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Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

Justice and AI

The new age of technology

Rapidly developing digital technologies and the surge in data being produced by both humans and machines are transforming society in positive ways, from detecting cancer more accurately than human radiologists to providing customized teaching for children with learning disabilities. Nine days before the world first heard of the novel coronavirus, a health monitoring technology platform in Canada had already identified an unusual growing cluster of infections. The technologies behind these developments – in particular Artificial intelligence (AI), as well as unmanned robotic vehicles, the Internet of Things, and a range of environmental sensors – are poised to play a central role in what is rapidly becoming a technological revolution.

The potential of these technologies has generated heightened interest in public bodies, private entities and communities, from agriculture to utilities. The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has indicated that, if harnessed appropriately, AI can play a role in fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring peace and prosperity for all.

Since 2016, national, regional and international authorities across the globe began adopting strategies, action plans and policy papers aimed at tapping into the potential of AI in particular. These documents cover a wide range of topics setting targets and objectives for industrial strategy, research, talent development, data collection, infrastructure, ethics, governance and regulation. Alongside this, numerous private entities have also adopted corporate strategies to leverage AI.

Timeline of AI strategic documents, effective as of April 2020

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A better criminal justice system

Given the increasingly data-heavy nature of criminal investigations and the evolving and complex nature of criminality, the criminal justice system is a domain that can derive substantial benefit from the potential of new and emerging technologies.

AI has, for instance, already been used to help police to identify and locate long-missing children, to scan illicit sex ads and disrupt human trafficking rings, and flag financial transactions that indicate the possibility of money laundering. It may also find application in protecting citizens privacy through automating the anonymization of surveillance footage.

Beyond policing, such technologies may find application in the courts, where they can help with efficient research on jurisprudence to identify precedents and support legal professionals with case management to ensure a timely delivery of justice. In correctional facilities, authorities may leverage these technologies to support behaviour analysis and reduce violence in prisons.

Complex and multifaceted challenges

The design, development and deployment of these technologies is however not without concern. Their use presents complex and multifaceted challenges, which range from their use as a tool for criminals and terrorist groups and individuals to carry out cyber, physical or political attacks, to a plethora of ancillary consequences of their use by legitimate actors.

Chief among the concerns around its use by legitimate actors is the very real and serious potential for these technologies to hamper fundamental freedoms and infringe human rights, such as the right to privacy, equality and non-discrimination if they are not used appropriately. The origin of rights violations can be intentional, for instance through deployment of the AI surveillance systems in an unjustifiable or disproportionate manner, or unintentional, for instance, through the use of biased data for the purposes of training machine learning algorithms, thereby compounding bias through automated processes.

Of the two broad categories of concern – legitimate use and malicious misuse –  addressing the potential criminal and terrorist aspect of the use of these technologies is relatively speaking more straightforward to address, in that it requires advancing understanding of attack typologies and vulnerabilities and improving capacities to prevent, detect and deter such attacks. Addressing the ancillary consequences that may arise during their use by legitimate actors on the other hand is a much more problematic and challenging matter. Ultimately, the solution lies in ensuring the design, development and deployment of these technologies in a responsible manner, that enshrines the general principles of respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Moreover, the application of these technologies must reflect the requirements of fairness, accountability, transparency and explainability throughout their entire lifecycle and pare human judgment and empathy with the data-processing capabilities of machines. Only by committing to the maxim of primum non nocere – do no harm – and  putting in place appropriate regulation to ensure this can legitimate actors avoid the pitfalls and foster the necessary public trust and social acceptance in their use.

The role of UNICRI

Through its specialized Centre for AI and Robotics in The Hague, UNICRI advances understanding on the risks and benefits of AI, robotics and related technologies vis-à-vis crime, terrorism and other threats to security and seeks to support Member States to leverage the potential of these technologies in a responsible manner.

Relying on its convening power as a UN entity, UNICRI has organized several events including:

  • High-level awareness-raising and visibility events at the UN Headquarters,
  • Workshops on the detection of programmatically generated content such as deepfakes,
  • Training courses for judiciary and journalists,
  • Multi-stakeholder discussions on the intersection of AI and national security, and,Information-sharing symposiums with INTERPOL on AI for law enforcement.
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UNICRI is also exploring the conceptual design and development of AI-based tools to, for instance, prevent, detect and facilitate the prosecution of the perpetrators behind online child sexual abuse material and to interpret irregularities in financial transactions that might indicate the financing of terrorism.

The Centre was established by UNICRI in September 2017 with the support of the Municipality of the Hague, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations and strategic partners from the private sector.

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