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The U.N. Warns That AI Can Pose A Threat To Human Rights

The United Nations' human rights chief has called on member states to put a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence systems until the "negative, even catastrophic" risks they pose can be addressed.

The remarks by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet were in reference to a new report on the subject released in Geneva.

The report warned of AI's use as a forecasting and profiling tool, saying the technology could have an impact on "rights to privacy, to a fair trial, to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention and the right to life."

The report, and Bachelet's comments, follow the recent revelation that widespread use was being made of spyware, known as Pegasus, to target thousands of phone numbers and dozens of devices belonging to international journalists, human rights activists and heads of state.

Bachelet acknowledged that AI "can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times," but suggested that the harms it could bring outweigh the positives. But she also warned of an "unprecedented level of surveillance across the globe by state and private actors," that she said is "incompatible" with human rights.

"The higher the risk for human rights, the stricter the legal requirements for the use of AI technology should be," she said.

Upon the release of the report, Tim Engelhardt, UNHRC's human rights officer, rule of law and democracy section, called the situation regarding AI "dire" and said it has "not improved over the years but has become worse."

The document includes an assessment of profiling, automated decision-making and other machine-learning technologies.

This story originally published in the Morning Edition live blog.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.