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Bias, racism and lies: Facing up to the unwanted consequences of AI



5G-enabled robot by China Telecom on display during ITU Telecom World 2019. ©ITU/Rowan Farrell

Powerful digital tools using artificial intelligence (AI) software are helping in the fight against COVID-19, and have the potential to improve the world in many other ways. However, as AI seeps into more areas of daily life, it’s becoming clear that its misuse can lead to serious harm, leading the UN to call for strong, international regulation of the technology.

The phrase “artificial intelligence” can conjure up images of machines that are able to think, and act, just like humans, independent of any oversight from actual, flesh and blood people. Movies versions of AI tend to feature super-intelligent machines attempting to overthrow humanity and conquer the world.

The reality is more prosaic, and tends to describe software that can solve problems, find patterns and, to a certain extent, “learn”. This is particularly useful when huge amounts of data need to be sorted and understood, and AI is already being used in a host of scenarios, particularly in the private sector.

Examples include chatbots able to conduct online correspondence; online shopping sites which learn how to predict what you might want to buy; and AI journalists writing sports and business articles (this story was, I can assure you, written by a human).

And, whilst a recent news story from Iran has revived fears about the use of killer robots (Iranian authorities have claimed that a “machine gun with AI” was used to assassinate the country’s most senior nuclear scientist), negative stories connected with AI, which have included exam grades incorrectly downgraded in the UK, an innocent man sent to jail in the USA, and personal data stolen worldwide, are more likely to concern its misuse, and old-fashioned human error.

Ahead of the launch of a UN guide to understanding the ethics of AI, here are five things you should know about the use of AI, its consequences, and how it can be improved.

1) The consequences of misuse can be devastating

In January, an African American man in the US state of Michigan, was arrested for a shoplifting crime he knew nothing about. He was taken into custody after being handcuffed outside his house in front of his family.

This is believed to be the first wrongful arrest of its kind: the police officers involved had trusted facial recognition AI to catch their man, but the tool hadn’t learned how to recognize the differences between black faces because the images used to train it had mostly been of white faces.

Luckily, it quickly became clear that he looked nothing like the suspect seen in a still taken from store security cameras, and he was released, although he spent several hours in jail.

And, in July, there was uproar in the UK, when the dreams of many students hoping to go to the university of their choice were dashed, when a computer programme was used to assess their grades (traditional exams had been cancelled, because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

To work out what the students would have got if they had sat exams, the programme took their existing grades, and also took into account the track record of their school over time. This ended up penalising bright students from minority and low-income neighbourhoods, who are more likely to go to schools that have, on the whole, lower average grades than schools attended by wealthier students

These examples show that, for AI tools to work properly, well-trained data scientists need to work with high quality data. Unfortunately, much of the data used to teach AI is currently taken from consumers around the world, often without their explicit consent: poorer countries often lack the ability to ensure that personal data are protected, or to protect their societies from the damaging cyber-attacks and misinformation that have grown since the COVID-19 pandemic.

2) Hate, division and lies are good for business

Many social media companies have come under fire from knowledgeable sceptics for using algorithms, powered by AI, to micro-target users, and send them tailored content that will reinforce their prejudices. The more inflammatory the content, the more chance that it will be consumed and shared.

The reason that these companies are happy to “push” socially divisive, polarizing content to their users, is that it increases the likelihood that they will stay longer on the platform, which keeps their advertisers happy, and boosts their profits.

This has boosted the popularity of extremist, hate-filled postings, spread by groups that would otherwise be little-known fringe outfits. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also led to the dissemination of dangerous misinformation about the virus, potentially leading to more people becoming infected, many experts say.

3) Global inequality is mirrored online

There is strong evidence to suggest that AI is playing a role in making the world more unequal, and is benefiting a small proportion of people. For example, more than three-quarters of all new digital innovation and patents are produced by just 200 firms. Out of the 15 biggest digital platforms we use, 11 are from the US, whilst the rest are Chinese.

This means that AI tools are mainly designed by developers in the West. In fact, these developers are overwhelmingly white men, who also account for the vast majority of authors on AI topics. The case of the wrongful arrest in Michigan is just one example of the dangers posed by a lack of diversity in this highly important field.

