United Nations CITO: Artificial intelligence will be humanity's final innovation

The United Nations Chief Information Technology Officer spoke with TechRepublic about the future of cybersecurity, social media, and how to fix the internet and build global technology for social good.

Artificial intelligence, said United Nations chief information technology officer Atefeh Riazi, might be the last innovation humans create.

"The next innovations," said the cabinet-level diplomat during a recent interview at her office at UN headquarters in New York, "will come through artificial intelligence."

From then on, said Riazi, "it will be the AI innovating. We need to think about our role as technologists and we need to think about the ramifications—positive and negative—and we need to transform ourselves as innovators."

Appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as CITO and Assistant Secretary-General of the Office of Information and Communications Technology in 2013, Riazi is also an innovator in her own right in the global security community.

Riazi was born in Iran, and is a veteran of the information technology industry. She has a degree in electrical engineering from Stony Brook University in New York, spent over 20 years working in IT roles in the public and private sectors, and was the New York City Housing Authority's Chief Information Officer from 2009 to 2013. She has also served as the executive director of CIOs Without Borders, a non-profit organization dedicated to using technology for the good of society—especially to support healthcare projects in the developing world.

Riazi and her UN staff meet with diplomats and world leaders, NGOs, and executives at private companies like Google and Facebook to craft technology policy that impacts governments and businesses around the world.

TechRepublic's in-depth interview with her covered a broad range of important technology policy issues, including the digital divide, e-waste, cybersecurity, social media, and, of course, artificial intelligence.

The Digital Divide

TechRepublic: Access to information is essential in modern life. Can you explain how running IT for the New York City Housing Authority helps low income people?

UN CITO: When I was at New York City Housing, I came in as a CIO. Within six months most of the leadership left. When the general manager left, I was asked to serve as the acting GM. He looked at me and said, "you're in. You're the next acting general manager of New York City Housing." I said, "Okay."

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United Nations CITO Atefeh Riazi
Image: New York City Housing Authority

New York City Housing is a $3 billion organization providing support to about 500,000 residents. You have the Section 8 program, you have the public housing, and a billion and a half of construction. I came out of IT and I had to help manage and run New York City Housing at a very difficult time.

When you look at the city of New York, the digital divide among the youth and among the poor is very high. We have a digital divide right in this great city. Today I have two eight year olds and their homework. A lot of [their] research is done online. But in other areas of the city, you have kids that don't have access to computers, don't have access to the internet, cannot afford it. They can't find jobs because they don't have access to the internet. They can't do as well in school. A lot of them are single family, maybe grandparents raising them.

How do we provide them that access? How do we close the gap so they can compete with other classmates who have access to knowledge and information?

In Finland, they passed a law stating that internet access is a birthright. If it's a birthright, then let's give it to people right here in New York and elsewhere in the world.

All of the simple things that we have and we offer our children, if we could [provide internet access] as a public service, we begin to close the income gap, help people learn skills, and make them more viable for jobs.

E-waste

TechRepublic: Can you help us understand the role of electronic waste (e-waste) on women and girls in developing countries?

UN CITO: E-waste is the mercury and lead. Mercury and lead contributes to 5% of global waste. They contribute to 70% of hazardous materials. You have computers, servers, storage, and cell phones. We have no plans on recycling these. This is polluting the air and the water in China and India. Dioxin, if you burn electronics you get dioxin, which is like agent orange. The question to the tech sector is, okay, you created this wonderful world of technology, but you have no plans in addressing these big issues of environmental hazard.

The impact of electronic waste is tremendous because a women's body looks at mercury as calcium. It brings it in, it puts it in the bones and then when you're pregnant, guess what? It thinks, oh, "I got some calcium. Here it is."

READ: How conflict minerals funded a war that killed millions, and why tech giants are finally cleaning up their act

Newborns have mercury and lead in their blood, and disease. It's just contributing to so many children, so many women getting sick and because women pass it on to the next generation, [children] are impacted.

