Opening Remarks at the Artificial Intelligence for Social Good Summit

Dr. Kitipong Promwong, Secretary General of Thailand’s National STI Policy Office,
Mr. Kent Walker, Senior Vice President of Global Affairs, Google
Excellencies,
Very distinguished guests,

It is a pleasure to be here and to welcome you to today’s Artificial Intelligence for Social Good Summit. I am very grateful to the Royal Thai Government and Google for co-hosting this event.

Industrial revolutions, from the age of mechanization to mass production to the digital revolution, have spurred economic growth and prosperity. Yet this has often been at the cost to the environment and society. Carbon dioxide emissions dramatically increased as industrial revolutions unfolded. Many people were left behind during the digital revolution.

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, defined by frontier technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence, we need to make these technologies work for society and the environment, as well as the economy. We need them at the heart of our effort to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UN ESCAP analysis shows that on its current trajectory, our region’s efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda are falling short. So, there is a clear need to step up our response and for innovative action by governments. The use of technology to deliver more effective, efficient and fair public services is a significant opportunity. One which could strengthen our work to address widening inequality of opportunity, and help transition to a greener economy.

Efforts by several countries in the Asia-Pacific region in applying technology to deliver public services are commendable. India’s Aadhaar digital ID program has now registered approximately 1.2 billion people covering 99 per cent of the adult population. It is being used to deliver government subsidies, benefits and services. In Indonesia, the Jakarta Smart City Unit has developed apps for public crime and traffic reporting and school placement. In Australia, a Digital Transformation Agency has been established to help government undergo digital transformation and oversee its ICT agenda. And today we will be hearing about Thailand’s innovative use of AI in healthcare.

Frontier technologies offer the opportunity to re-imagine how governments can serve their citizens better. But they also pose challenges. There are uncertainties about the future of work. In coming decades, it is estimated that between 50 to 75 per cent of total employment could be automated. AI poses trust and ethical questions. There are risks of calibrating AI algorithms based on biased data that may yield biased AI learning outcomes. Real-time information is at the fingertips of a growing number of organisations. Technology itself is not the problem. But there are ethical issues surrounding privacy, ownership and transparency.

These challenges make cross-government cooperation; inter-governmental knowledge sharing; and honest, regular discussion with civil society and the technology sector, critical to ensure frontier technologies have a positive impact on sustainable development.

That is why the UN Secretary-General has placed a high priority on engagement with the private sector, particularly on technology and innovation. He sees it as central to the UN Reform process. In his recently released “Strategy of New Technologies”, he made a commitment to reinvigorate the UN platform for more effective engagement of private sector partners.

The Secretary-General has also made a strategic commitment for 2018-19 to increase “understanding, advocacy and dialogue” to “encourage ongoing discussions with our partners in the private and public sectors from a rights-based, ethical, and transparent perspective as they relate to the design and use of new and complex algorithms, autonomous technologies, data and cybernetworks”.

Today, I am delighted to announce a UN ESCAP and Google partnership to harness technology and innovation for sustainable development. We plan to work together on joint research, policy guidance and capacity-building to support governments and industry.

As part of this collaboration, it is my honour to announce the first initiative which is a partnership between ESCAP, Google and the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. It will focus on developing cutting edge research and policy advice on AI for sustainable development. We hope this will support governments harness the potential of AI for social good. Mr. Kent Walker will be providing more details on this. This research will be steered by an Advisory Board of experts from across the Asia-Pacific region. I thank you all for supporting this initiative.

The evaluation of frontier technology strategies and mechanisms should be a policy priority for the region. Alongside continued and well-evaluated innovative policy experimentation to establish what works. Through an iterative cycle of experimentation and evaluation, effective practices can be developed to unlock the potential of frontier technology for development.

UN ESCAP has a mandate to strengthen the regional technology and innovation agenda through our role as a think tank, policy adviser and convener. We hope multi-stakeholder partnerships such as the one we are launching today, will support member States in their efforts to harness technology and innovation in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The impacts of our technologically-driven future are far from pre-ordained. It will be critical we take a collaborative and open approach to innovation so that we can maximize the benefits and mitigate the risks of frontier technologies. And learn from the lessons of the past so that this Revolution benefits not just the economy, but society and the environment.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you a successful summit.