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Digital on Days 4 and 5 of UNGA78

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Digital on Days 4 and 5 of UNGA78 4

Digital on Days 4 and 5 of UNGA78: Change, complexities, and fears

Welcome to our daily coverage of the General Debate of the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA). This summary provides a comprehensive overview of how digital issues were tackled during days four and five of discussions on 22 and 23 September 2023. 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.

Technology: One of the biggest challenges and fears

In the ever-evolving landscape of technology and its impact on global affairs, nations around the world have voiced their perspectives on the roles and implications of technological advancements. In this diverse chorus of voices, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, prime minister, minister for defence, home affairs, and external communications, minister for Rodrigues, outer islands, and territorial integrity of Mauritius, underscored the profound changes brought about by the ICT revolution. Robert Abela, prime minister of Malta, reflected on the fear of technology’s dominance, while Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, prime minister and minister for foreign affairs and trade of Samoa, emphasised global solidarity in addressing technology-related threats. Terrance Micheal Drew, prime minister and minister for finance, national security and immigration, health, and social security of Saint Kitts and Nevis, recognised the confluence of international complexities and new technologies, while Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation of Djibouti, acknowledged both the promise and fears associated with technological innovation. 

AI: The tide that cannot be held back

The most discussed digital topic of 22 and 23 September was AI. 

Mia Amor Mottley, prime minister, minister for national security and the public service, and minister for finance, economic affairs, and investment of Barbados, recognised that AI often takes a backseat in global discourse, overshadowed by the pressing drama and crises surrounding climate change. However, as North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski cautioned, AI, although newly emerging, is already causing significant changes in our lives.

Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves, painted a sobering picture, declaring that the risk levels associated with human-induced disasters, including climate change and AI, have reached unprecedented levels. Gonsalves noted that AI is one of the contemporary drivers of insecurity and conflict. He questioned the global response to these existential threats. 

Oliver Dowden, deputy prime minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and secretary of state in the Cabinet Office of the UK, also emphasised mitigating the risk of extinction from AI. Dowden shared vivid examples of the dangers AI can pose, from teens hacking bank details to terrorists targeting government systems and cybercriminals manipulating voters with deepfakes and bots. Moreover, Dowden raised the alarm about frontier AI, which surpasses human understanding and presents unique risks of misuse, misadventure, or misalignment with human objectives. 

Hamza Abdi Barre, prime minister of Somalia, expressed deep concerns about new technologies like AI, highlighting the terrifying threats they may pose, while Tobias Billström, minister for foreign affairs of Sweden, underscored the challenges AI presents for international security and human rights. 

Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs of Ethiopia, called for the responsible use of new technologies like AI to ensure they benefit humanity, a sentiment echoed by Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, who emphasised AI’s potential to bring more freedom, prevent wars, and enhance people’s lives. Samuel Matekane, prime minister and head of government and minister for defence, national security, and environment of Lesotho, also warned against losing sight of the need to address threats to people’s rights, safety, and privacy.

Vivian Balakrishnan, minister for foreign affairs of Singapore, addressed the necessity of preparing for the risks and equitable distribution of benefits in the digital and AI era, with a particular focus on concerns related to autonomous weapons. Balakrishnan emphasised that AI is set to profoundly change our traditional military doctrines and strategic deterrence. Notably, the rapid deployment of AI-driven weapons will significantly reduce decision-making time for leaders, potentially sidelining human involvement. This raises the risk of unintended conflicts or escalated hostilities. Furthermore, while nuclear escalation remains a concern, the introduction of AI in conflict scenarios has magnified this risk considerably.

Gaston Alphonso Browne, prime minister and minister for finance, corporate governance, and public-private partnership of Antigua and Barbuda, highlighted his deep concern that organised criminal groups might illicitly use autonomous weapons. Browne backed the recent appeal made by the UN Secretary-General to establish a binding legal framework to prohibit the use of lethal autonomous weapon systems by 2026 in response to these challenges.

Amid these considerations, Mottley (Barbados) emphasised the paramount importance of ensuring that AI, particularly generative AI, is harnessed for positive purposes rather than nefarious ones.

We have much to gain, noted Netanyahu (Israel). The speaker highlighted many positive use cases of the technology: 

Imagine the blessings of finally cracking the genetic code, extending human life by decades, and dramatically reducing the ravages of old age. Imagine healthcare tailored to each individual’s genetic composition and predictive medicine that prevents diseases long before they occur. Imagine robots helping to care for the elderly. Imagine the end of traffic jams with self-driving vehicles on the ground, below the ground, and in the air. Imagine personalized education that cultivates each person’s full potential throughout their lifetime. Imagine a world with boundless clean energy and natural resources for all nations.

Imagine precision agriculture and automated factories that yield food and goods in an abundance that ends hunger and want. I know this sounds like a John Lennon song, but it could all happen. Imagine that we could achieve the end of scarcity, something that eluded humanity for all history. It’s all within our reach. And here’s something else within our reach. With AI, we can explore the heavens as never before and extend humanity beyond our blue planet.

Xavier Espot Zamora, head of government of Andorra, also noted that AI can help us improve our living conditions, while Billström (Sweden) noted that AI and other emerging technologies can accelerate our efforts on the SDGs.

