UNESCO member states adopt the first ever global agreement on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

Source: en.unesco.org

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO presented Thursday the first ever global standard on the ethics of artificial intelligence adopted by the member states of UNESCO at the General Conference.

This historical text defines the common values and principles which will guide the construction of the necessary legal infrastructure to ensure the healthy development of AI.

AI is pervasive, and enables many of our daily routines – booking flights, steering driverless cars, and personalising our morning news feeds. AI also supports the decision-making of governments and the private sector.  

AI technologies are delivering remarkable results in highly specialized fields such as cancer screening and building inclusive environments for people with disabilities. They also help combat global problems like climate change and world hunger, and help reduce poverty by optimizing economic aid.

But the technology is also bringing new unprecedented challenges. We see increased gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy, dignity and agency, dangers of mass surveillance, and increased use of unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now, there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues.

In 2018, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, launched an ambitious project: to give the world an ethical framework for the use of artificial intelligence. Three years later, thanks to the mobilization of hundreds of experts from around the world and intense international negotiations, the 193 UNESCO’s member states have just officially adopted this ethical framework.

The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit humanity. The Recommendation on the ethics of AI is a major answer. It sets the first global normative framework while giving States the responsibility to apply it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193 Member States in its implementation and ask them to report regularly on their progress and practices. Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General

The content of the recommendation

The Recommendation aims to realize the advantages AI brings to society and reduce the risks it entails. It ensures that digital transformations promote human rights and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues around transparency, accountability and privacy, with action-oriented policy chapters on data governance, education, culture, labour, healthcare and the economy. 

  1. Protecting data 

The Recommendation calls for action beyond what tech firms and governments are doing to guarantee individuals more protection by ensuring transparency, agency and control over their personal data. It states that individuals should all be able to access or even erase records of their personal data. It also includes actions to improve data protection and an individual’s knowledge of, and right to control, their own data. It also increases the ability of regulatory bodies around the world to enforce this.

  1. Banning social scoring and mass surveillance

The Recommendation explicitly bans the use of AI systems for social scoring and mass surveillance. These types of technologies are very invasive, they infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and they are used in a broad way. The Recommendation stresses that when developing regulatory frameworks, Member States should consider that ultimate responsibility and accountability must always lie with humans and that AI technologies should not be given legal personality themselves. 

  1. Helping to monitor and evaluate

The Recommendation also sets the ground for tools that will assist in its implementation. Ethical Impact Assessment is intended to help countries and companies developing and deploying AI systems to assess the impact of those systems on individuals, on society and on the environment. Readiness Assessment Methodology helps Member States to assess how ready they are in terms of legal and technical infrastructure. This tool will assist in enhancing the institutional capacity of countries and recommend appropriate measures to be taken in order to ensure that ethics are implemented in practice. In addition, the Recommendation encourages Member States to consider adding the role of an independent AI Ethics Officer or some other mechanism to oversee auditing and continuous monitoring efforts. 

  1. Protecting the environment

The Recommendation emphasises that AI actors should favour data, energy and resource-efficient AI methods that will help ensure that AI becomes a more prominent tool in the fight against climate change and on tackling environmental issues. The Recommendation asks governments to assess the direct and indirect environmental impact throughout the AI system life cycle. This includes its carbon footprint, energy consumption and the environmental impact of raw material extraction for supporting the manufacturing of AI technologies. It also aims at reducing the environmental impact of AI systems and data infrastructures. It incentivizes governments to invest in green tech, and if there are disproportionate negative impact of AI systems on the environment, the Recommendation instruct that they should not be used.

Decisions impacting millions of people should be fair, transparent and contestable. These new technologies must help us address the major challenges in our world today, such as increased inequalities and the environmental crisis, and not deepening them.

Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences

Emerging technologies such as AI have proven their immense capacity to deliver for good. However, its negative impacts that are exacerbating an already divided and unequal world, should be controlled. AI developments should abide by the rule of law, avoiding harm, and ensuring that when harm happens, accountability and redressal mechanisms are at hand for those affected.