It also means that, by 2030, North America and China are expected to get the lion’s share of the economic gains, expected to be worth trillions of dollars, that AI is predicted to generate.

4)The potential benefits are enormous

This is not to say that AI should be used less: innovations using the technology are immensely useful to society, as we have seen during the pandemic.

Governments all around the world have turned to digital solutions to new problems, from contact-tracing apps, to tele-medicine and drugs delivered by drones, and, in order to track the worldwide spread of COVID-19, AI has been employed to trawl through vast stores of data derived from our interactions on social media and online.

The benefits go far beyond the pandemic, though: AI can help in the fight against the climate crisis, powering models that could help restore ecosystems and habitats, and slow biodiversity loss; and save lives by helping humanitarian organizations to better direct their resources where they are most needed.

The problem is that AI tools are being developed so rapidly that neither designers, corporate shareholders nor governments have had time to consider the potential pitfalls of these dazzling new technologies.

5) We need to agree on international AI regulation

For these reasons, the UN education, science and culture agency, UNESCO, is consulting a wide range of groups, including representatives from civil society, the private sector, and the general public, in order to set international AI standards, and ensure that the technology has a strong ethical base, which encompasses the rule of law, and the promotion of human rights.

Important areas that need to be considered include the importance of bringing more diversity in the field of data science to reduce bias, and racial and gender stereotyping; the appropriate use of AI in judicial systems to make them fairer as well as more efficient; and finding ways to ensure that the benefits of the technology are spread amongst as many people as possible.

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Science & Technology

Iran among five pioneers of nanotechnology



Prioritizing nanotechnology in Iran has led to this country’s steady placement among the five pioneers of the nanotechnology field in recent years, and approximately 20 percent of all articles provided by Iranian researchers in 2020 are relative to this area of technology.

Iran has been introduced as the 4th leading country in the world in the field of nanotechnology, publishing 11,546 scientific articles in 2020.

The country held a 6 percent share of the world’s total nanotechnology articles, according to StatNano’s monthly evaluation accomplished in WoS databases.

There are 227 companies in Iran registered in the WoS databases, manufacturing 419 products, mainly in the fields of construction, textile, medicine, home appliances, automotive, and food.

According to the data, 31 Iranian universities and research centers published more than 50 nano-articles in the last year. 

In line with China’s trend in the past few years, this country is placed in the first stage with 78,000 nano-articles (more than 40 percent of all nano-articles in 2020), and the U.S. is at the next stage with 24,425 papers. These countries have published nearly half of the whole world’s nano-articles.

In the following, India with 9 percent, Iran with 6 percent, and South Korea and Germany with 5 percent are the other head publishers, respectively.

Almost 9 percent of the whole scientific publications of 2020, indexed in the Web of Science database, have been relevant to nanotechnology.

There have been 191,304 nano-articles indexed in WoS that had to have a 9 percent growth compared to last year. The mentioned articles are 8.8 percent of the whole produced papers in 2020.

Iran ranked 43rd among the 100 most vibrant clusters of science and technology (S&T) worldwide for the third consecutive year, according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2020 report.

The country experienced a three-level improvement compared to 2019.

Iran’s share of the world’s top scientific articles is 3 percent, Gholam Hossein Rahimi She’erbaf, the deputy science minister, has announced.

The country’s share in the whole publications worldwide is 2 percent, he noted, highlighting, for the first three consecutive years, Iran has been ranked first in terms of quantity and quality of articles among Islamic countries.

Sourena Sattari, vice president for science and technology has said that Iran is playing the leading role in the region in the fields of fintech, ICT, stem cell, aerospace, and is unrivaled in artificial intelligence.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Science & Technology

Free And Equal Internet Access As A Human Right



Having internet access in a free and equal way is very important in contemporary world. Today, there are more than 4 billion people who are using internet all around the world. Internet has become a very important medium by which the right to freedom of speech and the right to reach information can be exercised. Internet has a central tool in commerce, education and culture.

Providing solutions to develop effective policies for both internet safety and equal Internet access must be the first priority of governments. The Internet offers individuals power to seek and impart information thus states and organizations like UN have important roles in promoting and protecting Internet safety. States and international organizations play a key role to ensure free and equal Internet access.

