Artificial Intelligence

Civil society can help ensure AI benefits us all. Here’s how

People raise their fists  in the streets at a protest against gender-based violence in downtown of Mexico City, Mexico, February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares - RC2N0F9QQAXZ

To steer AI in a positive direction, the role of civil society is more important than ever Image: REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Conor Sanchez
Project Specialist, C4IR, World Economic Forum
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Artificial Intelligence

  • Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing how we tackle global issues, but comes with concerns relating to accountability, fairness and transparency;
  • Civil society can help steer AI in a positive direction just as citizen-shaped activism helped address the negative impacts of the industrial revolution;
  • In the context of AI, this could mean encouraging more diverse and representative datasets while also ensuring privacy rights are protected;
  • From social service delivery and ensuring accountability to raising the voices of vulnerable or marginalized populations, civil society can play a vital role in AI’s development.

Most people remain uncertain of exactly how artificial intelligence (AI) will affect their lives. For a more constructive and broad awareness of the role AI can and should play in our everyday existence, civil society must become a critical stakeholder in global efforts to expedite the benefits of AI and mitigate against its risks.

Have you read?

Much has been written about both the promise and perils of the development and diffusion of AI throughout the world. This emerging technology is projected to lead to tremendous economic growth. It is feeding a geopolitical rivalry between nations, while revolutionizing how we tackle global issues, such as climate change, preventable diseases and the next pandemic. Indeed, it is already transforming nearly every aspect of our lives from how we communicate to how we transact in business.

Yet, AI also raises problems around accountability, fairness, and transparency. It’s shaping how and what information we consume and increasingly moving into decision-making roles that pose risks to groups long held back by issues such as discrimination, bias and surveillance. It’s feeding anxiety around unemployment and inequality and fuelling concerns about how it will impact what it means to be human, to be productive and to exercise free will.

Researchers are concerned the use of facial-recognition technology on vulnerable groups and populations is unethical
Researchers are concerned about the use of facial-recognition technology on vulnerable groups and populations Image: Statista

To help address these issues and steer AI in a positive direction, the role of civil society is more important than ever. As the third sector, it brings a crucial voice to the table in discussions over how this emerging technology can benefit all parts of society.

During the industrial revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, the rise of citizen‐based activism helped resolve many negative impacts by focusing on worker rights and quality of life. Faith‐based charities, labour unions and other organized associations helped improve worker conditions and reduce new emerging risks. Since then, civil society has advocated for workers, marginalized populations and others when the benefits of industry went unshared. Today, civil society can play a similar role to shape AI’s future.

Especially now, as governments and industry grapple with how to earn the trust of their citizens and customers when deploying AI in sensitive areas like healthcare and finance, civil society can bring balance and perspective to the conversation. It can fill blind spots and ease fears among those who would stand to lose the most in a world dominated by unchecked algorithms and data.

Civil society can play a vital role in AI’s development and diffusion in the following ways:

  • Ensure accountability: Civil society organizations can help move us beyond ethics principles by holding organizations accountable and encouraging transparency.
  • Raising voices of vulnerable or marginalized populations: Civil society has long helped advocate on behalf of vulnerable or marginalized populations. In the context of AI, this could mean encouraging more diverse and representative datasets. It could also entail supporting AI leaders from the Global South to participate in international discussions on AI governance.
  • Using AI for social service delivery: AI can play an important role in protecting or improving public goods. Mission-driven organizations often fill gaps in the social safety net by providing critical services to communities. By seeking out technical support and guidance, they can harness the power of AI to enhance their impact. For example, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation's new Data and Society initiative is providing a number of organizations with data and AI tools that help them maximize their resources or surface new insights that inform their work.
  • Convening diverse actors and building community: In addition to being a watchdog, advocate or service provider, civil society can take on the role of convener for a range of different actors, including AI experts, data providers, rights groups and vulnerable groups who are in need of AI solutions. Given the cross-cutting nature of AI systems, actors working in silos inevitably run into a range of challenges, including barriers to cooperation, knowledge gaps, divergent interests and conflicting incentives. There is a need to bridge these divides and support mutual cooperation.

Where to go from here

Although discussions over AI’s impact have existed in some form for several decades, many public and civil society actors have only recently started to engage with the subject of AI and, even then, their engagement has only focused on certain issues. As a result, influence over the discourse on responsible AI has fallen considerably to other sectors. This imbalance will ultimately hold back the potential of AI, not only for the most vulnerable, but for others too, including business and government.


How is the World Economic Forum ensuring the responsible use of technology?

Both business and government can support civil society by making room at the table during discussions over responsible AI. Many governments are leading the way, including New Zealand and Singapore, by establishing bodies focused on AI governance and leading national discussions that include civil society. Businesses are doing the same by embracing a multistakeholder approach to ensure AI doesn’t just generate billions in value but also generates benefits for billions.

There are three legs to the stool of AI governance: government, business and civil society. The approach to securing the responsible and beneficial use of this emerging technology must include that third leg if we are going to succeed.

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