Media contact: Clare O’Hagan, c.o-hagan@unesco.org(link sends e-mail), +33(0)145681729

Research Scholar Dr. Fr. Michael Baggot, LC, at Fall Conference ‘I Have Called You by Name’: Human Dignity in a Secular World.

The de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture held its 21st annual Fall Conference, “I Have Called You by Name: Human Dignity in a Secular World,” November 11–13, 2021, in person at the University of Notre Dame.

What do we mean by “human dignity”? What are its foundations, contours, and entailments? Is a unified understanding of human dignity possible in a fragmented secular culture? Is a just society possible without it? This interdisciplinary, three-day event engaged the theme of human dignity from a variety of points of departure in more than 100 presentations.

Our Research Scholar, Dr. Fr. Michael Baggot, LC, was among the speakers presenting “Procreative Beneficence’s Disregard for Dignity in the Pursuit of an Improved Humanity.” Proposals for procreative beneficence endanger human dignity and present incoherencies. Respect for autonomy would seem to prohibit one group (parents) from imposing their personal opinions about the good life upon others (children). Moreover, the harm principle is fundamentally violated through the rampant destruction of embryonic life. Further, marginalized groups will be disproportionately reduced due to social pressures to have children with the characteristics of the privileged class. Proponents of a new eugenics often exalt radical self-definition while ironically embracing an extreme form of domination at the expense of the autonomy of the youngest and most vulnerable members of society.

Eat, Pray And Wash Your Hands

by Ana Maria Ganev

“Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me.”

Psalm 51:4

“Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”

Psalm 51:9

Regular handwashing with soap is promoted as an effective approach to disease prevention. Moreover, handwashing has been an important religious and cultural custom for millennia. The link between handwashing and health issues was first made less than two centuries ago by Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician and scientist working in Vienna, known today as “the father of hand hygiene.”

In 1846, the Hungarian obstetrician noticed that maternal mortality in his hospital, due to childbed fever also known as puerperal fever, was significantly higher than in similar hospitals nearby. He decided to investigate, seeking differences between the maternity clinics. And soon enough he noticed that doctors and medical students in his hospital often visited the maternity ward right after performing an autopsy. Semmelweis surmised that infectious particles of some kind were being passed from cadavers to women; in fact, puerperal fever is a form of bacteria-caused sepsis, commonly referred to as blood poisoning. Thus, after instructing the students, as well as all the hospital staff, to always wash their hands in a chlorinated disinfecting solution before each examination, the number of deaths plummeted dramatically. Nevertheless, some doctors were disgruntled and angry that Semmelweis was implying they were to blame for the deaths, this would have been admitting that physicians, instead of saving lives and healing patients, were the unwitting cause of so much death. Therefore they refused washing their hands, arguing in support of the prevailing, at that time, belief that water was the potential cause of disease or blaming such diseases on miasma, a kind of toxic atmosphere.

In the end, Semmelweis suffered from severe depression and went mad. He turned every conversation to the topic of childbed fever. He was involuntarily confined to an insane asylum, where he died after two weeks. Later in time, in 1862, he was vindicated by the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur and his “Germ Theory” of disease.

Before the establishment of handwashing as a hygiene practice, physical cleansing has been a pivotal element in various religious ceremonies for thousands of years for either ritualistic reasons during religious ceremonies or for symbolic reasons in specific everyday life situations. A gesture that was previously considered as a religious ritual, a divine precept without rational explanation, had now become scientifically valid and a crucial practice in public health.

In particular, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism have precise rules for handwashing specified in holy texts, and this practice marks several key moments of the day. For instance, Jewish law and custom prescribe ritual hand washing immediately after awakening in the morning, before and after each meal, before praying, as well as before the beginning of Shabbat. Islam places great emphasis on cleanliness, in fact it is prescribed to repeat ablutions at least 3 times with running water before prayers (5 times/day). The Christian faith gives indication for ritual handwashing before consecration of the bread and wine and the washing of hands after touching the holy oil (the latter in the Catholic Church) (Allegranzi et al., 2008).

Furthermore, beyond the spiritual behavior or a mere physical gesture, handwashing has wider meanings, referring to interior and exterior purity, suggesting a psychological association between bodily purity and moral purity.

