Artificial intelligence (AI) may be used in self-driving cars and by homeowners talking to “smart” voice-controlled digital assistants in more affluent countries, it isn’t being used to help the three billion people globally who live in poverty. The United Nations is working to address that challenge.


The AI for Good Global Summit, held this week in Geneva, Switzerland, co-organized by the UN International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the XPRIZE Foundation, brings together AI experts, policymakers and industrialists to discuss how AI and robotics may be used to address sustainable development and assist global efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger, and protect the environment.


“AI has the potential to accelerate progress toward a dignified life, in peace and prosperity, for all people,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “The time has arrived for all of us—governments, industry and civil society—to consider how AI will affect our future.” He does add, however that while AI is “already transforming our world socially, economically and politically,” there are also serious challenges and ethical issues which must be taken into account—including cybersecurity, human rights and privacy.


I was most interested in a first-hand account by Agence France-Presse, in which Sophia, a humanoid robot created by Hanson Robotics, told a reporter that “the pros outweigh the cons” when it comes to AI. “AI is good for the world, helping people in various ways."


Work is underway to make AI “emotionally smart, to care about people,” Sophie continued, insisting that “we will never replace people, but we can be your friends and helpers.” Then again, Sophie acknowledged that “people should question the consequences of new technology.”


Among the feared consequences of the rise of the robots and AI, is the growing impact they will have on human jobs and economies. Indeed, there are legitimate concerns about the future of jobs, about the future of the economy, because when businesses apply automation, it tends to accumulate resources in the hands of very few, says Sophia’s creator, Dr. David Hanson, the company’s CEO. However, he counters that “unintended consequences, or possible negative uses [of AI] seem to be very small compared to the benefit of the technology.”


Advances in AI also fuel concerns that humans could lose control of the technology. Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty is at the conference to, among many tasks, call for a clear ethical framework to ensure the technology is used for good.


“We need to have the principles in place, we need to have the checks and balances,” Shetty told AFP, warning that AI is “a black box. ... There are algorithms being written which nobody understands.”


Shetty in particular, is concerned about military use of AI in weapons and so-called “killer robots.” Notable AI and robotics researchers have warned before that autonomous weapons are ideal for “tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.” Shetty told AFP that “in theory, these things are controlled by human beings, but we don’t believe that there is actually meaningful, effective control.”


Hanson agrees that clear guidelines are needed, saying it is important to discuss these issues “before the technology has definitively and unambiguously awakened.” Consider, for instance, that although Sophia has impressive capabilities, she does not yet have consciousness. Nonetheless, Hanson told AFP he expects fully sentient machines could emerge within a few years.


“What happens when [Sophia fully] wakes up or some other machine—servers running missile defense or managing the stock market—wakes up?” Hanson told AFP. “The solution is to make the machines care about us. We need to teach them love.”


What are your thoughts on using AI to address challenges such as eliminating poverty and hunger, and protecting the environment? Do you have concerns that, as Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, once famously said, without rigorous controls on AI, “we are summoning the demon?”