UN urges moratorium on use of AI that imperils human rights

UN urges moratorium on use of AI that imperils human rights
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is calling for a moratorium on the use of artificial intelligence technology that poses a serious risk to human rights, including face-scanning systems that track people in public spaces.( AP)
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Updated 15 September 2021

UN urges moratorium on use of AI that imperils human rights

UN urges moratorium on use of AI that imperils human rights
  • UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said countries should expressly ban AI applications which don’t comply with international human rights law
  • AI-based technologies can be a force for good but they can also “have negative, even catastrophic, effects”

GENEVA: The UN human rights chief is calling for a moratorium on the use of artificial intelligence technology that poses a serious risk to human rights, including face-scanning systems that track people in public spaces.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also said Wednesday that countries should expressly ban AI applications which don’t comply with international human rights law.
Applications that should be prohibited include government “social scoring” systems that judge people based on their behavior and certain AI-based tools that categorize people into clusters such as by ethnicity or gender.
AI-based technologies can be a force for good but they can also “have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said in a statement.
Her comments came along with a new UN report that examines how countries and businesses have rushed into applying AI systems that affect people’s lives and livelihoods without setting up proper safeguards to prevent discrimination and other harms.
“This is not about not having AI,” Peggy Hicks, the rights office’s director of thematic engagement, told journalists as she presented the report in Geneva. “It’s about recognizing that if AI is going to be used in these human rights — very critical — function areas, that it’s got to be done the right way. And we simply haven’t yet put in place a framework that ensures that happens.”
Bachelet didn’t call for an outright ban of facial recognition technology, but said governments should halt the scanning of people’s features in real time until they can show the technology is accurate, won’t discriminate and meets certain privacy and data protection standards.
While countries weren’t mentioned by name in the report, China has been among the countries that have rolled out facial recognition technology — particularly for surveillance in the western region of Xinjiang, where many of its minority Uyghers live. The key authors of the report said naming specific countries wasn’t part of their mandate and doing so could even be counterproductive.
“In the Chinese context, as in other contexts, we are concerned about transparency and discriminatory applications that addresses particular communities,” said Hicks.
She cited several court cases in the United States and Australia where artificial intelligence had been wrongly applied..
The report also voices wariness about tools that try to deduce people’s emotional and mental states by analyzing their facial expressions or body movements, saying such technology is susceptible to bias, misinterpretations and lacks scientific basis.
“The use of emotion recognition systems by public authorities, for instance for singling out individuals for police stops or arrests or to assess the veracity of statements during interrogations, risks undermining human rights, such as the rights to privacy, to liberty and to a fair trial,” the report says.
The report’s recommendations echo the thinking of many political leaders in Western democracies, who hope to tap into AI’s economic and societal potential while addressing growing concerns about the reliability of tools that can track and profile individuals and make recommendations about who gets access to jobs, loans and educational opportunities.
European regulators have already taken steps to rein in the riskiest AI applications. Proposed regulations outlined by European Union officials this year would ban some uses of AI, such as real-time scanning of facial features, and tightly control others that could threaten people’s safety or rights.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has voiced similar concerns, though it hasn’t yet outlined a detailed approach to curtailing them. A newly formed group called the Trade and Technology Council, jointly led by American and European officials, has sought to collaborate on developing shared rules for AI and other tech policy.
Efforts to limit the riskiest uses of AI have been backed by Microsoft and other US tech giants that hope to guide the rules affecting the technology. Microsoft has worked with and provided funding to the UN rights office to help improve its use of technology, but funding for the report came through the rights office’s regular budget, Hicks said.
Western countries have been at the forefront of expressing concerns about the discriminatory use of AI.
“If you think about the ways that AI could be used in a discriminatory fashion, or to further strengthen discriminatory tendencies, it is pretty scary,” said US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo during a virtual conference in June. “We have to make sure we don’t let that happen.”
She was speaking with Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s executive vice president for the digital age, who suggested some AI uses should be off-limits completely in “democracies like ours.” She cited social scoring, which can close off someone’s privileges in society, and the “broad, blanket use of remote biometric identification in public space.”


