How can we use artificial intelligence and blockchain to advance sustainable development?

Frontier Technologies for Accelerating Sustainable Development

Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain – Opportunity or Barrier to Development?

Tuesday, 5th March 2019, ECOSOC Chamber - UN Headquarters

Keynote statement by Mr. Jarmo Sareva

Ambassador for Innovation

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

Photo: Henni Kivinen
An event on frontier technologies brought together experts from different fields of society.

Dear Mr. Khare, Dear Ms. Riazi, Dear Ms. Hall, Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honor for me to deliver these remarks at this first annual Conference on Frontier Technologies for Accelerating Sustainable Development. I wish to thank the UN Office of Information Communication Technology and UNICEF Innovation for their vision and their hard work without which this event would not have come true.

I am delighted to see such a broad range of external stakeholders here this morning, along with representatives of Member States and the UN system. I am particularly happy that so many young people are attending. I am also pleased to see Mr. Jaakko Kurhila, Chief Digitalization Officer of the University of Helsinki, and Mr. Josh Reynolds of the Helsinki-based Reaktor Group speak in two of today’s panel discussions. Together, Reaktor and the University of Helsinki have created the Elements of Artificial Intelligence free online course, which some you may already be familiar with.

Politico recently described Elements of AI as “Finland’s grand AI experiment”. It went on by recalling the “simple Nordic ring” of the course: “Start by teaching 1 percent of the country's population, or about 55,000 people, the basic concepts at the root of artificial technology, and gradually build on the number over the next few years.” The course is currently available in Finnish and English, but other language versions are on the way.

The focus of today’s Conference is on the role of artificial intelligence and blockchain in accelerating the implementation of the SDGs.  Eventually, we will - as we must - also address the risks and threats emanating from new technologies. I hope that by the end of today we have facilitated the creation of new networks for innovative forms of collaboration, as well as generated ideas for concrete recommendations.

Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am the first Ambassador for Innovation at the Finnish Foreign Ministry, having assumed my functions only this past November. To my knowledge, no other foreign ministry has, as of yet, a job with the same title even though there are ones coming somewhat close: for example, Denmark has a Tech Ambassador who is based in the Silicon Valley and France has an Ambassadeur pour le Numérique.

My job being an innovation itself, albeit one carried out on an old platform, let me make a few key points that Finland wants to bring to the discussion about innovation and new technologies.

Firstly, we see innovation in broad terms. While it is the emerging technologies such as blockchain and AI, powered by digitalization, that explain the vast breadth and disruptive speed of innovation, there is more than tech at play here. Innovation is also about new processes, new business models, it is about public innovations and, importantly, social innovations. What is common to all of them is the fact that they bring solutions to the table, that they represent a way of doing something new or doing something existing in a new way. I am sometimes asked what an Ambassador for Innovation does, and I answer by explaining that instead of having the current job title, I could just as well be called Ambassador for Solutions and Change. This is because innovations are, by definition, about providing solutions and about bringing change.

The debate that I sometimes witness between the techies and the non-techies - including here at the UN - is therefore beside the point. It is both new technologies and social innovations and everything in between that can and must bring about the changes - the solutions needed to react to a rapidly changing world. I know that there is a great deal of interest at the UN in social innovations, which are, in some ways, just common sense. Take one particular social innovation that Finland is known for: the baby box. For eighty years, Finland's expectant mothers have received a box by the state. It is like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys – and the box itself can be used as a bed. Some say it helped Finland achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates, but there have been many other important contributing factors as well. Is the baby box an innovation? Perhaps. Common sense? Definitely.

Secondly, it is clear by now that we will not be able to reach the SDGs without the help of innovations. There are however also good news because the speed at which new technologies are bringing about such innovations is only getting faster. It is therefore actually possible to be an optimist about the future of our globe.

The challenge here, however, is to match the vast global needs with these emerging, enabling, solutions. This is an area where the UN has an unparalleled role. Finland welcomes the Secretary-General’s leadership and vision in refocusing the work of the Organization on the potential of new technologies in reaching the SDGs. We are also proud to host, four weeks from now, the final meeting of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation before the Panel submits its report to Secretary-General. The day before, we will host a joint meeting of the High-level Panel with the European Union Tech Panel, allowing the two panels to bounce their ideas off their peers.

The Secretary-General’s leadership in this area is reflected throughout the UN system. It has generated unprecedented focus on and activity around innovation. We must remember that innovation is also about experimentation, and we must allow the Organization to experiment, to prove concepts and to pilot innovations, of course with due regard for coordination and exchange of information, as well as of lessons learned among the various actors and offices.

