• 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.

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.

AI, machine learning, technology

How is the Forum helping governments to responsibly adopt AI technology?

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in partnership with the UK government, has developed guidelines for more ethical and efficient government procurement of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Governments across Europe, Latin America and the Middle East are piloting these guidelines to improve their AI procurement processes.

Our guidelines not only serve as a handy reference tool for governments looking to adopt AI technology, but also set baseline standards for effective, responsible public procurement and deployment of AI – standards that can be eventually adopted by industries.

Example of a challenge-based procurement process mentioned in the guidelines
Example of a challenge-based procurement process mentioned in the guidelines

We invite organizations that are interested in the future of AI and machine learning to get involved in this initiative. Read more about our impact.

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.