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Artificial Intelligence and Sustainable Development

Artificial Intelligence is cognitive and logical abilities displayed by machines by virtue of their unique algorithms. It is intimately connected with the progress towards automation in mass production apparatus and other walks of human life. Its pervasive spread throughout the world through technological upgradation affects different aspects of social life e.g. inclusion, equality, environmental responsibility etc. Accordingly, it has economic, political and cultural implications.

The concept of ‘sustainable development’ was first popularized by the ‘Brundtland report’ titled ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987. In simple terms, it denotes an alternative development paradigm to the present paradigm driven by profit and capital accumulation in world scale. It emphasizes the limitation for Earth’s capacity to incorporate the ever growing human population’s need to develop and suggest a pathway for development which doesn’t prejudice the ability of the future generations’ capacity to develop. The United Nations General Assembly accepted this conceptualization and set accordingly 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets as 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Artificial Intelligence can provide ambitious avenues to achieve SDGs. But the relation between AI and SDGs is complex and can’t be captured in terms of solely beneficial or harmful. In a comprehensive academic research under KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, a group of researchers concluded that AI can support achievement of 128 targets across various SDGs while it may inhibit the achievement of 58 other SDGs. Despite this comprehensive and authoritative study, there has remained a lack of elaborate scientific research in medium-term and long-term impact of AIs on the path towards SDGs.

AI has the most expanded utility in terms of automation. This also leads to energy efficiency in various fronts. This is beneficial for transition towards a green economy and conducive to achievement of environmental goals among SDGs. But this also has an opposite effect for SDG of equality in terms of increasing economic inequality as corporations employ less and less employees to reap super- profits. Uneven distribution of AI can exacerbate the already growing digital divide across the world. Without extensive skill-building, this divide can be a source of huge unemployment and also reduction of meaningful employment opportunities.

AI has the most expanded utility in terms of automation. This also leads to energy efficiency in various fronts. This is beneficial for transition towards a green economy and conducive to achievement of environmental goals among SDGs. But this also has an opposite effect for SDG of equality in terms of increasing economic inequality as corporations employ less and less employees to reap super- profits. Uneven distribution of AI can exacerbate the already growing digital divide across the world. Without extensive skill-building, this divide can be a source of huge unemployment and also reduction of meaningful employment opportunities.

AI technology will get more and more developed with the passage of time. It will create opportunities for some SDGs while will be prejudicial to others. These adverse effects can be minimized by institutional supervision, consensual and ethical regulation and democratic governance. UNESCO identified some of the key steps needed to ensure an equitable and positive effect of AI. This are-

  • elaboration of an instrument of ethics in AI,
  • building institutional capacity of public institutions for sound and effective policy,
  • Building judicial capacity enumerating the relation between AI and Rule of Law.

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HERBERT BAYARD SWOPE