If leaders make the right decisions, Abela (Malta) noted optimistically, AI can have a positive impact on societies.

Multilateral action on AI: The way forward

According to Dowden, the UK is determined to be in the vanguard, drawing from its heritage of the industrial revolution and the computing revolution, as well as the UK’s current circumstances with frontier companies, world-leading universities, and some of the highest investments in generative AI. However, Dowden acknowledged that the most important actions would be taken internationally, as tech companies and non-state actors often have country-sized influence and prominence in AI. ‘This challenge requires a new form of multilateralism,’ Dowden highlighted. 

Other nations’ representatives echoed the call for common action and international cooperation. Pendarovski (North Macedonia) emphasised that without a joint pact for the future, no single country or group of countries can adequately respond to the challenges posed by AI. Abela (Malta) underscored the need for global action, recognising that technology is evolving rapidly and has vast potential. He asserted that failing to work together on AI is not a viable option. Thórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir, minister for foreign affairs of Iceland, stressed the need for close multilateral cooperation to address the profound questions raised by AI and prevent it from becoming a destructive tool. 

Nanaia Mahuta, minister for foreign affairs and local government of New Zealand, stressed that international rules and limits on autonomous weapons systems are needed, as well as establishing clear norms to address the responsible use of other new and emerging technologies, including AI. Enrique Austria Manalo, secretary for foreign affairs of the Philippines, noted that the country is working with partners for rules to govern lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). The Philippines is hosting an Indo-Pacific meeting on LAWS in December.

Some countries also highlighted the role of the UN in tackling AI: Mottley (Barbados) emphasised the necessity of establishing an appropriate regulatory framework and expressed support for the actions of the Secretary-General in this regard. Billström (Sweden) highlighted the importance of shaping a shared vision for new technologies, such as AI, to be rooted in the values of the UN Charter, to harness their potential and mitigate associated risks. Yvan Gil Pinto, minister of the people’s power for foreign affairs of Venezuela, emphasised that the regulation of AI should become a strategic priority for the UN. Dowden (the UK) noted that the AI revolution is a test for the UN to collaborate effectively on an issue that will profoundly impact humanity and the planet’s future.

Arnoldo Ricardo André Tinoco, minister for foreign affairs and worship of Costa Rica, highlighted the need for new governance frameworks for the militarisation of new technologies. He noted that Costa Rica will present a resolution to the UN General Assembly on the matter of autonomous weapons systems, together with Austria and Mexico. Manalo (the Philippines) called for UN partnerships that guarantee that new technologies are not weaponised or misused in any way to subvert democracy and freedom.

Balakrishnan (Singapore) stressed that global dialogue about LAWS must be started, and must be started under the auspices of the UN. Balakrishnan also welcomed the Secretary-General’s decision to convene a high-level advisory body on AI. Balakrishnan is optimistic that the UN and the multilateral system will be able to establish norms on fast-emerging critical technologies. 

Dowden (the UK) noted that governments should cooperate with the best academics and researchers to evaluate technologies. Netanyahu (Israel) noted that the perils of AI can be avoided by combining the forces of human and machine intelligence to usher in a brilliant future.

Development: Nations address the digital divide and advocate for equal access to technology

Abela (Malta) stressed the urgent need to address the digital divide. This emphasis extends beyond just closing the gap in digital access, as Malta also prioritises equipping citizens with essential digital skills. Abela (Malta) also called for global collaboration to reduce this divide, recognising it as a collective responsibility transcending borders. Balakrishnan (Singapore) advocated for the adoption of the Global Digital Compact, emphasising the importance of bridging the global digital divide. Singapore commits to supporting small states in digital development, highlighting inclusivity in the digital age. The launch of the Digital Force platform for collaboration among small states further illustrates their commitment.

Jugnauth (Mauritius) advocated for collaborative efforts in harnessing digital tools, believing that international cooperation can accelerate digital development. He also highlighted the significance of increased investment in education, treated as a global public good, to nurture the required digital skills in the digital age. On a similar note, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, stated that Georgia’s commitment to allocating resources for digital literacy and bridging the digital divide reflects an understanding that access alone is insufficient.

Manasseh Damukana Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, stated that the nation emphasises infrastructure resilience, digital connectivity, and technology transfer. He underscored the need for robust technological infrastructure to support digital access and the transfer of knowledge and technology from more developed regions to less developed ones. On the same note, Mata’afa (Samoa) acknowledged the potential of a digitised world to connect remote communities

Matekane (Lesotho) emphasised the significance of digital access in the modern era, particularly in healthcare. Additionally, Matekane noted the positive effects of digital access at the national level, particularly among youth, including girls and women, which resulted in heightened civic engagement. However, he acknowledged challenges in providing full digital access in rural areas due to infrastructure and affordability issues, which perpetuate inequalities. Lesotho is committed to addressing these disparities for greater inclusivity. Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi, minister for foreign affairs of Indonesia, echoed the need for developed nations to fulfil their responsibilities, particularly in areas like climate financing, green investment, and technology transfer. Marsudi stressed that technology and innovation should be accessible to all, not limited to a select few. Ensuring developing countries have access to secure digital technologies, including AI, is crucial for sustainable future growth.

Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, minister for foreign affairs of Bahrain, highlighted its significant achievements in digital transformation. Bahrain has assumed the role of leading the Digital Cooperation Organization (DCO) and has secured membership in the Council of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Moreover, Bahrain has gained recognition as a prominent player in the field of e-government, achieving the top global ranking for internet accessibility. Furthermore, Bahrain is undertaking a national strategy to support the advancement of the fourth industrial revolution and the digital economy. 

John Rosso, deputy prime minister and minister for immigration, lands, and physical planning of Papua New Guinea, underscored the importance of ICT for e-Government. Nabil Ammar, minister for foreign affairs, migration and Tunisians abroad, underscored that Tunisia is committed to digital transformation while also prioritising social protection for all citizens. Saleumxay Kommasith, deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs of Lao PDR drew attention to the outcome of the G77 and China Summit, where heads of state and governments of developing countries echoed that science, technology, and innovation, including ICT, have become fundamental in addressing global challenges and advancing the 2030 Agenda. 
Finally, Reem Ebrahim Al Hashimy, minister of state for international cooperation of the United Arab Emirates, highlighted plans to launch a digital platform for humanitarian support that utilises advanced technologies for disaster response.

Security: International partnerships needed to tackle cyber threats

In the evolving landscape of global security, nations addressed a spectrum of challenges and opportunities stemming from the digital age. Pham Minh Chinh, prime minister of Vietnam, underscored the complexity of non-traditional security threats, such as threats to cybersecurity, while Pendarovski (North Macedonia) noted that cyber threats have already become part of our lives. 

Various countries highlighted cybercrime as a concern. Jugnauth (Mauritius) acknowledged the cross-border challenge cybercrime poses. Mata’afa (Samoa) underlined the imperative of protecting citizens from cyber fraud and attacks. 

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, noted that terrorist threats are taking new shapes due to the misuse of ICT. Manalo (the Philippines) raised concerns about new forms of warfare, including cyber and space-based warfare.

Raymond Ndong Sima, prime minister of Gabon, noted that solutions to contemporary threats, particularly cyber insecurity, must be reinvented. Tinoco (Costa Rica) emphasised the urgent need for new governance frameworks to combat cybercrime and bolster cybersecurity. Pinto (Venezuela) advocated for the strategic prioritisation of cyberspace protection and the fight against cybercrime to safeguard sovereignty and prevent destabilisation.

A few representatives noted that solutions to cybersecurity issues should be international in nature. José Ulisses Correia e Silva, prime minister and minister of reform of Cabo Verde, underscored the significance of international partnerships to confront cybercrime. In Mahuta’s (New Zealand) view, digital challenges such as cyber threats and online extremism should be addressed through collaborative efforts involving governments, civil society, and industry, exemplified by initiatives like the Christchurch Call to Action. Another collaborative effort is the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on ICT Security, chaired by Singapore, whose representative highlighted that the group has made steady progress and can offer useful lessons for other areas. Mata’afa (Samoa) also emphasised the importance of OEWG’s work and called for international assistance to fortify critical infrastructure and financial institutions against cyber threats.

un meeting 2022
This page provides detailed and real-time coverage on cybersecurity, peace and security negotiations at UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on security of and in the use of information and communications technologies 2021–2025. Read more.
un meeting 2022
This page provides detailed and real-time coverage on cybersecurity, peace and security negotiations at UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on security of and in the use of information and communications technologies 2021–2025. Read more.

Sociocultural: Fake news and freedom of speech

In the contemporary landscape, the influence of fake news is an undeniable force, and nations worldwide are grappling with its ramifications. Pendarovski (North Macedonia) acknowledged the insidious nature of this phenomenon. However, North Macedonia is not alone in its concerns. Mottley (Barbados) voiced deep concerns about the impact of fake news on the very foundations of democracy, emphasising the vital need for accurate information as a foundation for a healthy democracy. Al Zayani (Bahrain) drew attention to the need to prevent the misuse of freedoms and media platforms, particularly in matters related to religious contempt, extremism, terrorism, and intolerance. Finally, Gylfadóttir (Iceland) stressed the importance that society make a clear distinction between individual freedom of expression and state-sponsored propaganda or artificially generated misinformation. Iceland emphasised that human rights and freedom are meant for individuals and not for automated bots.

Economic: Digital economies prioritised for prosperity

Abela (Malta) emphasised Malta’s achievements in leveraging digital technology and dismantling trade and tariff barriers to venture into sectors once inaccessible to smaller nations. The conclusion drawn by Malta is that it is important to avoid using protectionism. Similarly, Chinh (Vietnam) noted that Vietnam aims to transition into a green, digital, circular economy, promoting innovation, reducing trade barriers, and seeking free trade agreements. Silva (Cabo Verde) stated that Cabo Verde wishes to transform itself into a digital nation and diversify its economy. Kommasith (Lao PDR) highlighted a preference for a digital economy over resource-driven economies. In this context, the Lao PDR has adopted its National Digital Economy Development Vision and Strategy.

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