You can assuredly claim that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is spurring the attainment of the United Nations (UN) Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).
Score a big plus one for this gallant use of AI.
Meanwhile, please prepare yourself for the ugly side of this.
Are you ready?
AI is also likely to undercut the revered SDGs and we need to keep a watchful eye to make sure that the deployment of AI as a positive catalyst is able to far exceed the contrary use of AI for undermining global sustainability.
Consider for a contemplative moment the AI-adverse underbelly. AI can readily slow down the pace toward the SDGs. AI can confound SDG efforts. AI can falsely soak up sustainability improvement resources with little or no viable return. Worse still, perhaps, AI can be used to block or reverse sustainability progress and take the world backward rather than forward on its bumpy path toward SDG realization.
It's the classic dual-edged sword conundrum.
AI is inarguably a dual-edged sword.
Sometimes you live and thrive by the sword, but sometimes you can get cut down by the sword. For my coverage of the dual-use of AI, see the link here. In the specific use case of the UN SDGs, AI as a sword or tool needs stridently to be adequately managed and guided. The sunny side up is using AI to make sure that these vital global aims reach fruition. The other side is to prevent or mitigate AI that does the exact opposite and drags SDGs into a spiraling abyss.
All of this vividly illuminates the fact that AI Ethics is a cornerstone of all facets of AI. AI Ethics gets us thinking about what AI is used for and how it is deployed. There is a lot of AI that fails to meet any semblance of Ethical AI precepts. An ongoing battle is being waged to ensure that we have AI For Good and try to stop or at least assuage the equally rising AI For Bad. For my ongoing and extensive coverage of AI Ethics and Ethical AI, see the link here and the link here, just to name a few.
Let’s unpack what the UN SDG is all about.
We can then examine how AI is spurring the SDG's effort. That is not the end of the story. Many pundits would stop at the point that the SDG tale of AI seems to be all roses and sunflowers. Realistically, we need to shine a light on the downsides of AI too. If we don’t do so, the equation can get out of whack that the AI For Bad exceeds the AI For Good when trying to ensure that the SDGs are fulfilled.
No time allows for having an AI head-in-the-sand posture by any of us.
Fundamentals Of The UN SDGs
In 2015, the United Nations adopted a plan known as The 2030 Agenda For Sustainable Development.
This was intended to be a shared blueprint to encompass peace and prosperity for people throughout the globe and to foster better use of the planet. Worldwide participation was envisioned as the only substantive means to help end poverty, end world hunger, and end or demonstrably reduce other global suffering and deprivations. All told, the plan was the culmination of decades of deliberations and analyses about what the many countries across the world and the United Nations could do in concert to behoove humankind.
Annual progress reports are produced each year and are available online at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs website that encompasses Sustainable Development.
All right, the keystone report was produced, countries are working on the direction and guidance provided, and there are yearly progress reports.
Time is ticking.
A line in the sand was identified as being fifteen years hence the original date of the pronouncement, thus the year 2030 is the point at which we will have preferably made all manner of tremendous progress on enacting the blueprint. Into this mix comes the further emerging grand convergence of advances in AI, along with the ubiquity of computing, and as I will cover momentarily, an infusion of AI systems into the SDG pursuits.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself on this. Let’s make sure that the SDGs are sufficiently placed on the table before we get to the AI infusion aspects.
The most commonly known or popularized aspects of The 2030 Agenda consist of seventeen distinct Sustainable Development Goals. Each SDG can be viewed somewhat on a standalone basis. We are to do what we can for each one of the seventeen. At the same time, it would be wisest to construe the seventeen SDGs as inextricably intertwined. The odds are that we can only make solid progress on any given one of the SDGs if we are also making progress on some or all of the others too.
There is the other side of that coin that comes to bear too. If we continue to do poorly on one of the SDGs or get worse on the matter, this is bound to drag down one or more of the other SDGs. The old saying that a rising tide raises all boats comes to mind in this circumstance. The SDGs will tend to rise or fall as a collection. That being said, we cannot give up on any particular SDG simply because we might realize that another SDG is not doing well. Individual SDG improvement is still possible and earnestly sought.
A shorthand title of each SDG is a handy way of quickly grasping what the SDGs consist of (this is from the official UN SDG document):
1. No Poverty
2. Zero Hunger
3. Good Health and Well-Being
4. Quality Education
5. Gender Equality
6. Clean Water and Sanitation
7. Affordable and Clean Energy
8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
10. Reduced Inequalities
11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
12. Responsible Consumption and Production
13. Climate Action
14. Life Below Water
15. Life On Land
16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
17. Partnerships for the Goals
Just in case those shorthand versions don’t seem to convey to you the overarching nature of each SDG, I provide here a slightly more elaborated formal indication from the UN SDG report:
- Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
- Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
- Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
- Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
- Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
- Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
- Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
- Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
- Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
- Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
- Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
- Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
- Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
- Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
- Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
- Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
- Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
The SDGs are extensively detailed in the UN SDG reports and supporting documents.
Allow me to provide a few other insights as some additional considerations.
The numbering scheme does not denote priority or sequencing. Think of the numbering as merely a convenient form of reference when discussing the SDGs. Specialists for example that are concentrating on dealing with worldwide poverty are apt to at times refer to this SDG as simply Goal #1, but that doesn’t mean that it is the first or topmost goal per se. Those that are stridently working toward say peace and justice as part of Goal #16 are still to be seen as (shall we say) a topmost goal too. The reference number is nothing more than a reference number and does not imply or connote a lower or higher priority.
Another quick point is that you should refrain from doing the old toss the baby out with the bathwater if you have some qualms or disagreement with any particular SDG. In essence, some people might not necessarily agree with all of the seventeen SDGs. In that manner, they tend to discard all of the SDGs. That is short-minded. There might also be grumbling about whether a given SDG is able to be equated on par with each of the other seventeen. Again, do not misguidedly disregard all of the SDGs simply due to a personal perspective about one or another of the set.
The macro view is that these are all worthy of attention.
Put your attention toward the SDGs that you think you can most help out. If perchance you don’t favor some of the SDGs, so be it. Keep your focus then on the ones that you can support.
AI As A Catalyst For And Yet Also Against The SDGs
We are now ready to shift gears and discuss how AI comes to play for the SDGs.
I have elsewhere expounded in great detail about AI for each of the respective SDGs, see the link here. For space constraint purposes herein, I will provide a quick summary for you.
Remember too that we are going to first cover the positive use of AI, namely the AI For Good that contributes toward attaining the given SDG. I’d say this is the smiley face portrayal. We will afterward cover the frown face portrayal.
AI For Good that aids and emboldens each SDG: