to remedy global problems of disease, inequality, climate change and hunger — while giving affected communities a role, or even control, over the governance of their AI-powered futures?
- How can a diversity of stakeholders collaborate to anticipate the risks involved and the sources of inequalities and disempowerment that hide in mundane algorithmic designs?
For those working in the United Nations context, there are also crucial questions of relevance and impact. What role, if any, is there for the multilateral, state-centric system in the governance of AI? What direct and indirect risks does AI pose to the UN’s global mandates on sustainable development, human rights, and peace and security? What institutional arrangements and governance frameworks can prevent the misuse of AI systems in ways that compromise human dignity?
At the centre of this inquiry is the question: what is the appropriate role for states, corporations, civil society, international organisations, and other global actors in governing AI?
These are not just abstract questions, but rather important ethical crossroads that we are now confronting.
The answers to these ethical challenges will shape how individual agency is governed — by states, corporations, and other global actors — in the AI era. The competing interests that emerge — between different types of entities with governing power — will shape the future of multilateralism and of global governance.
AI has already sparked simmering ethical and policy debates across the world. The “AI and Global Governance” Platform will bring a unique added-value to these existing debates by addressing questions that are of high relevance, not only to AI practitioners and policymakers, but also multilateralism. Our intention is also to connect AI and policy expertise with lessons from on the ground. The Platform will gather an inclusive and dynamic community of thought leaders interested in debating and engaging with the ethical dilemmas, the risks, and opportunities born out of the AI revolution.
Examining the global policy puzzles raised by our AI futures requires gathering information from dispersed sources, shining light on issues that are often unexamined, and encouraging knowledge-sharing and debates across disciplinary, sectorial, regional, and cultural divides.
The Platform will therefore feature a diversity of perspectives, including from those who run leading AI research programmes and corporate labs, those who study the use of AI in humanitarian contexts, and those who foster “AI from the streets” through citizen science and democratised innovation ecosystems.
Our hope is that the ideas shared, debated, and discussed through this Platform will help UN member states, multilateral agencies, funds, programmes and other stakeholders consider their own roles in shaping the governance of AI.