The concept of “network neutrality is significant while analyzing equal access to Internet and state policies regulating it. Network Neutrality (NN) can be defined as the rule meaning all electronic communications and platforms should be exercised in a non-discriminatory way regardless of their type, content or origin. The importance of NN has been evident in COVID-19 pandemic when millions of students in underdeveloped regions got victimized due to the lack of access to online education.

 Article 19/2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes the following:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Internet access and network neutrality directly affect human rights. The lack of NN undermines human rights and causes basic human right violations like violating freedom of speech and freedom to reach information. There must be effective policies to pursue NN. Both nation-states and international organizations have important roles in making Internet free, safe and equally reachable for the people worldwide. States should take steps for promoting equal opportunities, including gender equality, in the design and implementation of information and technology. The governments should create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling online environment in accordance with human rights.

It is known that, the whole world has a reliance on internet that makes it easy to fullfill basic civil tasks but this is also threatened by increasing personal and societal cyber security threats. In this regard, states must fulfill their commitment to develop effective policies to attain universal access to the Internet in a safe way.

 As final remarks, it can be said that, Internet access should be free and equal for everyone. Creating effective tools to attain universal access to the Internet cannot be done only by states themselves. Actors like UN and EU have a major role in this process as well.

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Science & Technology

Future Energy Systems Need Clear AI Boundaries



Today, almost 60% of people worldwide have access to the Internet via an ever-increasing number of electronic devices. And as Internet usage grows, so does data generation.

Data keeps growing at unprecedented rates, increasingly exceeding the abilities of any human being to analyse it and discover its underlying structures.

Yet data is knowledge. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. Today’s high-speed computing systems can “learn” from experience and, thus, effectively replicate human decision-making.

Besides holding its own among global chess champions, AI aids in converting unstructured data into actionable knowledge. At the same time, it enables the creation of even more insightful AI – a win-win for all. However, this doesn’t happen without challenges along the way.

Commercial uses of AI have expanded steadily in recent years across finance, healthcare, education and other sectors. Now, with COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions, many countries have turned to innovative technologies to halt the spread of the virus.

The pandemic, therefore, has further accelerated the global AI expansion trend.

Energy systems need AI, too.

Rapidly evolving smart technology is helping to make power generation and distribution more efficient and sustainable. AI and the Big Data that drives it have become an absolute necessity.  Beyond just facilitating and optimising, these are now the basic tools for fast, smart decision making.

With the accelerating shift to renewable power sources, AI can help to reduce operating costs and boost efficiency. Crucially, AI-driven “smart grids” can manage variable supply, helping to maximise the use of solar and wind power.

Read more in IRENA’s Innovation Toolbox.

Risks must be managed to maximise the benefits.

AI usage in the energy sector faces expertise-related and financial constraints.

Decision makers, lacking specialised knowledge, struggle to appreciate the wide-ranging benefits of smart system management. In this respect, energy leaders have proven more conservative than those in other sectors, such as healthcare.

Meanwhile, installing powerful AI tools without prior experience brings considerable risks. Data loss, poor customisation, system failures, unauthorised access – all these errors can bring enormous costs.

Yet like it or not, interconnected devices are on the rise.

What does this all mean for the average consumer?

Smart phones, smart meters and smart plugs, connected thermostats, boilers and smart charging stations have become familiar, everyday items. Together, such devices can form the modern “smart home”, ideally powered by rooftop solar panels.

AI can help all of us, the world’s energy consumers, become prosumers, producing and storing our own energy and interacting actively with the wider market. Our data-driven devices, in turn, will spawn more data, which helps to scale up renewables and maximise system efficiency.

But home data collection raises privacy concerns. Consumers must be clearly informed about how their data is used, and by whom. Data security must be guaranteed. Consumer privacy regulations must be defined and followed, with cybersecurity protocols in place to prevent data theft.

Is the future of AI applications in energy bright?

Indeed, the outlook is glowing, but only if policy makers and societies strike the right balance between innovation and risk to ensure a healthy, smart and sustainable future.

Much about AI remains to be learned. As its use inevitably expands in the energy sector, it cannot be allowed to work for the benefit of only a few. Clear strategies need to be put in place to manage the AI use for the good of all.


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