Another thing that is refreshing is the fact that in the UNESCO recommendation values are the foundation – not legal norms.
‘That is so important to me. Values are not legal norms, but they are supposed to guide the shaping of legal norms. In addition, ethics is much more dynamic than international law. All legislation should of course be in compliance with human rights, principles and standards and with international law in general. There is a very urgent role for ethics, especially with this kind of fast-moving technology. By putting values central, we were able to bring in more refined perspectives from all over the world, to make it more inclusive.
Let me give the example of a new value we added, that was first called ‘living in harmony’. We brought in specific ideas/concepts from Africa, Latin-America and Asia and combined them into a value which involves and recognises interconnectedness. This is a deep value that comes from Africa. It is called Ubuntu, which means: ‘I am because we are’. So, if I deny another human being his or her dignity, I deny my own dignity. Another element we added in this new value is the harmonious co-existence between humans and the natural environment. That comes from Latin America and Asia. It is closely related to their way of looking at life as a whole.’
That is quite distinctive.
‘It is something that, I am sure, is missing in the dominant Northern or European vision. I think that these things are taken for granted in Europe, so Europeans do not have to point this out. Where for us in Africa, this is a rule, telling us who we are and everything that we do. It is important to frame ethical regulations in terms that all cultures can relate to. This is what makes this recommendation unique and comprehensive. Moreover, we ensure inclusiveness in this way.’
Next to the values, there are also policy actions. What do you consider the most important one, especially for Africa?
‘For sure, that is capacity building for AI ethics. Not in the empty sense of the word, because you cannot talk about the ethics of AI, if you do not know what AI is. Therefore, what we are trying to do now in South Africa is to introduce a public Digital Ambassador Program. This is very concrete and has been done very successfully in Rwanda as well.
Thus, awareness needs to be created. In order to really achieve something, you need to focus on individuals. We need all African people to understand why it is important to talk about the ethics of AI and make them understand what the impact of AI is on their lives. Or what it potentially can be. So, we need them to understand the possible disruptive nature of AI technologies, as well as the possible benefits.’
That is a big challenge all over the world.
‘Awareness of AI fundamentals is just the first building block to involve civil society. However, you have to realise that in Africa there are a lot of people who do not have access to electricity. In order to reach them, you literally have to send people, ‘ambassadors’, to their communities.
What I like to emphasise is that in the recommendation we do say that it is important that we have Public Awareness Programs. Yet, this comes with the realisation that Public Awareness Programs in a continent like Africa only reach people in cities. Where a huge part of countries consist of rural populations. Even in cities, the poorest of the poor will not have access to these Public Awareness Programs. So, for that reason, you need individuals to interact with local communities. They need to be talking with them about this, and explain the positive and negative effects and how it can impact their lives.
It is challenging when you have to talk about such a complex issue to people that have never even seen a cell phone and do not have electricity. Basically, they often do not care about this, because they have different needs. However, in the end, their lives will be impacted too. Unfortunately, that is just the way it is. In their case, it can mean that they will be pushed away further and further. We cannot have that. That is exactly the reason why it is important to work with dedication on AI literacy.’
Even in the Netherlands where 98 percent of the households have access to internet and use cell phones, capacity building is very challenging. Where to start in the rural areas of Africa?
‘First of all, it is important to make it less abstract. Of course, in an international recommendation we can only speak of it in a more abstract way to achieve global approval. But to involve ordinary people, we need to speak about concrete examples. Johannesburg, for instance, is now full of surveillance cameras. What we need, and ideally this recommendation contributes to this, is more and more people saying: ‘I want to know what happens with that information. This is my basic right: privacy and protection of my information.’ If people start asking these questions and insist on getting the answers, and receive guidance to know what rights they have in terms of responses, we will build a truly ethical and global AI community.’