The “Lady Macbeth effect” or “Macbeth effect” is a priming effect said to occur when the response to a cleaning cue is increased after having been induced by a feeling of shame or a threat to one’s moral purity. The effect is named after Lady Macbeth, the character in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth; she imagined bloodstains on her hands after she goaded her husband into murdering the lawful king. Scientists studied the “Macbeth effect”, which revealed itself through a greater desire for cleansing products and a greater likelihood of taking antiseptic wipes. In a widely-publicized set of studies, participants who were primed to recall past unethical events preferred cleansing products more than those primed with ethical events (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). Several subsequent efforts did not replicate this relationship, not excluding, however, the close association between guilt and atonement by “washing away one’s sins” (Siev et al., 2018).

 One of the main areas of interest of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights is Bioethics, Multiculturalism & Religion, an interdisciplinary project whose mission is the promotion and recognition of the academic and scientific commitment in the field of life sciences and medicine. It highlights the importance of dialogue, creative cooperation and mutual understanding in our challengingly globalized and diverse world.

Today, if we can fight Covid-19, if we have eradicated typhoid and cholera, if the plague is only a disease of the past, we owe it to hygiene and hand cleaning in particular. And therefore also to Ignaz Semmelweis and his intuition. With this in mind, we must not “wash our hands” as Pontius Pilatus did, with the aim of clearing his conscience and rubbing off his share of responsibility for the martyrdom and death of an innocent. Instead, we must courageously assume our share of individual responsibility by reconsidering handwashing as a gesture of love and care for our own health and that of others’.

“Everything is in the hands of man. Therefore, they must be washed often.”

by Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Neural Dynamics of Creativity

By Ana Maria Ganev, PhD Candidate Faculty of Bioethics – Intern UNESCOBIOCHAIR

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche ―

The Research Group of Neurobioethics of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights has been actively exploring scientific developments in neuroscience in order to discern some points of contact between neuroscience and a philosophical-anthropological vision centered on the human person. One of the most fascinating challenges is trying to disentangle what makes us human. A frequent answer to this old-age question is Creativity, but creativity itself is a mystery that engages cognitive neuroscientists in uncovering the neural correlates involved in this enthralling process.

Creativity is the ability to perceive the world in new ways; its benefits are widely recognized and appreciated. Indeed not only do art, music, literature, and scientific discoveries contribute to the survival and evolution of our species, but such creative innovations improve our daily living and enrich the human experience on both the individual and societal level. The main characteristics of the creative process include the ability to make new connections or “thinking outside the box”, the capacity to generate new ideas, recognizing alternative possibilities, divergent thinking, imagination and evaluation, cognitive abilities and intrinsic motivation.

While artistic, literary, musical and scientific creativity are perhaps the most fascinating of all human achievements, their basic brain counterparts remain poorly defined. Scientists relentlessly seek a neuroscientific explanation of the puzzling phenomenon of creativity in order to define it, understand how it works, predict individual creative abilities from patterns of brain connectivity and eventually find ways to nurture and enhance creativity skills.

Contrary to common belief, creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain, in fact the brain participates as a whole in the creative process. We are all acquainted with the image of the “split brain” suggesting that the left hemisphere might be responsible for the logical, practical and analytical human traits, while the right hemisphere is accountable for creativity and boundless imagination. Although the left brain/right brain dichotomy remains prominent in the contemporary frame of mind, it no longer features in modern science, although there is of course a well-documented pattern of relative differences in function between the two sides of the brain (Corballis 2018).

Among the most common misconceptions or myths about creativity that may possibly lead to detrimental effects in the educational context, there is the belief that creativity is limited to arts, that no prior knowledge or hard work is needed, that it is just fun and requires nothing but pure talent, and that creativity is more of a product and not a process.

The cognitive neuroscience of creativity has made considerable progress by mapping brain networks involved in creative cognition. Three cognitive processes related to network interactions during creative performance have been identified: goal-directed memory retrieval (the ability to strategically search episodic and semantic memory for task-relevant information or, in other words, the recollection of past experiences specific to a time and place), prepotent-response inhibition (the ability to suppress interference from dominant or salient response tendencies such as obvious concepts or ideas that come to mind during divergent thinking, meaning that one has to inhibit the tendency of producing an automatic response), and internally-focused attention (the focusing of attention on self-generated thought processes and the shielding of internal processes from external interference) (Benedek et al., 2014; Beaty et al., 2019).  

Furthermore, correlational work using prediction modeling indicates that functional connectivity between networks — particularly the executive control network (activated during decision-making and task-oriented processes) and default mode network (activated during passive rest and mind-wandering) — can reliably predict an individual’s creative thinking ability.

By mapping neural dynamics, scientists could provide interesting insights into key cognitive mechanisms, showing evidence that the capability for creativity is universal, thus each of us, in various ways and with varying degrees of skill, expresses it. Apart from our innate creative capabilities, in order to come up with new ideas and unexpected associations, we have to divest ourselves of inhibitions, allowing our minds to wander more freely and to seek new connections among many possible solutions.

“Electricity is not only present in a magnificent thunderstorm and dazzling lightning, but also in a lamp; so also creativity exists not only where it creates great historical works, but also everywhere human imagination combines, changes, and creates anything new.” ― Lev Vygotsky ―

Read the article in Italian

The Wandering Brain

“A Lot to Think About” (Copyright © 2009 Linda Apple).

By Ana Maria Ganev, Intern and PhD candidate

“Reflect, before you think.”

by Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Have you ever wondered about mind-wandering? Curiously we think our brains work less when we are being absent-minded, as if in a “stand-by” mode; nevertheless, recent studies contradicted this impression, demonstrating that our brains are extremely active and energy-consuming especially during our “resting-state” mode (i.e. when non engaged in active tasks). In fact, the Default Mode Network (DMN) is a set of brain regions that exhibits an increased blood-flow, glucose metabolism and oxygen consumption during resting-state and is thought to be activated when individuals are focused on their internal mental-state or “metacognitive” processes, such as self-referential processing, interoception, autobiographical memory retrieval, or envisioning the future. Conversely, DMN is deactivated during cognitive task performances. The specific regions thought to be part of the DMN include the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the inferior parietal lobule, the lateral and inferior temporal cortex and the medial temporal lobes (Buckner et al., 2008).

Its discovery was an unexpected scientific accident, a consequence of brain-imaging studies. For a long time, fMRI investigators considered that the brain was completely at rest during the control condition when participants lie quietly in an fMRI machine with eyes closed or eyes open fixed on a cross. Images taken under these conditions were considered to be just noise, but they turned out to be more than that. The DMN was originally described by the neurologist Marcus Raichle in 2001, who observed that select brain regions increased metabolic activity during rest and decreased activity when engaged in goal-directed (i.e., cognitively demanding) behavior. DMN activity increases during perspective-taking of the desires, beliefs, intentions and emotions of others (i.e., theory of mind or attribution of mental states to others), in remembering the past (e.g., autobiographical memory), in time-traveling (e.g., planning the future), in moral decision-making, in self-criticizing and other experiences of self (Buckner et al., 2008).

 It may be that the stream of consciousness flows through those same key structures of the DMN.  Ever since its discovery, the DMN has been described by various neuroscientists as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or as an “uber-conductor” that ensures to keep order in a complex system of competing signals. This network is also known as “the me network”, because it appears to play a crucial role in the creation of mental constructs of the self, or “ego”. It’s worth mentioning as well the contribution of the DMN in aesthetic processing. While additional research is needed to better understand this role, it is likely that aesthetically pleasing images are both more evocative and lead to increased internal mentation (Belfi et al., 2018).

DMN-mediated self-reflection can lead to amazing intellectual and artistic achievements but also to destructive forms of unhappiness. A frequently cited quote is “A Wondering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, thus stressing out the strong correlation between mind-wandering or daydreaming and sadness. This system might be broken as well, if its fragile equilibrium is shifted towards excessive rumination and obsessive thoughts, leading to psychological illnesses and mental disorders like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorders and existential distress. Furthermore, therapies like meditation have received attention for influencing activity in the DMN, suggesting this may be part of their mechanism for improving well-being.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed

every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.

For man has closed himself up,

till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

― by William Blake from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”