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UN chief Guterres backs proposal to form watchdog to monitor AI

Secretary-general says the risks posed by artificial intelligence threatens democracy and human rights.

The United Nations secretary-general has warned that artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to spread disinformation and hate, as he backed a proposal for the creation of an international watchdog to monitor the technology.

Speaking at the launch of a new policy on disinformation on Monday, Antonio Guterres said that while technological advancement has been used for some good, the risks posed by AI threatens democracy and human rights.

Guterres said he backs a proposal by some artificial intelligence executives for the creation of a watchdog body similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Generative AI technology – which can perform natural language processing tasks such as answering questions, summarising text and even generating lines of code – has captivated the public since ChatGPT launched six months ago.

AI has also become a focus of concern over its ability to create misinformation and deep fakes, which are AI-generated images and videos that mimic people.

Taking AI warnings seriously

“Alarm bells over the latest form of artificial intelligence – generative AI – are deafening. And they are loudest from the developers who designed it,” Guterres told reporters. “These scientists and experts have called on the world to act, declaring AI an existential threat to humanity on a par with the risk of nuclear war. We must take those warnings seriously.”

Guterres has announced plans to start work by the end of the year on a high-level AI advisory body to regularly review AI governance arrangements and offer recommendations on how they can align with human rights, the rule of law and common good.

But on Monday he added: “I would be favourable to the idea that we could have an artificial intelligence agency … inspired by what the international agency of atomic energy is today.”

Guterres said such a model could be “very interesting” but noted that “only member states can create it, not the Secretariat of the United Nations”. The Vienna-based IAEA was created in 1957 and promotes the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies while watching for possible violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty for nuclear weapons. It has 176 member states.

Global AI safety regulation

ChatGPT’s creator OpenAI said last month that a body like the IAEA could place restrictions on deployment, vet compliance with safety standards and track usage of computing power.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also supported the idea and said he wants Britain to be home to global AI safety regulation. Britain is due to host a summit this year on how coordinated international action can tackle the risks of AI.

Philosophy Professor Robert Sparrow from Australia’s Monash University told Al Jazeera that regulation is going to be a global issue that does create some difficulties but he does not think only one agency is going to regulate AI.

“We are looking for a culture change, particularly in engineering and computer science but also across government and civil society,” he said.

Guterres said he supported the plan for a summit in Britain and added it should be preceded by “serious work”. He said that, in the coming days, he plans to appoint a scientific advisory board of AI experts and chief scientists from UN agencies.

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