Where is the responsibility of the tech sector to say, "I will protect the women. I will protect the children. I will take out the lead and mercury. I will help contribute to recycling of my materials."

The Deep Web

TechRepublic: While there are many privacy benefits to the Deep Web, it's no secret that criminal activity flourishes on underground sites. I know this is the perpetual question, but is this criminal behavior that has always existed and now we can see it a little better, or does the Deep Web perpetuate and increase criminal behavior?

UN CITO: I wish I had enough insight to answer correctly, but I can give it from my perspective. The scope has changed tremendously. If you look at slavery and the number of people trafficked, there's 20 million people trafficked now. You look at the numbers and you look at how much the slaves were sold [in the past]. I think the slaves were sold for [hundreds] of ... today's dollars. Today, you can buy a girl for $300 through the Deep Web.

Here's the thing. Human trafficking has exploded because we're a global world. We can sell and buy globally. Before, the criminals couldn't do it globally. They couldn't move the people as fast.

READ: A Personalization Recommendation Method Based on Deep Web Data Query (White Paper)

TechRepublic: If we're putting this in very cynical market terms, the market for humans has grown due to the Deep Web?

UN CITO: Yes. The market has grown for sex trafficking, or for organs, or for just basic labor. There are many reasons why this has happened. We're seeing tremendous growth in criminal activity. It's very difficult to find criminals. Drug trafficking is easier. Commerce is easier in the Deep Web. All of that is going up.

"As a social group, we can create positive algorithms for social good."
Atefeh Riazi, United Nations CITO

Humans are 99% are good but you've got the 1%, and I think we have a plan to react to the criminal activities. At the UN we are beginning to build the cyber-expertise to become a catalyst. Not to resolve these issues, because I look at the internet as an infant that we have created, this species we've created which is growing and it's evolving. It's going through its "terrible twos" right now. We have a choice to try to manage it, censor it, or shut it down, which we see in some countries. Or we have a choice to build its antibody. Make sure that it becomes strong.

We [can] create the "Light Web," and I think we can only do it through the use of all the amazing technology people globally who want to [use to] do good. As a social group, we can create positive algorithms for social good.

Encryption and cybersecurity

TechRepublic: In the digital world, the notion of sovereignty is shifting. What is the UN's role in terms of cybersecurity?

UN CITO: It's shifting, exactly, because government rule over a civil society in a cyber-world doesn't exist. Do you think that criminals care that the UN or governments have a policy, or a rule? Countries and criminals will begin to attack each other.

From our perspective, our mission is really peace and security, development of human rights. The UN has a number of responsibilities. We have peacekeeping, human rights, humanitarian affairs, and sustainable development. We look at cybersecurity, and we say that peace in the cyber-world is very different because countries are starting to attack each other, and starting to attack each [other's] industrial systems. Often attacks are asymmetrical. Peace to me is very different than peace to you.

We talk about cybersecurity. Okay, then what do we do? This is the world we've created through the internet. What do we do to bring peace to this world? What does anyone do?

I think that we spend a lot of money on cybersecurity globally. Public and private money, and we are not successful, really. Intrusions happen every day. Intellectual property is lost. Privacy, the way we knew it, has changed completely. There's a new way of thinking about privacy, and what's confidential.

SEE: 10 of the best places to study cybersecurity

We worry about industrial systems like our electric grid. We worry about our member states' industrial systems, intrusions into electricity, into water, and sanitation—things that impact human life.

Our peacekeepers are out in the field. We have helicopters. We have planes. A big worry of ours is an intrusion into a plane or helicopter, where you think the fuel gauge is full but it's empty. Or through a GPS. If your GPS is impacted, and you think you're here but you're actually there.

Where is the role of encryption? Encryption is amoral. It could be used for good. It could be used for bad. It's hard to have an opinion on encryption, for me at least, without realizing that the same thing I endorse for everyone, others endorse for criminals. Do we have the sophistication, the capabilities to limit that technology only for the good? I don't think we do.

