Is AI risking Human Rights?

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States should place moratoriums on the sale and use of artificial intelligence (AI) systems until adequate safeguards are put in place, UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday. 

Urgent action is needed as it can take time to assess and address the serious risks this technology poses to human rights, warned the High Commissioner: “The higher the risk for human rights, the stricter the legal requirements for the use of AI technology should be”.

Ms. Bachelet also called for AI applications that cannot be used in compliance with international human rights law, to be banned. “Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights”.

Pegasus spyware revelations

On Tuesday, the UN rights chief expressed concern about the “unprecedented level of surveillance across the globe by state and private actors”, which she insisted was “incompatible” with human rights.

She was speaking at a Council of Europe hearing on the implications stemming from July’s controversy over Pegasus spyware.

The Pegasus revelations came as no surprise to many, Ms. Bachelet told the Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, referring to the widespread use of spyware marketed by the NSO group, which has been marketed by the thousands of people in 45 countries out of four Continents were affected.

‘High price’, without action

The High Commissioner’s call came as her office, OHCHR, released a report examining how AI impacts people’s right to privacy and other rights, including rights to health, education, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association and freedom of expression. The document includes an assessment of profiling, automated decision making, and other machine learning technologies.

The situation is “dire” said Tim Engelhardt, Human Rights Officer, Rule of Law and Democracy Section, who was speaking at the launch of the report in Geneva on Wednesday.

The situation has “not improved over the years but has become worse” he said.

Whilst welcoming “the European Union’s agreement to strengthen the rules on control” and “the growth of international voluntary commitments and accountability mechanisms”, he warned that “we don’t think we will have a solution in the coming year, but the first steps need to be taken now or many people in the world will pay a high price”.

OHCHR Director of Thematic Engagement, Peggy Hicks, added to Mr Engelhardt’s warning, stating “it’s not about the risks in future, but the reality today. Without far-reaching shifts, the harms will multiply with scale and speed and we won’t know the extent of the problem.”

Failure of due diligence

According to the report, states and companies have often quickly integrated AI applications without performing due diligence. It claims there have been numerous cases where people have been treated unfairly because of the misuse of AI, such as being denied social benefits due to faulty Artificial intelligence tools or arrested for flawed facial recognition software.

Discriminatory data

The document describes how AI systems are built on large data sets, with information about people gathered, shared, merged, and analyzed in diverse and often opaque ways. The data used to inform and guide AI systems can be incorrect, discriminatory, out of date or irrelevant. Long-term data storage also harbors particular risks, as the data could be used in ways that are still unknown in the future.

“Given the rapid and continuous growth of AI, filling the immense accountability gap in how data is collected, stored, shared and used is one of the most urgent human rights questions we face,” Ms. Bachelet said.

The report also indicated that serious questions should be asked about the conclusions, predictions and monitoring of artificial intelligence tools, including finding information about human behavior patterns.

It found that the biased datasets relied on by AI systems can lead to discriminatory decisions, which are acute risks for already marginalized groups. “This is why there needs to be systematic assessment and monitoring of the effects of AI systems to identify and mitigate human rights risks,” she added.

Biometric technologies

An increasingly go-to solution for States, international organizations and technology companies are biometric technologies, which the report states are an area “where more human rights guidance is urgently needed”.

These technologies, which include facial recognition, are increasingly being used to identify people in real time and remotely, potentially allowing people to be tracked indefinitely. The report reiterates calls for a moratorium on their use in public spaces, at least until authorities can demonstrate that there are no major issues with accuracy or discriminatory impact and that these artificial intelligence systems meet robust privacy and data protection standards.

Greater transparency needed

The document also highlights a need for much greater transparency by companies and States in how they are developing and using AI.

“The complexity of the data environment, algorithms and models underlying the development and operation of AI systems, as well as intentional secrecy of government and private actors are factors undermining meaningful ways for the public to understand the effects of AI systems on human rights and society,” the report says.

Guardrails essential

“We cannot afford to continue playing catch-up regarding AI – allowing its use with limited or no boundaries or oversight and dealing with the almost inevitable human rights consequences after the fact.

“The power of AI to serve people is undeniable, but so is AI’s ability to feed human rights violations at an enormous scale with virtually no visibility. Action is needed now to put human rights guardrails on the use of AI, for the good of all of us,” Ms. Bachelet stressed.

 

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