Carrying forward an ambitious agenda in a rapidly evolving landscape is not an exact science. It is messy, and there will be the inevitable false starts and dead ends. However, we also need to recognize that this “messiness” – and constant change - appears to have become more of a today’s norm than an exception. The organizational culture of the United Nations needs to adapt to this new uncertainty.  Embracing change, innovation, and problem solving are the only answers to ensure that the UN system becomes agile - responsive and flexible enough - to meet the challenges of today.  

At the national level, it is often the role of the public sector to scale pilots that are working. It is therefore with great interest that we are following the various models in the UN system to bring innovations up to scale. In this regard, we are proud to host the first European UN Technology Innovation Lab - UNTIL - in Espoo, Finland. The Labs - there will be several of them around the world - will produce scalable solutions to take forward the SDGs in thematic areas selected together with the Host Country. In the case of the Lab in Finland, those areas are health, education, circular economy, and peace and security.

Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The third key point I want to make has to do with the topic of today’s third panel. While new technologies are indeed a great enabler and indispensable to the 2030 agenda, they can also aggravate existing problems and threats or create altogether new ones. In the conversation about the potential downsides of innovation and new technologies, there is a continued focus on the need for innovation to be inclusive. We must not leave anyone behind, nor to create new or deepen existing divides between or within societies.

In this conversation, there is now also a new focus on what many see as an even more fundamental threat from some of the technologies and their combinations. It has to do with the future of human agency and - eventually - with the very meaning of humanity. There are few ways to frame this better than through a question recently put by UNICEF Innovation: “What does it mean to be a child in the era of Orwell”. This has led to increased calls for innovation to be ethical and responsible. What it means for the UN is that the Organization should advocate innovation - solutions - that have a foundation in its own values, as enshrined first in the Charter.

While we must be cognizant of the very real possible downsides of new technologies, we must however not give in to fear. Just like uncritical adulation of technology, fear is the wrong reaction. It means that we give up the option of being part of the solution.

My fourth point is exactly about values. The UN’s values are also Finland’s values, and we see the potential of new technologies in defending and strengthening them. Innovation should not be only - or even principally - about functionality and efficiency. The primary goal of innovation and the primary role of new technologies at our service - and I want to stress the words “at our service” - should be creating and sustaining good societies. And by good societies I mean human-centered societies. And let’s not forget it, the 2030 Agenda is very much a human-centered one.

Many of today’s technologies - certainly artificial intelligence - can involve serious risks and threats to the human-centered values. One reason why Finland constantly ranks high in the international comparisons on innovation is the culture of trust and collaboration upon which the society rests.  However, the new technologies can erode this strong sense of trust among the people both in each other and in public institutions generally.  Finland ranks as the most stable country in the world, with the best governance in the world, and as the freest country in the world together with Sweden and Norway. Moreover, even if we had trouble believing it, we recently ranked as the world’s happiest people. I believe all this is largely a result of the trust and collaboration inherent in our culture.

Why am I telling this? After all, there are no elections taking place at ECOSOC this morning. There is also a Finnish proverb, which says that praising yourself aloud stinks. I am telling it because some of the technologies we are discussing today can either strengthen or erode these values of trust and collaboration and, in the case of the latter, erode the quality of our societies and of our life. Either we can choose to remain happy and free or we can end up in a culture of distrust, in mutually hostile echo chambers. This is why the Elements of AI online course, which I mentioned at the beginning, is so important: not that it would be a panacea but because it shows that as governments and as the UN, we can, and we must abide by the principle that a well-educated populace is the best guarantee of democracy. And as my favorite philosopher Karl Popper - an ardent advocate of open societies - said, true ignorance is not the absence of knowledge but the refusal to acquire it.

My fifth and final point is about the role of the private sector. It is the private sector that drives technological innovation, and the role of startups is particularly important. The private sector is also going to be the primary source of investments to make Agenda 2030 come true.

Today, the UN is more determined than ever to work in partnerships for sustainable development, including with the private sector. I believe there is also a sea change emerging in the private sector, especially among younger startup entrepreneurs and investors. It is driven by a growing realization that doing good is also good for business: your customers, your investors and your workforce will be increasingly unwilling to be part of or dealing with a company, which is not making an economically, socially or environmentally sustainable and ethical impact.

It is also good for business because, as I said earlier, the rapid pace of innovation means that we will have at our disposal the solutions for sustainable development. What this means is that those companies and investors who understand this early and who are willing and able to offer these solutions to the market are going to be among the early winners.

Finally, it is beneficial not only for business - the bottom line - but for us all personally. Doing good makes one feel good about oneself, and I do not mean simply washing one’s conscience. On an individual level, this is called “happiness high”.  On a global level, with innovation and new technologies at our service, we can move for the same!

Thank you.