Rarely a day passes without a story on an exciting, or perhaps terrifying, advancement in technology as developers discover new ways to leverage quantum computers, robotics, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence (AI) to solve new and age-old problems alike.

One exciting new development that tech watchers may have missed this year: efforts the United Nations has taken to modernize its work and better prepare itself as a platform for global discussions on the promises and perils of new technologies. Much of this work has been led by Secretary-General António Guterres, an engineer by training who took the helm at the UN determined to modernize and reform the organization to better prepare it to face the challenges of the 21st century, including achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Leveraging Technology to Develop New Solutions

From an innovative partnership in India that uses an AI algorithm to diagnose tuberculosis in chest x-rays, to a hackathon to inspire ideas to advance the SDGs with open-source satellite data to deploying drones to deliver vaccines and humanitarian aid, the UN is moving quickly to better understand how technology can help it more effectively do its work and how it can work with partners to achieve the SDGs.

Innovation Labs like Global Pulse, UNICEF’s Venture Fund, WFP’s Innovation Accelerator, and UNDP’s Innovation Facility help to incubate and pilot new thinking and approaches and to scale successful solutions. These efforts are connected through the UN Innovation Network, which brings together innovation leads from over sixty UN entities to learn from one another, collaborate, and inform new approaches to adopting technologies to improve mandate delivery and achieve the SDGs.

The UN is also exploring new ways of partnering to leverage technologies. Earlier this year, the UN, World Bank, and International Committee of the Red Cross joined forces with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft to launch the Famine Action Mechanism to use AI and machine learning to better predict food crises and famines. UNICEF and UNDP are also members of the Partnership on AI, a consortium bringing together private sector companies like Amazon and Google with organizations like Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union to better understand the opportunities and risks of deploying AI. These efforts build upon ongoing work to convene stakeholders and catalyze action through the Internet Governance Forum, ITU’s AI for Good Global summit, and UNDP’s Istanbul Innovation Days.

To help guide the UN’s efforts, the Secretary-General unveiled a strategy earlier this year that articulated five overarching principles for how the UN leverages new technologies:

  1. Protect and promote global values embodied in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  2. Foster inclusion and transparency for all stakeholders on the choices and tradeoffs involved in using new technologies
  3. Work in partnership across governments, the private sector, and civil society to build knowledge and share ideas
  4. Build on existing capabilities and mandate rather than viewing new technologies as a new mandate
  5. Be humble and continue to learn, understanding that the UN may not be an obvious initial partner for leaders across new technologies
Identifying and Mitigating the Risks of New Technologies

And while this work is helping the UN accelerate its efforts to achieve the SDGs, the organization is also acutely aware that the scale and speed of advancing technologies is not without risk. Although advancing technologies offer new potential economic opportunities, uneven access to digital technology can increase inequality. New technologies also have the capacity to undermine trust between actors and can threaten human rights, as well as digital and physical safety and security. These challenges have global reach and require that countries, businesses, civil society, and technology experts come together to articulate new rules for the road. So far, efforts to address these questions have not kept pace with the challenges we face.

This is the impetus for the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation formed by the Secretary-General and chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma. Together with their fellow panelists drawn from governments, the private sector, civil society, and academia, Gates and Ma have been charged with identifying new proposals to strengthen digital cooperation, accelerate and broaden the benefits of digital technologies, and better manage their associated risks and challenges. The panel is actively soliciting input from around the world and is expected to deliver its final report to the Secretary-General next year.

The High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma.

The Secretary-General also recently announced the creation of a Digital Financing Task Force, bringing together private sector leaders, government ministers, central bank governors, multilateral officials, and civil society to identify strategies to ensure that the digital finance revolution is best leveraged to deliver more sustainable finance and investment to achieve the SDGs. The task force will deliver its recommendations next September.

The UN is also working to build a rights-based approach to new technologies that takes into account fundamental freedoms encapsulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression developed proposals for how to put human rights at the center of discussions around online content moderation and artificial intelligence. These will be important foundational documents as countries begin thinking more seriously about the ethics and rights questions raised by new technologies, including through the recently announced International Panel on Artificial Intelligence, envisioned by French President Macron as an “IPCC for AI,” bringing together the technology community, governments, international organizations, and the private sector to advance cooperation around the fast-moving technology.

It’s clear that we’re just beginning to really grapple with how to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks posed by new technologies. The groundwork laid this year, led by the Secretary-General and incorporating efforts across the entire UN system are better positioning the UN to integrate new approaches, cultivate innovative partnerships, and advance urgently needed global discussions on the promises and perils of frontier technologies.

Photo: ©FAO/Veejay Villafranca