Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the “Web Summit”, in Lisbon today:
Good evening everybody. What a wonderful crowd. You can’t imagine how excited I am as an engineer to be able to address this wonderful crowd on cutting‑edge technologies.
As Secretary-General of the United Nations, my concern is to make sure the UN is able to support cutting-edge technologies to maximize their positive impacts on people and on the planet and at the same time to limit the risks of their misuse.
The most fascinating thing about cutting-edge technologies is the speed — they move at warp speed. Ninety per cent of the data that exists today in the world was created in the last two years. To store one megabyte of data in the 1960s, the cost was something like $1 million. The cost is now less than two cents.
Things are moving really very quickly. Technologies like blockchain or gene testing are now common technologies. To the “Internet of things” that is moving so exponentially — growing so exponentially — we are now adding the “Internet of bodies”, with the web connecting medical implants. This is something that is now moving from experimentation to the mainstream.
Artificial intelligence is everywhere, helping to buy and sell shares, helping police surveillance, and even helping people to choose their soulmates. I have to say I am a little bit sceptical about this last possibility. I am very happy I have chosen my soulmate by traditional methodologies.
But what is true is that all these are creating enormous benefits for people and for the planet. It helps us cure diseases, fight hunger, and it boosts economic growth and development all over the world. At the same time, the use of these technologies allows us to be much more effective in addressing the problems of today’s world.
We have globalization that has some imbalances and a lot of inequality. That is why the United Nations has a blueprint — the Agenda 2030 — and the Sustainable Development Goals — aiming exactly at creating a fair globalization, aiming at better conditions, not leaving anyone behind. Now those Sustainable Development Goals — from education to health, from rescuing the oceans to climate action — would be absolutely impossible to achieve without, I would say, “turbocharging” the world with the fantastic speed of cutting-edge technologies that can help us achieve our objectives.
What is also true is that we are, in the United Nations, ourselves using those technologies. UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] is now able to map the connections between schools in remote areas. WFP [World Food Programme] is able to address the problems of tracking payments to recipients through blockchain. And even the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is able to use these technologies in creating the conditions for refugees, with identification by biotechnologies, to be better supported and to be better protected.
Now all these are fantastic things, but there are also challenges and there are also risks. And I’d like to mention very quickly three challenges. First, the social impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the next few decades, we will see an enormous amount of jobs created and an enormous amount of old jobs destroyed. It’s difficult to know which number will be bigger but those jobs will be very different. So we will face huge unemployment. We will face disruption in societies with an impact on the social cohesion of those societies.
And it is clear that we are not prepared for that and we are not preparing fast enough for that. It is obvious that the relationship between work, leisure and other occupations will change dramatically. We will need a massive investment in education but a different sort of education. What matters now is not to learn things but to learn how to learn things. We all recognize that many will acquire the skills to allow them to have new professions, but some will be left behind. We will need a new generation of safety nets to allow for people to survive and to have a new meaning for their own lives. This is an area of great concern that needs to mobilize government, civil society, everybody, and we are not doing enough to prepare for this challenge.
Second, related to the Internet itself. The Internet is now linking half of the world’s population. It has given voice to many people marginalized by history. But the truth is that the Internet is also conveying hate speech. It is used to violate the privacy of people. In some situations, we have Governments and other institutions that use it to oppress, for censorship and to control.
Now, it is clear for me that it was not the web that has created populism, that has created tribalism, that has created polarization of societies. These have very deep root causes, and you can’t blame the web for that. But it is true that the web is amplifying those problems and we need to mobilize Governments, civil society, academia, and scientists in order to be able to avoid the digital manipulation of elections, for instance, and to create some filters that are able to block hate speech from moving and being a factor of the instability of societies.
The third concern I would like to raise is related to the question of human agency, the problems of control, and artificial intelligence is at the centre of these concerns. Today, we recognize that many things that were done by people are now done by machines. And let’s be clear, in many circumstances, they are better done by machines — even in sophisticated areas like medical diagnosis or in police surveillance. What is important is not to forget that it also can happen in weapons that will have, on their own, the possibility to kill. This is a great concern for me, the impact of technology on warfare, and the difficulty created to preserve peace and security in the world.
The weaponization of artificial intelligence is a serious danger and the prospect of machines that have the capacity, by themselves, to select and destroy targets is creating enormous difficulties, or will create enormous difficulties, to avoid the escalation in conflict and to guarantee that international humanitarian law and human rights law are respected on the battlefields. For me there is a message that is very clear — machines that have the power and the discretion to take human lives are politically unacceptable, are morally repugnant, and should be banned by international law.
Now, when we look at all these problems, we understand that we have the means to address them. Typical traditional forms of regulation necessarily do not apply. It is true that in some areas we need to use international law, but they are limited. In the majority of circumstances, technology moves so fast that the time to gather people for preparation of a convention, to discuss it, to approve it, to ratify and to implement it — by the time it comes, everything is already very different.
And so, what we need is to create platforms. I want the United Nations to be a platform where Governments, academia, scientists, companies and civil society can come together and can find ways to discuss and to agree on protocols, on codes of conduct and other mechanisms that allow for cyberspace, that allow for digital technologies, that allow for the web, that allow for artificial intelligence, to be essentially a force for good. Thank you very much.