UN official, tech leaders tout the power of data, AI to improve global health, sustainable development

Apr 30
Oct 4

NEW YORK CITY—Advances in technology innovation and artificial intelligence can help accelerate global sustainable development efforts to combat hunger, poverty and climate change and improve health outcomes, a United Nations official said Monday.

Back in July, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged global leaders to leverage AI and data to turbocharge efforts to address global challenges. "We need a race to develop AI for good: to develop AI that is reliable and safe and that can end poverty, banish hunger, cure cancer and supercharge climate action [and] an AI that propels us towards the Sustainable Development Goals," Guterres said during the Security Council debate on AI.

U.N. leaders adopted a lofty list of 17 sustainable development goals back in 2015 with the aim of making substantial progress by 2030. The goals include ending extreme poverty and hunger, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation as well as green energy, and providing quality universal education and lifelong learning opportunities.

Those efforts are "woefully off-track halfway towards their 2030 deadline" due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other global events, Guterres said in September.

"We need to catch up and we need to catch up fast. There is no way we can do that without leveraging technology responsibly," Amandeep Singh Gill, the U.N. secretary general’s envoy on technology, said Monday during an event on the U.N. main campus, co-hosted by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the World Academy of Art and Science and the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly.

"Take the example of health," Gill said. "If we can bring data across diverse sources together on antimicrobial resistance, we can build decision support systems for clinicians so that when they set up to write a prescription, they know which antibiotic to prescribe and how to do it in their proper context. That will have a tremendous impact and that's impacting hundreds of thousands of lives."


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AI and technology innovation also can play a role in addressing food insecurity and building agricultural systems more resilient to climate change, he noted. There are organizations leveraging technology to help small-scale farmers across the globe. Global development organization Digital Green builds digital solutions to assist vast sections of rural communities as they lift themselves out of poverty and enable farmers to share information with each other.

Digital Green worked with generative AI startup Gooey.AI to introduce Farmer.CHAT, an AI assistant to make vetted farmer knowledge accessible.

Gill noted that having a governance framework in place, with input from both the public and private sectors, will be key to ensuring that AI and technology are used safely and responsibly.

"Governance has the capacity to bring different actors together and set the rules of the game. We need to build public-private partnerships," he said.

The U.N. secretary general has called for the creation of a multistakeholder high-level advisory board for AI that will report back on the options for global AI governance by the end of this year.  

Recognizing the potential for innovation to play a role in sustainable development, the CTA announced Monday that technology has been added as a new eighth pillar of the Human Security for All (HS4A) campaign. HS4A is a global campaign led by the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security and the World Academy of Art and Science with the aim of bringing "human security to all of the world’s people, leaving no one behind."

Technology now joins the original seven pillars of human security—economic, environmental, food, health, political, personal and community security.  

"Technology is making our world a better place to live for literally billions of people, and we are only just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CTA, during Monday's event. CTA, which produces the annual CES technology show, is a partner organization in the HS4A campaign.


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"I think what we symbolize here a marriage between the science that develops the new knowledge and the technology that converts it into usable, useful practical ways in which it can change our lives and the governance that we need, the laws and the policies to support it and to make it more effective and reach and serve the lives of people," said Garry Jacobs, president and CEO of the World Academy of Art and Science, during Monday's event.

Jacobs added, "We're not just we're bringing together partnerships between business and science and governments and civil society, but we also need the whole world on our side for this, because this is just too important. We need everybody to understand the significance of climate change, the importance of education, the importance of extending healthcare to everybody, and employment opportunities for everybody."

"We believe the SDGs [sustainable development goals] can be achieved, they can be achieved on time, perhaps even over achieved, but we can never do it just with one of these things. We've got to do it by bringing them all together," Jacobs said.

These initiatives come as a handful of tech companies, including AI heavyweights such as Microsoft and Meta and OpenAI, signed on to the White House’s voluntary AI pledge, agreeing to mitigate the risks of AI, as Washington policymakers continue to debate new regulation of the emerging technology, The Washington Post reported.