The Fourth Industrial Revolution, propelled by AI, presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities compared to its predecessors © Freepik

The emergence and implications of generative AI
Surging knowledge during this new technological revolution could solve a multitude of problems
1 May 2024

For decades, the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) captivated the imagination of scientists, philosophers, and even storytellers. Early attempts in the 1950s, like the Turing Test, laid the groundwork, but progress was slow and riddled with setbacks. Many even doubted the feasibility of the very concept of creating intelligent machines, dismissing AI as science fiction rather than a plausible reality. Years passed with incremental steps forward, punctuated by periods of pessimism and stagnant research.

Around the year 2022, a remarkable shift began. Fueled by advancements in computing power, data availability, and algorithms, AI development experienced a sudden acceleration. This ‘push factor’ coincided with a growing public awareness and acceptance of AI, a ‘pull factor’ driven by real-world applications. Like a snowball rolling downhill, AI’s presence became increasingly visible in diverse industries, from healthcare and finance to entertainment and education.

The most intriguing aspect of this surge in popularity is the growing understanding and utilization of AI by the average, non-technical citizen. A 2023 global survey (McKinsey Quantum Black) revealed individuals across regions, industries, and seniority levels are now familiar with the term ‘Artificial Intelligence,’ and regularly use its tools for work and outside of work across industries. This rapid shift in public perception underscores the transformative potential of AI and its capability to impact various aspects of our lives. Beyond technical advancements, what really contributed to the shift in perception and the rapid uptake of AI in recent years compared to the past? It is the rise of generative AI, a specific subset of the broader field of AI and its vast spectrum of opportunities, capable of generating novel content replicating the human creativity process.

This powerful technology, capable of generating entirely new and original content, from text and images to music and code, holds immense potential to contribute to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Imagine interacting with powerful technology not through lines of code, but through an intuitive conversation.

Security breaches are another prominent concern as the reliance on data grows © Freepik

Policy challenges in the age of generative AI

As with any disrupting innovation, generative AI’s profound capabilities are accompanied by a range of policy challenges that require immediate attention. This is particularly true, considering its ability to generate strikingly realistic and persuasive fake content, like deep fakes and forged documents. Such advancements raise critical concerns surrounding misinformation, potential privacy breaches, and the possibility of malicious applications.

Diversity, inclusion, and the fear factor

The challenges posed by generative AI extend beyond data privacy and security. Two additional critical issues demand our attention: bias in data processing and the human fear factor. Bias, inherent in the very data used to train generative AI models, can lead to discriminatory and unfair outcomes. If training data reflects existing societal biases, be it regarding race, gender, or other factors, the AI model can perpetuate these biases in its generated content. Imagine AI-powered bank loan screening software inadvertently favoring male candidates based on historical-lending data, when women were systemically discouraged from having bank loans. If past practices favored male loan applicants as the norm, then AI could unintentionally prioritize male applicants in the future, even when qualifications are equal. Addressing bias in data processing is crucial to ensure fair and ethical applications of generative AI.

Furthermore, the rapid advancement of AI naturally fuels fears surrounding job displacement. As generative AI becomes more sophisticated, concerns emerge about automation replacing human workers in various industries. This can lead to anxiety and uncertainty, particularly among individuals whose jobs are perceived to be at risk of being automated.

The benefits of extensive data for powerful AI models come with the inherent difficulty of thoroughly addressing and eliminating biases within these massive datasets. Without participation from marginalized groups in the design, development, and testing phases, their unique needs and concerns may be overlooked. This can result in AI models that perpetuate harmful stereotypes or fail to cater to the specific needs of these communities. As AI increasingly shapes and breaches various aspects of our lives, this digital divide could widen even further.

International cooperation

The United Nations AI Advisory Body, in its 2023 report ‘Governing AI for Humanity,’ emphasizes the need for a coordinated international governance of AI to ensure its responsible development and deployment for the benefit of all. Collaboration on multiple levels is vital:

Governmental collaboration: Establishing international frameworks and regulations around AI development, addressing issues like data privacy, bias mitigation, and responsible use. This can draw parallels with the 2024 mission statement of the UN AI Task Force on “ … we move in an integrated and coherent manner as a system in this dynamic and evolving field” (United Nations High-level Committee on Management, 2024), emphasizing calls for a multi-stakeholder approach to AI governance;

Industry collaboration: Fostering knowledge sharing and joint research efforts between companies and research institutes across borders. This can accelerate innovation and ensure diverse perspectives are incorporated into AI development; 

Civil society engagement: Including diverse voices from various backgrounds in the global conversation surrounding AI. This ensures ethical considerations and concerns from different populations are addressed in the development and deployment processes.

International cooperation on AI offers several key potential benefits. It can establish common standards and regulations across nations, preventing confusion and promoting responsible development. By facilitating the exchange of knowledge and expertise, all nations can benefit from collective progress in AI research and development, especially nations with scarce resources. Additionally, cooperation can foster the development of ethical solutions that are culture-sensitive and address global challenges like climate change and pandemics.

Navigating the evolving landscape of AI requires continuous learning and engagement from all stakeholders, including policymakers, tech developers, businesses, and citizens. Open dialogue and collaboration are essential to ensure responsible development and deployment of this powerful technology.

The emergence of Artificial Intelligence, particularly generative AI, signifies a profound shift in societal paradigms, presenting both unprecedented opportunities and formidable challenges. As AI technologies rapidly reshape industries and transform societal dynamics, policymakers face the critical task of navigating this complex landscape to ensure that AI serves as a force for positive societal transformation. Investment in reskilling and upskilling initiatives is paramount to equip individuals with the tools needed to thrive in an evolving job market driven by automation and technological advancement, and mitigate the risks of job displacement.

Moreover, fostering international cooperation and developing robust governance frameworks are essential to address the ethical, regulatory, and societal implications of AI deployment on a global scale. By collaborating across governmental, industry, and civil society sectors, stakeholders can leverage collective expertise and resources to establish common standards, promote responsible AI development, and address emerging challenges such as algorithmic biases, data privacy, and security vulnerabilities. Through proactive human oversight and transparent data governance practices, policymakers can foster trust, accountability, and inclusivity in AI systems, ensuring that the benefits of AI are equitably distributed and contribute to the advancement of humanity in the digital age. 

* Haytham Tibni is an Associate Programme Coordinator at UN-ESCWA.
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