Big technology companies are recklessly pursuing profits from artificial intelligence and urgent action is needed to mitigate the risks from the rapidly growing sector, the head of the United Nations has warned.
In a fierce attack on the technology multinationals, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, told the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos that every breakthrough in generative AI increased the threat of unintended consequences.
Guterres linked the risks from AI to that posed by the climate crisis and said the international community had no strategy to deal with either.
Addressing the WEF in the Swiss resort, the UN head challenged representatives of the tech industry in the audience to work with governments to put in place guardrails for AI.
“This technology has enormous potential for sustainable development – but the International Monetary Fund has just warned that it is very likely to worsen inequality,” he said, referencing an IMF report published on Monday.
“Powerful tech companies are already pursuing profits with a reckless disregard for human rights, personal privacy, and social impact.”
Tech companies say they are putting in place systems to prevent AI being used for criminal or other malign purposes, and insist the new technology will create more jobs than it destroys.
Guterres said much more needed to be done, arguing that governments and international bodies such as the UN needed to play a role in ensuring AI was a force for good.
“My advisory body on AI has already made preliminary recommendations on AI governance that tap the benefits of this incredible new technology, while mitigating its risks,” he said.
“We need governments urgently to work with tech companies on risk management frameworks for current AI development; and on monitoring and mitigating future harms. And we need a systematic effort to increase access to AI so that developing economies can benefit from its enormous potential. We need to bridge the digital divide instead of deepening it.”
The OpenAIchief executive, Sam Altman, told a Davos event on Tuesday that an energy breakthrough was necessary to meet the future demands of AI, which will consume vastly more power than people expected.
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The chief executive, who was sacked last November from his role running the ChatGPT developer and then reinstated a few days later, said the silver lining was that more climate-friendly sources of energy, particularly nuclear fusion or cheaper solar power and storage, were the way forward for AI.
Guterres also criticised fossil fuel companies for preventing progress on climate change. “The fossil fuel industry has just launched yet another multimillion-dollar campaign to kneecap progress and keep the oil and gas flowing indefinitely,” he said.
“Let me be very clear: the phase-out of fossil fuels is essential and inevitable. No amount of spin or scare tactics will change that. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late. We must act now to ensure a just and equitable transition to renewable energy.”
Last year, Guterres accused fossil fuel companies of pursuing business strategies incompatible with human development, saying: “These two issues – climate and AI – are exhaustively discussed by governments, by the media, by leaders here in Davos. And yet, we have no effective global strategy to deal with either.
“In the face of the serious, even existential threats posed by runaway climate chaos, and the runaway development of AI without guardrails, we seem powerless to act.”