Meeting with the man who must propel the UN into the digital age

© Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

Ensuring that new technologies are not misused and trying to bridge the digital divide between North and South: these are the immense challenges that await Amandeep Gill, the new UN envoy for technologies. Portrait.

This content was published on August 24, 2022 – 10:10

When Amandeep Gill welcomed to her office at the Maison de la paix in Geneva on a Thursday afternoon in mid-July, it was almost empty. Only a few boxes filled with books clutter the room. Amandeep Gill is about to change jobs. Since July 18, he has been the new United Nations technology envoy in New York.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres himself has entrusted Amandeep Gill with the task of propelling the organization into the digital age. And while the latter isn’t technically the very first UN tech envoy (the post was created in 2021, but the terms of his two predecessors were either shortened or temporary), almost everything remains to be done.

The mission that awaits Amandeep Gill and her office may seem daunting, but the new envoy is confident. “I can’t wait, of course, and I’m also honored. I’m not nervous, it’s something I’ve been doing for a while,” he said.

Amandeep Gill

Amandeep Gill is originally from India, where he studied electronics and electronic communications. In 1992, he joined his country’s diplomatic service and was sent to Tehran, then Colombo, before landing in Geneva in 2016 to take up the post of Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the Conference of UN disarmament.

Between 2018 and 2019, he co-led the UN High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which, together with governments, the private sector, civil society and other actors, aimed to identify how to improve international collaboration in the digital world.

From 2019, until her appointment as Technology Envoy, Amandeep Gill was CEO of the International Digital Health & AI Research Collaborative (I-DAIR), a project aimed at facilitating international collaborations on research and development. responsible development of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital health technologies.

He also chaired negotiations at the UN on lethal autonomous weapons systems and participated in the preparation of a UNESCO recommendation on the ethics of AI.

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Both an engineer and a diplomat, Amandeep Gill is in a unique position and exemplifies the diversity of “international Geneva”, where a group of experts are as likely to negotiate a ban on killer robots as they are to discuss how the artificial intelligence can help diagnose cancer. Since arriving in the Swiss city in 2016, Amandeep Gill has participated in all these discussions, and more.

Point of contact for technologies

As digital technology has become a priority for many governments around the world, Amandeep Gill explains that it was “normal for the UN to think of a point of contact” – the technology envoy – responsible for monitoring technological developments. and their impact on the activities of the organization, be it peace and security, human rights, or development.

Amandeep Gill points out that the digital world, unlike the physical world, knows no borders. Ensuring that digital technologies benefit the whole world and preventing their misuse requires international collaboration, and therefore UN involvement supported by the new envoy. “The UN is the primary organization serving the international community for multilateral collaboration. It is the most universal forum, where each country has a voice, and can play this role of neutral unifier.

Referring to his experience in Geneva, the new envoy for technologies says he has learned not to confine himself to “traditional means of advancing standards”. The tools of international cooperation, such as treaties and conventions, are great ways to reach agreements between multiple parties, but are time-consuming. “In the digital world, things change very quickly. If we cling to our traditional methods, the technologies overtake the policies”, explains Amandeep Gill.

According to him, it is necessary to be more flexible, to anticipate more and to rely on a mixture of so-called soft and hard standards – for example, non-binding recommendations and legally binding treaties. It is also essential, believes the new envoy, to include voices outside the political and diplomatic spheres, such as civil society and the private sector. “We especially need to involve the technology community, because they are the ones who are developing these technologies. And often, these people do not want to harm, but they do not understand all the consequences.

Common principles

A new governance tool could emerge from the Future Summit, a conference to be held in New York next year and in which all 193 UN member states are expected to participate. It would take the form of an agreement, the “Global Digital Pact”, in which António Guterres hopes to see defined “common principles for an open, free and safe digital future for everyone”.

For the new envoy, this document is an urgent necessity. As he points out, today there is no common approach to governing digital technologies. While some countries, such as China recently, or the European Union, have passed legislation from the top, others, such as the United States, have let the private sector regulate itself through industrial standards. This dichotomy is confusing for many countries, “who are struggling to manage digital transformation”, says Amandeep Gill, who hopes that the pact will become “the reference document” for managing the digital shift.

“Having a common vision, a shared understanding, being clear on what the potential problems might be, what the different opportunities are, that sends a signal to governments, to private sector investors on certain areas of action, some good ways to deploy digital technologies,” explains Amandeep Gill. This is all the more important, he says, as the world is falling behind the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

But Amandeep Gill does not see the pact as an end in itself. Rather, he hopes it will serve as the basis for the organization of regular meetings at the United Nations involving member states, but also other actors in the digital field – from private companies to academia, including members of society. civil. The “gentle pressure” of scrutinizing others would help to ensure that “the principles, aspirations and properties of the pact are understood and applied and that, in case of difficulties, we can discuss how to resolve them “, he explains.

Challenges to overcome

Of course, Amandeep Gill knows that digital technologies raise many challenges. Social networks, for example, with their opaque algorithms, have been used in recent years to influence elections and reinforce the repression of authoritarian governments. But they also gave a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t have had a voice. The use of digital technologies by governments also sometimes poses problems. Facial recognition, for example, can be used to reunite missing children with their families. But this same technology can also be used to profile ethnic minorities and trample on their basic rights.

“It is in this delicate balance that the UN plays a role”, believes Amandeep Gill. As a neutral intermediary, the UN can point out the risks, the possible damage caused. “And it’s not a question of the ideological orientation of the different countries, it’s a question of human rights […] so the UN has a vital role to play in bringing these issues to light.” He adds that the UN must work with governments, but also the private sector and civil society to ensure that the digital space is “inclusive” and “safe for everyone”.

“Human-centric” technologies

Amandeep Gill says it’s impossible to identify a single issue that her office should prioritize. “You have to cultivate a diverse garden in this area.” As different countries are at different stages of their digital transformation, their needs and the challenges they face vary significantly.

According to the UN, nearly half of the world’s population, mostly women and people in developing countries, do not have access to the Internet. Unable to work or learn online, offline people have been particularly affected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bridging the digital divide is a priority for these people. Meanwhile, developed countries face data privacy issues and ethical dilemmas of letting machines make increasingly complex decisions.

But from a personal point of view, the new envoy for technology concedes that the metaverse – virtual worlds, for example, social networks based on virtual reality – worries him, in particular in terms of privacy, human rights and free choice. “How much time do we spend looking at real world issues, our analog issues, and how much time do we spend in fantasy? There may be societal changes that we may not have thought about enough,” says Amandeep Gill, who adds that thinking about these risks does not mean giving up innovation and business potential. of this technology.

In the future, he hopes to see countries launch initiatives that pool digital resources – databases, algorithms, etc. – with the aim of making progress in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related, for example, to health, food security or ecological transition. He also hopes that there will be a shift to a more “human-centric” approach to technologies, in which human beings retain “their dignity, their free choice, their rights”.

“If in the future we could say, ‘ah, there’s been a turning point, there’s been a realization that we need more human-centric digital technologies and we need to pay attention to the loss of free choice’, I would be happy.”

Text edited by Imogen Foulkes

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Meeting with the man who must propel the UN into the digital age

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