British PM Johnson warns of AI’s dangers in UN speech and invites leaders to summit

boris johnson un speech ai artificial intelligence dangers warning summit

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his maiden speech at the UN to warn of the dangers of AI and invite world leaders to a UK summit.

Johnson opened his speech going over some of the usual things he says would be expected of a British PM: advancing democratic values, rules of a peaceful world, protecting freedom of navigation at sea, and finding a “two-state” solution to the conflict in the Middle-East.

“Of course, I’m proud to do all these things,” says Johnson. “But, no-one can ignore a gathering force that is reshaping the future of every member of this assembly. There has been nothing like it.”

Examples are given of past technological achievements such as the steam engine, aviation, and nuclear. Ultimately, all of these technologies were controlled by humans – for better or worse.

Automation, by its very nature, is increasingly taking away human control. Just earlier this week, AI News reported on comments by Microsoft chief Brad Smith who warned that killer robots are ‘unstoppable’ and a new digital Geneva Convention is needed.

Before sharing his personal concerns about emerging technologies like AI and the IoT, Johnson acknowledges their huge potential benefits.

“Smart cities will pullulate with sensors, all joined together by the Internet of Things,” says Johnson. “So no bin goes unemptied, no street unswept, and the urban environment is as antiseptic as a Zurich pharmacy.”

“Voice-connected connectivity will be in every room and almost every object. Your mattress will monitor your nightmares, your fridge will beep for more cheese, your front door will sweep wide open the moment you approach like some silent butler, your smart meter will go hustling on its own accord for the cheapest electricity.”

Of course, Johnson isn’t here to advertise the benefits of emerging technologies but to warn of the challenges they will present to nations around the world.

“They could also be used to keep every citizen under round-the-clock surveillance,” explains Johnson. “Every one of them will be minutely transcribing your every habit in tiny electronic shorthand – stored not in their chips where you can find it – but in some great cloud of data that hangs ever more oppressively over the human race.”

Johnson expresses the concern that, with each click or tap, we are ourselves becoming a resource.

Mass amounts of data about people is indisputably becoming ever more valuable. This could be for purposes such as targeting and influencing public opinion, as we saw with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or for things such as training AI models.

“Data is the crude oil of the modern economy and we’re now in an environment where we don’t know who should own these new oil fields, who should have the rights or the title to these gushes of cash, and we don’t know who decides how to use that data.”

Johnson presents the audience with a series of rhetorical questions about the future of AI and the societal impacts it could have:

“Can these algorithms be trusted with our lives and our hopes? Should the machines decide whether or not we are eligible for a mortgage or insurance? What surgery or medicines we should receive? Are we doomed to a cold and heartless future in which a computer says yes or no with the grim finality of an emperor in the arena? How do you plead with an algorithm? How do you get it to see extenuating circumstances? How do we know that the machines have not been insidiously-programmed to fool us?”

Providing an example of how AI is being used today for malicious purposes, Johnson highlights that algorithms are enabling real-time censorship on messaging platforms in some countries.

“The digital authoritarianism is not alas the stuff of dystopian fantasy, but an emerging reality. The reason I’m giving this speech today with this gloomy proem is that the UK is one of the world’s tech leaders, and I believe governments have been simply caught unawares by the unintended consequences of the internet.”

Despite his warnings, Johnson says he’s optimistic about the ability of new technologies to “serve as a liberator and remake the world wondrously”.

Johnson points towards breakthroughs in nanotechnology allowing the development of robots a fraction the size of red blood cells that can swim through our bodies releasing medicine and attacking malignant cells. He also highlights neural interface technology which is enabling new cochlear implants and giving hearing to those without; allowing them to hear loved ones and sounds once again, or, perhaps, even for the first time.

“How we design the emerging technologies behind these breakthroughs and what values inform their design will shape the future of humanity,” says Johnson. “At stake is whether we bequeath an Orwellian world designed for censorship, oppression, and control; or a world of emancipation, debate, and learning. Where technology threatens famine and disease, but not our freedoms.”

Johnson acknowledges the work going on around the world to come up with rules around the development of groundbreaking technologies such as AI which will have a major effect on the very fabric of our societies:

“Month-by-month, vital decisions are being taken in academic committees, company boardrooms, and industry standards groups, they are writing the rulebooks of the future – making ethical judgments, choosing what will or will not be rendered possible. Together, we need to ensure that new advances reflect our values by design.

There is excellent work being done in the EU, the Commonwealth, and, of course, the UN, which has a vital role in ensuring that no country is excluded from the wonderful benefits of this technology and the industrial revolution it is bringing about.

But we must be still more ambitious. We need to find the right balance between freedom and control, between innovation and regulation, between private enterprise and government oversight. We must insist that the ethical judgments inherent in the design of new technology are transparent to all and we must make our voices heard more loudly in the standards bodies that write the rules. Above all, we need to agree a common set of global principles to shape the norms and standards that will guide the development of emerging technology.”

There are few better places to make the case for a new digital Geneva Convention as envisioned by Brad Smith than at the UN. Johnson used his speech to advocate for a new universal declaration and invited world leaders to a summit in the UK:

“Seven decades ago, this general assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with no dissenting voices, uniting humanity for the first time behind one set of principles. Our joint declaration upholds freedom of opinion and expression, the privacy of home and correspondence, and the right to seek and impart information and ideas. Unless we ensure that new technology reflects this spirit, I fear that declaration will mean nothing and no longer hold. So, the mission of the United Kingdom – and all who share our values – must be to ensure that emerging technologies are designed from the outset for freedom, openness, and pluralism; with the right safeguards in place to protect our peoples.

I invite you next year to a summit in London. We have, in the UK, by far, the biggest tech sector – fintech, biotech, edtech, medtech, nanotech, greentech, every kind of tech – in Europe.

We will seek to assemble the broadest possible coalition to take forward this vital task, building on all the UK contributes to this mission as a global leader in ethical and responsible technology. If we master this challenge, and I have no doubt that we can, then we will not only safeguard our ideals, we will surmount the limits that once constrained humanity and conquer the perils that once ended so many lives.”

Johnson ends on a positive note, with a rallying call to world leaders that it is possible to unlock the huge benefits of emerging technologies – while minimising their downsides – with a united approach.

“Together, we will vanquish killer diseases, eliminate famine, protect the environment, and transform our cities. Success will depend now, as ever, on freedom, openness, and pluralism; the formula that not only emancipates the human spirit, but releases the boundless ingenuity and inventiveness of mankind. And which, above all, the United Kingdom will strive to preserve.”

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