Tunisia’s Saied strengthens presidential powers in decrees

Tunisia’s Saied strengthens presidential powers in decrees
Updated 27 sec ago

Tunisia’s Saied strengthens presidential powers in decrees

Tunisia’s Saied strengthens presidential powers in decrees
TUNIS, Tunisia: Tunisian President Kaïs Saied issued presidential decrees bolstering the already near-total power he granted himself two months ago.
Wednesday’s decrees include the continuing suspension of the Parliament’s powers and the suspension of all lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution. But the text published in the official gazette went even further — now freezing lawmakers’ salaries.
They also state Saied’s intention from now on to rule by presidential decree alone and ignore parts of the constitution. Laws will not go through the parliament, whose powers are frozen, granting him near-unlimited power.
On July 25, Saied sacked Tunisia’s prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority, saying it was because of a national emergency. His critics called it a coup.
For law professor Mouna Kraiem, the new emergency measures amount to “the establishment of a dictatorship in the full sense of the word.”
Saied has denied wanting to be a dictator, saying that he eventually aims to put his political reforms to the public in the form of a nationwide referendum. But his political critics remain skeptical of this intention.
The July event came after years of economic sluggishness, but were triggered by a day of violent protest and a rise in coronavirus cases.

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure
Updated 23 September 2021

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure
  • Eliyantha White treated sports stars and top politicians including the country’s prime minister
  • But mainstream doctors described White as a fraud and Ayurveda physicians rejected his claims

COLOMBO: A high-profile shaman who tried to end Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 outbreak with “blessed” water has died of the virus, his family said Thursday.
Eliyantha White, 48, who treated sports stars and top politicians including the country’s prime minister, claimed in November he could end the pandemic in Sri Lanka and neighboring India by pouring pots of his “blessed” water into rivers.
Health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi endorsed the water treatment, but was infected two months later and ended up in a hospital intensive care unit.
She was later demoted, and lost her portfolio, but remains in the cabinet.
White attracted international attention in 2010 when legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar publicly thanked him for treating a knee injury, saying it helped him hit the first-ever one-day international double century against South Africa.
In a 2010 interview, White claimed he had “special powers” since the age of 12.
He has since treated other Indian cricket stars, including Gautam Gambhir and Ashish Nehra.
White’s family said he had refused the Covid-19 vaccine.
His body was cremated at Colombo’s main cemetery on Thursday in line with quarantine regulations.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was among politicians to have consulted White, said on Twitter: “His legacy will continue to live through all the lives, he touched and healed of various ailments.”
But mainstream doctors described White as a fraud and Ayurveda physicians rejected his claims — even though the shaman said he used methods from the 3,000-year-old Indian medical tradition.
Sri Lanka’s total coronavirus deaths exceeded 12,000 with more than half a million people infected so far.
Doctors say the real toll is at least twice as high and authorities have resorted to mass cremations to clear bodies piling up at hospitals and morgues.


Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors
Updated 23 September 2021

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors
  • Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism

BANGKOK: Thailand’s disease control committee has proposed a halving of a two-week hotel isolation requirement for vaccinated arrivals, amid delays in plans to waive quarantine and reopen Bangkok and tourist destinations from next month.
Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism, a key sector that drew 40 million visitors in 2019.
“Reducing the quarantine is not only about tourism, but will help business travel and foreign students,” senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong told a news conference, adding tests would also be required.
Under the proposal, to be presented to government on Monday, those without vaccination proof would be isolated for 10 days if arriving by air, and 14 days if by land.
Authorities this week delayed to November plans to grant vaccinated visitors entry without quarantine, due to the country’s low inoculation rate.
Only Phuket and Samui islands currently waive quarantine for vaccinated tourists, as part of a pilot scheme.
Less than a quarter of the estimated 72 million people living in Thailand have been fully vaccinated.
The country is still fighting its most severe wave of infections, which has accounted for about 99 percent of its 1.5 million cases and 15,884 deaths.


Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering
Updated 23 September 2021

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering
  • Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya

The inequity of COVID-19 vaccine distribution will come into sharper focus Thursday as many of the African countries whose populations have little to no access to the life-saving shots step to the podium to speak at the UN’s annual meeting of world leaders.
Already, the struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic has featured prominently in leaders’ speeches — many of them delivered remotely exactly because of the virus. Country after country acknowledged the wide disparity in accessing the vaccine, painting a picture so bleak that a solution has at times seemed impossibly out of reach.
“Some countries have vaccinated their populations, and are on the path to recovery. For others, the lack of vaccines and weak health systems pose a serious problem,” Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, said in a prerecorded speech Wednesday. “In Africa, fewer than 1 in 20 people are fully vaccinated. In Europe, one in two are fully vaccinated. This inequity is clearly unfair.”
Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya.
Also among them will be Zimbabwe, where the economic ravages of the pandemic have forced some families to abandon the long-held tradition of taking care of their older people. And Uganda, where a surge in virus cases have made scarce hospital beds even more expensive, leading to concerns over alleged exploitation of patients by private hospitals.
On Wednesday, during a global vaccination summit convened virtually on the sidelines of the General Assembly, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would double its purchase of Pfizer’s COVID-19 shots to share with the world to 1 billion doses, with the goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the global population within the next year.
The move comes as world leaders, aid groups and global health organizations have grown increasingly vocal about the slow pace of global vaccinations and the inequity of access to shots between residents of wealthier and poorer nations.
The World Health Organization says only 15 percent of promised donations of vaccines — from rich countries that have access to large quantities of them — have been delivered. The UN health agency has said it wants countries to fulfill their dose-sharing pledges “immediately” and make shots available for programs that benefit poor countries and Africa in particular.
During an anti-racism event on Wednesday commemorating a landmark but contentious conference 20 years ago, President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo pointed to the fact that only about 1 in 1,000 people in his country have gotten at least one shot.
The disparity in vaccine availability around the world “clearly does not demonstrate equality between the countries and peoples of this world,” Tshisekedi said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likewise called out failures in sharing coronavirus vaccines during his speech Wednesday night, his hopes in 2020 of “effective multilateralism and effective international solidarity” dashed a year later, “where one thing is to share objectives and quite another is to share vaccines.”
Also on Thursday, foreign ministers are due to ponder climate change as a security issue when the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, meets in the morning.
Climate change has been a major focus during this week’s General Assembly gathering. World leaders made “faint signs of progress” on the financial end of fighting climate change in a special United Nations feet-to-the-fire meeting Monday, but they didn’t commit to more crucial cuts in emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.


Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government
Updated 23 September 2021

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government
  • Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13

OSLO: Norway’s center-left election winners meet on Thursday for three-way talks to determine whether they can form a majority coalition government, with oil, taxes and EU relations among the sticking points.
Labour, the Socialists and the Center Party won a majority of seats in Norway’s parliament on Sept. 13, beating the ruling Conservative-led government, with a transfer of power likely to take place next month.
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Stoere, who is expected to become Norway’s next prime minister, has during the last week held individual meetings with Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and the Socialist Left’s Audun Lysbakken.
But Thursday’s gathering at a resort an hour’s drive north of Oslo is believed to be the first time the three will sit down together since the election.
Billed as exploratory talks, the initial phase is set to determine whether detailed negotiations should be opened next week, or if Stoere has to settle for ruling in a minority.
Norway’s status as an oil and gas producer, contributing to climate change, was at the heart of the election campaign, although a transition away from petroleum is likely to be gradual despite progress by pro-environment parties.
Norway’s oil and gas industry pumps around 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, accounting for over 40 percent of export revenues, although output is projected to fall from 2030 onwards.
The Socialist Party wants to halt all exploration for new resources, which would hasten the oil industry’s decline, but Labour and Center have rejected this position.
Labour is wary of potential job losses from petroleum’s demise, and champions state-sponsored policies to encourage a transfer of engineering know-how from oil production to renewable energy.
Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13 and will step down as soon as Labour is ready to form a cabinet.