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Forum to interrogate ethical artificial intelligence


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in collaboration with the Namibian government and under the leadership of the Ministry of Higher Education, Technology and Innovation, is scheduled to host the UNESCO-Southern Africa sub-regional forum on artificial intelligence. 

The forum is slated for Windhoek from 7 to 9 September 2022 under the theme ‘Towards a development-oriented sustainable and ethical use of artificial intelligence’ and aims to target the nine countries in the UNESCO Southern Africa sub-region12. 

According to organisers, the forum will also be open for the participation of members of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) who are not from Southern Africa as observers, to explore regional trends, benefits and risks in the context of the SADC Protocol on Science, Technology and Innovation (2008) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Agenda 2063 of the African Union. 

The forum is also expected to be a unique opportunity for deliberation among African member States from Southern Africa on how they can leverage synergies and shape a shared agenda for the development and use of AI in the region for common good, with strong and clear ethical and human-rights-based foundations, including in relation to the role of Open Science and engineering in the 4IR. 

For Namibia particularly, hosting the UNESCO-Southern Africa sub-Regional Forum on Artificial Intelligence comes at an opportune time when President Hage Geingob established a Presidential Task Force on the 4IR with the mandate to conduct a country readiness assessment for leveraging the 4IR.

Dovetailing the Namibian National Conference on AI in the context of the Presidential Task Force on the 4IR with the UNESCO-Southern Africa sub-Regional Forum on AI is expected to enrich national debates with technical inputs from the sub-regional level to drive forward the national momentum for enhanced impacts of the intended objectives. 

As Africa is exposed to risks of data exploitation and mining, lack of public awareness and understanding of the threats as well as the lack of capacities to influence the technical development and global legal frameworks, the forum will focus on the social, cultural, economic and ethical impacts of AI in the sub-region in line with the 2021 recommendation on ethics on AI. 

By so doing, experts, policymakers and financial partners expect to develop a common understanding of the benefits, opportunities and risks that AI technologies present for Southern Africa from the perspective of inclusion, equality, ownership and sustainability. 

For UNESCO, this Forum is held against the backdrop of the unanimous adoption of the UNESCO Operational Strategy for Priority Africa (2022-2029) by UNESCO member states at the 41st session of the General Conference of UNESCO (November 2021), which includes a specific flagship programme on ‘Harnessing new and emerging technologies for sustainable development in Africa, including through the implementation of the recommendation on the ethics of artificial intelligence’. 

The Forum will also serve as a platform for streamlining the global and continental debates on AI to regional and country levels to encourage participating countries to ignite national debates towards a structured approach to AI development and use while ensuring the development of context-relevant policy options for its governance.