By Gulia Rakhimova
In September 2022, the United Nations adopted the “Principles for the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence in the United Nations System”, a groundbreaking document that underlines the key ethical principles to consider when developing and working with artificial intelligence (AI) innovations. For the World Food Programme (WFP), the largest organization in the world fighting hunger, this allows us to harness the full potential of AI technologies in promoting food security while providing greater certainty in making AI serve the people at the core of our operations.
Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to computer systems that can perform tasks that usually require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, and decision making. AI systems can process vast amounts of data much faster than humans can to complete tasks, and this is what makes them so disruptive.
Technologies powered by AI are shaping an increasing range of sectors, including humanitarian and development work. As the world faces unprecedented humanitarian needs due to climate shocks, conflict, COVID-19, and rising food and energy costs, it is critical to invest in innovation at speed and scale. Powered by the commitment of almost 22,000 staff, WFP serves people in more than 120 countries and territories around the world, providing life-saving food in emergencies and assisting communities in finding life-changing solutions to end hunger.
For several years, WFP has been exploring responsible, sustainable, and inclusive uses of AI that can have a profound impact on food assistance. Through its Innovation Accelerator, WFP provides hands-on support and space for experimentation for startups and innovators to successfully create, launch, and scale AI-powered solutions that may find a role in our global operations. Using AI, we were able to optimize resource allocation, provide more targeted assistance, and make better decisions with real-time awareness of the situation.
The exploration of AI applications at WFP has been guided by responsible, people-centered innovation practices, which we adhere to for all innovation explorations.
“As with all emerging technologies, we need to continuously ensure the ethical development, and the same is true for Artificial Intelligence. At WFP, we believe in the ethical AI principles; we’re researching them in action — in particular the principle of non-discrimination — and will share results as we go to ensure that the wider humanitarian and development community benefits,” says Dominik Heinrich, Director of Innovation and Knowledge Management at WFP.
WFP applications of AI ethics
WFP supports global efforts to promote ethical AI and the work of the Inter-Agency Working Group on AI within the UN’s High-Level Committee on Programme. After the adoption of the Recommendation on the Ethics of AI by UNESCO’s General Conference in 2021, the Working Group has translated it into Principles for the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence in the UN System.
The document sets out ten principles. They cover a wide range of topics, all with the goal of ensuring that the use of AI respects human rights and dignity across the full lifecycle of an AI system, from research, design, and development to deployment and use.
One of the principles, for instance, calls on the UN community to take action to prevent discrimination and stigmatization of any kind in the process; since AI technologies may mirror racial, ethnic, gender and other inequalities present in society. This principle is consistent with WFP’s current focus on minimizing the risk of AI-driven inequity; we are exploring innovative tools and approaches to help decision-makers and users of AI technology address actual and potential biases in AI.
The principles also underline that UN organizations should create inclusive AI systems, involving relevant stakeholders and users in the process. This approach, emphasizing human-centered, participatory design, has also been central to WFP’s work in innovation. For example, WFP’s SMP PLUS is the first global school menu creation platform that includes communities in the menu design process. Available online and completely free to use, this AI tool optimizes menus, creating more affordable, nutritious, and local meals.
Working with other stakeholders to improve the use of ethical AI has added value and brought new perspectives and expertise to our programmes. WFP’s most recent collaboration with Tilburg University’s Zero Hunger Lab will investigate ethical, legal, and social issues that may arise in developing AI applications that address hunger.
To responsibly leverage emerging AI in the humanitarian sector, we must invest in deep, cross-pillar partnerships that bring together data, expertise, and diverse perspectives. The UN’s AI ethics principles will further bolster the global efforts in this area while bringing us closer to the people we serve.
The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.
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