Meeting with the man who should move the UN into the digital age


© Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

Ensuring that new technologies are not misused and trying to bridge the digital divide between North and South: these are huge challenges that await Amandip Gill, the new UN envoy for technology. Portrait.

This content was published on August 24, 2022 – 10:10 am

When Amandeep Gill welcomed swissinfo.ch into her office at the Maison de la paix in Geneva on a Thursday afternoon in mid-July, it was nearly empty. Only a few boxes of books clutter up the room. Amandeep Gill is about to change jobs. Since July 18, he has been the new UN Technology Envoy in New York.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres himself commissioned Amandeep Gill to advance the organization into the digital age. And while the latter is not formally the very first UN Tech Representative (the position was created in 2021, but the terms of two of his predecessors were either shortened or temporary), there is still much to be done.

The mission that awaits Amandeep Gill and her office may seem daunting, but the new envoy is confident. “Of course I can’t wait and it’s a great honor for me. I’m not nervous, that’s what I’ve been doing for a while,” he said.

Amandeep Gill

Amandeep Gill is originally from India where he studied electronics and electronic communications. In 1992, he entered his country’s diplomatic service and was sent to Tehran, then to Colombo, and in 2016 landed in Geneva to take up the post of Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the UN Conference on Disarmament.

Between 2018 and 2019, he was one of the leaders of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which, together with governments, the private sector, civil society and other actors, sought to determine how to improve international cooperation in the digital world.

From 2019 until her appointment as Technology Envoy, Amandeep Gill was the CEO of the International Collaboration for Digital Health Research and Artificial Intelligence (I-DAIR), a project to promote international collaboration in research and development, the responsible development of artificial intelligence ( AI) and digital medical technologies.

He also chaired UN negotiations on lethal autonomous weapons systems and contributed to the preparation of the UNESCO recommendation on the ethics of AI.

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Both an engineer and a diplomat, Amandeep Gill is in a unique position to exemplify the diversity of an “international Geneva” where a panel of experts can negotiate a ban on killer robots as well as discuss how artificial intelligence can help diagnose cancer. Since arriving in the Swiss city in 2016, Amandeep Gill has been involved in all these discussions and more.

Contact person for technologies

As digital technology has become a priority for many governments around the world, Amandeep Gill explains that it was “normal” for the UN to think of a point of contact – a technology envoy responsible for monitoring technology developments and their impact on operations. organizations, be it peace and security, human rights or development.

Amandeep Gill notes that the digital world, unlike the physical world, knows no boundaries. Ensuring that digital technologies benefit the whole world and preventing their misuse requires international cooperation and therefore the involvement of the UN, supported by a new envoy. “The UN is the main organization serving the international community for multilateral cooperation. This is the most universal forum where each country has a voice and can play the role of a neutral unifier.

Referring to his experience in Geneva, the new technology envoy says he has learned to go beyond “traditional means of advancing standards.” Instruments of international cooperation, such as treaties and conventions, are a great way to reach agreements between several parties, but they are time consuming. “In the digital world, everything changes very quickly. If we cling to our traditional methods, technology will surpass politics,” explains Amandeep Gill.

He says there is a need to be more flexible, to anticipate more and rely on a mixture of so-called soft and hard standards, such as non-binding recommendations and legally binding treaties. It is also important, the new envoy believes, to include voices outside the political and diplomatic spheres, such as civil society and the private sector. “We especially need to engage the technology community, because they are the ones who develop these technologies. And often these people do not want to harm, but do not understand all the consequences.

General principles

The new governance tool could emerge at the Summit of the Future, a conference to be held in New York next year that is expected to be attended by all 193 UN member states. This will take the form of an agreement, a “Global Digital Pact”, in which António Guterres hopes to see certain “common principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”.

For the new envoy, this document is an urgent need. As he notes, today there is no single approach to managing digital technologies. While some countries, such as more recently China or the European Union, have adopted legislation from above, others, such as the United States, have allowed the private sector to regulate itself through industrial standards. This dichotomy is confusing for many countries “that are struggling to manage digital transformation,” says Amandeep Gill, who hopes the pact will become a “reference document” for managing the digital transition.

“A shared vision, a shared understanding, a clear vision of the challenges, the different opportunities that send signals to governments, private sector investors in certain areas, some good ways to deploy digital technologies. ”, explains Amandeep Gill. This is all the more important as the world lags behind the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, he said.

But Amandeep Gill doesn’t see the pact as an end in itself. Rather, he hopes that it will serve as a basis for organizing regular meetings at the United Nations with the participation of Member States, as well as other digital actors, from private companies to academia, including members of civil society. The “gentle pressure” of scrutinizing others would help ensure that “the principles, aspirations, and properties of the pact are understood and applied, and that if difficulties arise, we can discuss how to resolve them,” he explains.

Problems to be overcome

Of course, Amandeep Gill knows that digital technologies create a lot of problems. For example, social networks, with their opaque algorithms, have been used in recent years to influence elections and increase repression against authoritarian governments. But they also gave a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice. The use of digital technologies by governments also sometimes creates problems. Facial recognition, for example, could be used to reunite missing children with their families. But the same technology can be used to profile ethnic minorities and violate their fundamental rights.

“It is in this delicate balance that the UN plays a role,” says Amandip Gill. As a neutral intermediary, the UN can point to risks, to possible damage. “And it’s not about the ideological orientation of different countries, but about human rights. […] so the UN has a vital role to play in highlighting these issues.” He adds that the UN must work with governments, as well as the private sector and civil society, to keep the digital space “inclusive” and “safe for all.”

“Human-centric” technologies

Amandeep Gill says it’s impossible to pinpoint one issue that her office should prioritize. “You should grow a varied garden in this area.” Since different countries are at different stages of their digital transformation, their needs and the challenges they face vary considerably.

According to the UN, almost half of the world’s population, mostly women and residents of developing countries, do not have access to the Internet. People unable to work or study online have been particularly affected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bridging the digital divide is a priority for these people. Meanwhile, developed countries face data privacy issues and ethical dilemmas as they allow machines to make increasingly complex decisions.

But on a personal note, the new technology envoy admits that the metaverse — virtual worlds, such as social networks based on virtual reality — worries him, in particular in terms of privacy, human rights and freedom of choice. “How much time do we spend looking at real world problems, our analog problems, and how much time do we spend in fantasy? There could be social changes that we may not have thought about enough,” says Amandeep Gill, adding that thinking about these risks does not mean giving up on the innovation and business potential of this technology.

He hopes that in the future, countries will launch initiatives to connect digital resources – databases, algorithms, etc. – in order to make progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to, for example, health, food security or ecological transition. He also hopes that there will be a shift towards a more “human-centered” approach to technology, in which people retain “their dignity, their free choice, their rights.”

“If in the future we could say, ‘ah, there’s a tipping point, there’s a realization that we need more human-centric digital technologies and we need to pay attention to the loss of freedom of choice’, I would be happy. “

Text edited by Imogen Foulkes.

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