Welcome to our daily coverage of the General Debate of the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA). This summary was generated by humans and provides a comprehensive overview of how digital issues were tackled during first day’s discussions, which took place on 19 September 023. For real-time updates and in-depth reports on UNGA78, follow our live coverage on the Digital Watch Observatory‘s dedicated page through DiploAI reports, written by our AI reporting tool.
New technologies: Governing AI
As the norm, the UN Secretary-General’s General Debate opening speech was rifled with references to digital technologies. The SG paid special attention to new technologies which require new and innovative forms of governance, such as AI and lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).
Generative AI holds much promise – but it may also lead us across a Rubicon and into more danger than we can control. When I mentioned Artificial Intelligence in my General Assembly speech in 2017, only two other leaders even uttered the term. Now AI is on everyone’s lips – a subject of both awe, and fear. Even some of those who developed generative AI are calling for greater regulation. – Antonio Guterres
US President Biden also underlined that emerging technologies need to be ‘used as tools of opportunity, not as weapons of oppression’. He stressed that AI technologies need to be safe before they’re released to the public and that countries and international bodies must cooperate to harness the power of AI for good.
Argentinian president Alberto Fernández noted that robotisation and AI force us to rethink education, processes of production, and the preservation of work, highlighting that confronting these new changes is the biggest challenge.
Slovenian president Nataša Pirc Musar noted that governing new technologies, including AI, must not impede economic, developmental, social, and research opportunities.
Speaking about calls for a global entity on AI, Guterres recalled that inspiration could be drawn from existing international organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He noted the UN’s readiness to host ‘the global and inclusive discussions that are needed’, based on member state decisions.
To advance concrete governance solutions, Guterres reiterated that he will appoint a High-Level Advisory Body on Artificial Intelligence, which will provide recommendations by the end of the year. Slovenia expressed support. Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio underlined the Hiroshima AI Process on Generative AI, toward trustworthy AI.
The SG reiterated his call for a Global Digital Compact — between governments, regional organisations, the private sector and civil society — to mitigate the risks of digital technologies and identify ways to harness their benefits for the good of humanity. Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz noted that it is fostering exchanges on the Global Digital Compact to ensure that access to AI is not limited to richer countries, causing a deeper digital divide.
As the war in Ukraine wages on, its President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed the effects of spreading the war into cyberspace in his address. He also noted that AI could be trained to combat well before it would learn to help humanity. In a similar vein, Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz noted the need for common rules for the use of generative AI as a weapon.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, directed attention toward the fight against cybercrime. Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani highlighted risks such as deepfakes, privacy violations, hacking, phishing, identity theft, educational disruption via plagiarism, and human deception tactics. Czechia’s Petr Pavel also drew attention to the tactics of malicious actors and raised alarms about the use of cyberspace, disinformation campaigns, economic manipulation, political interference, and various tools aimed at disrupting democratic processes, undermining institutions, and weakening security.
Fumio expressed Japan’s commitment to supporting digitalisation in developing countries while ensuring robust cybersecurity measures.
The SG voiced concerns about online surveillance and data harvesting, which have given rise to widespread human rights abuses on a scale previously unseen.
Bolsonaro called for a return to humanist traditions, emphasising the importance of inclusive policies at cultural, educational, and digital levels to uphold democratic values and preserve press freedom.
Pirc Musar advocated for a human-centric and human-rights-based approach to the development and deployment of technology. She proposed that the Global Digital Compact be centred around this notion, emphasising the need for all stakeholders, including private companies, to genuinely commit to this vision. Balancing digitalisation’s benefits with the protection of human dignity was highlighted by Fumio, stressing the importance of compatible international rules and a digital ecosystem that respects human rights.
The digital divide is a pressing global issue that exacerbates existing inequalities. This divide, which separates those with access to technology from those without, was highlighted by the SG as a matter of utmost concern.Turkmenistan’s presidentSerdar Berdimuhamedow sees vast potential in genetics and AI, ‘that could achieve prosperity for the whole humanity’. However, the gap between the possibilities and reality is widening. Similarly, Uruguay acknowledged the potential of ICT and AI as tools for integration and development but called for more action, urging global leaders to turn their words into tangible efforts.
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani emphasised the importance of keeping up with scientific and technical advancements and called upon nations to remove barriers hindering progress in this field. South Africa’s president Matamela Cyril Ramaphosafocused on harnessing digital and green technologies to enhance industrial production and agricultural yields, addressing developmental challenges while working towards the 2030 Agenda.
Nayib Armando Bukele, the president of El Salvador provided a concrete example of commitment to digital transformation – a recent agreement with Google serves as a clear example of their commitment to digital transformation, particularly in public services such as education and healthcare. Finally, Palau’s president Surangel S. Whipps Jr.underscored that success in the digital age is not determined by geographical size but by determination and adaptability.
The SG cautioned about the grave consequences of hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories proliferating on social media platforms, often amplified by AI. These issues are seen as significant threats to democracy and contributors to real-world violence and conflict. Similarly, Bolsonaro underlined the fight against misinformation, while Pirc Musar highlighted disinformation as one of the key challenges of our time. Pirc Musar underlined that big tech companies should take more responsibility for the content they host and moderate, therefore protecting users from harmful online content.
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