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International AI Governance must be truly global

Written by Bitange Ndemo, Dora Meredith

Image credit:White globe with blue background. Image license:Elshan Neymatov/Unsplash

Rapid technological advances have created an urgent need for international rules and norms. We should seize the opportunity to design international institutions for AI to shape fairer distributions of power and shared prosperity globally.

There is broad agreement that the potentially seismic impacts of recent developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems will transcend national borders and require international collaboration to ensure that advances benefit humanity. There’s been a lot of discussion about the possible models for AI governance, the suitability of existing forums and the clear need for international collaboration.

A key question currently overlooked in the debate is who is being engaged in this process. Those who shape the future of technology will undoubtedly gain a competitive advantage against those who are passive recipients. What would it take for the world to shape the future of AI rather than a few countries?

As of October 2023, the frameworks governing the future of humanity’s technological development are being driven by the US (predominantly via the corporate tech giants), the Chinese government, and the European Union via the EU AI Act. The recent Indian G20 undertook work on digital public infrastructure, but broader global discussions are markedly absent. Ahead of the upcoming UK’s AI Safety Summit, the possible creation of an expert panel to inform policy with evidence is now being discussed, but there is little talk about how to engage a diverse set of countries more equally within this.

Why do we need a wider global approach to shaping the norms and standards of technology?

Three main reasons currently come to mind:

1. Inequitable global governance is likely to entrench existing economic inequalities further.

As US economists Acemoglu and Johnson have illustrated, historical experience shows that policy decisions around technology can determine who the technology benefits. In an already highly inequitable world, AI is severely likely to widen the gaps between countries without appropriate design. The countries involved in building norms and standards around technology will gain the advantage of shaping preferences to their interests.

2. Securing true global buy-in for international governance is vital to managing risk and harnessing opportunities.

Without widespread consensus on global technology governance, we risk countries not buying into norms and standards and potentially enabling a dangerous race to the bottom, which could entail an accelerated arms-type race, which some have termed “AI Nationalism”. Without shared buy-in, we also risk losing opportunities for countries to shape technology with the insight of their societal norms. This could lead to lower technology adoption levels in excluded countries, potentially missing potential benefits.

3. Done right, this is a prime opportunity to strengthen the international system.

This critical moment for global policy is taking place at a time when war and increased great-power competition is rocking the international system. In addition, the inefficiency of design and flaws of existing international institutions has received much criticism in recent years. The opportunity to design global governance for AI is, therefore, a possible opening to be seized to strengthen multilateralism.

At this pivotal moment for shaping this fundamental aspect of our future, it is essential that we consciously design global governance to enable shared prosperity. Along with the climate crisis, humanity has no more urgent agenda to address than shaping responsible technological development.

We must seize the opportunity, but this can only be done with and for all of us.