TCD’s Abeba Birhane appointed to UN body advising on AI governance

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Acclaimed AI researcher Dr Abeba Birhane has been appointed to a high-level advisory body on artificial intelligence established by the United Nations.

This multi-stakeholder interdisciplinary body has been formed to analyse the risks and challenges presented by AI and to put forward recommendations on international governance. It will also examine how AI development can be aligned with human rights and the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The formation of the advisory body was announced this week by UN secretary-general António Guterres. Birhane is one of 39 members from across six continents, with representatives from academia, policy and the AI industry.

Among the industry representatives on the panel are OpenAI CTO Mira Murati; Natasha Crampton, Microsoft’s executive for responsible AI; Sony CTO Hiroaki Kitano; Google’s SVP of research, technology and society James Manyika; and Hugging Face research lead Nazneen Rajani.

Other academics on the panel include former Biden administration advisor Dr Alondra Nelson, along with representatives from Umeå University, ETH Zurich, the University of Pretoria, the Chinese Academy of Science, the University of Tokyo, Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center and the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

The panel has also enlisted advisors and leaders from the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Singapore and Kenya, alongside rights advocates such as Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan, and human rights lawyer Mohamed Farahat.

Birhane is a senior advisor in AI accountability for the Mozilla Foundation and an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Computer Science. A cognitive scientist, her research focuses on human behaviour, social systems and responsible and ethical AI.

Through her work in AI, Birhane realised that the need for large-scale datasets to train AI models presented a new issue in the moderation of digital content. Datasets of millions, even billions, of data points were insufficiently audited for harmful material which could result in harmful downstream effects such as bias, racism and sexism.

Her critical examination of public AI models and large-scale training datasets has earned her much recognition and a number of accolades. Along with researcher Vinay Prabhu, her exposure of racist and misogynistic labels and slurs in a commonly used image dataset, 80 Million Tiny images, led to its formal takedown by MIT. Her more recent work looks at what she describes as the “algorithmic colonisation of Africa”.

Birhane was recently named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential 100 people in AI, alongside OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and tech billionaire Elon Musk.

Born in Ethiopia, she has been based in Ireland for much of her academic career and recently completed a PhD in computer science at University College Dublin.

Writing on X, Birhane said she is “thrilled” to be part of this inaugural UN body, and to “support the international community’s efforts to govern artificial intelligence”.

The panel hosts its first meeting on 27 October and is expected to issue preliminary recommendations on AI governance before the year is out, with final recommendations to follow in the summer of 2024.

The goal of the UN body is to build a global scientific consensus on the risks and challenges presented by AI and to strengthen international cooperation on its governance.

Meanwhile, regulators around the world are considering how to manage the AI age responsibly. The EU is in the process of finalising the wording of its AI Act and, next month, the UK will host a major global summit on artificial intelligence in Bletchley Park, a historic location in computing history as the site of Britain’s WWII codebreakers.

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