Encryption is amoral. It could be used for good. It could be used for bad... Do we have the sophistication, the capabilities to limit that technology only for the good? I don't think we do.
Atefeh Riazi, United Nations CITO

TechRepublic: What is the plan for cybersecurity?

UN CITO: Well, I've been waiting. I think that is something for all the member states to come together and talk about cybersecurity.

But what is the plan of us as homosapiens, now we are connected sapiens and very soon we are a combination of carbon and silicon? As super intelligent beings, what is the plan? This is not being talked about. We hope that through the creation of Digital Blue Helmets we'd begin a conversation and we'd begin to ask people to contribute positively to what we believe is ethically right. But then again, what we believe is ethically right somebody else may believe is ethically wrong.

Social media

TechRepublic: The UN recently held a conference on social media and terrorism, particularly related to Daesh [ISIS]. What was the discussion about? What takeaways came from that conference?

UN CITO: Well, we got together as a lot of information and communication professionals, and academics to talk about the big issue of social media and terrorism with Daesh and ISIL. I think this type of dialog is really critical because if we don't talk about these issues, we can't come up with policy recommendations. I think there's a lot of really good discussion about human rights on the internet. "Thou shalt do no harm."

But we know that whatever policies we come up with, Daesh would be the last group that cares whether you have policies or not. There's deeper discussion about how does youth get attracted to radicalism? You have 50% unemployment of youth. You have major income disparity. I think if we can't begin to address the basic social issues, we're going to have more and more youth attracted to this radicalism. There was good discussion and dialog that we need to address those issues.

There's some discussion about how do we create the positive message? People, especially youth, want to do something positive. They want to participate. They want to be part of a bigger thing. How do we encourage them? When they look at the negative message, how do you bring in a positive message? Can governments to do something about that?

Look at the private sector. When there was a Tylenol scare or Toyota speeding on its own, when you went online and you searched for Tylenol, you didn't get all the bad stories about Tylenol. You went into the sites that Tylenol wanted you to go. Search is so powerful, and if you can begin to write positive algorithms, that begin to move the youth to positive messaging.

Don't try to use marketing or gimmicks because it's so transparent. People see right through it. Governments have a responsibility to provide a positive information space for their youth. There was a lot of good dialog around that.

On the technology side, I think this is a two year old infant, the internet is amoral, and we can use it for good and use it for bad. You can't shut down the internet. You can't shut down social media. There's a very gray space because, as I said, somebody's freedom fighter is somebody else's terrorist. Is it for Facebook or Twitter to make that decision?

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The UN is convening high level discussions on cybersecurity and cybercrimes, like this one in Geneva.
Image: United Nations/Jean-Marc Ferré

Artificial intelligence

TechRepublic: I know you are quite curious about artificial intelligence. Is there a UN policy with respect to AI?

UN CITO: AI is an amazing thing to talk about, because now you can look at patterns much faster than humans [can]. Do we as technologists have the sophistication of addressing the moral and ethical issues of what's good and bad?

I think this is what scares me when it comes to AI. Let's say we as humans say, "we want people to be happy and with artificial intelligence, we should build systems for people to be happy." What does that mean?

I'm looking at the machine language, and the path we're creating for 10, 20, 30 years from now but not fully understanding the ethical programming that we're putting into the systems. IT people are creating the next world. The ethical programming they do is what is in their head, and so policies are being written in lines of code, in the algorithms.

READ: AI gone wrong: Cybersecurity director warns of 'malevolent AI'

We look at artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the world we see as technologists 20 years from now is very different than the world we have today. Artificial intelligence is this super, super intelligent species that is not human. Humans have reached our limitation.

That idea poses so many questions. If we create this artificial intelligence that can do 80% of the labor that humans do, what are the changes? Social, cultural, economic. All of these big, big questions have to be talked about.

I'm hoping that's the United Nations, but there's so much political opposition to those conversations. So much political opposition because we are holding on to our physical borders, and we have forgotten that those physical borders are gone. The world is virtual. We sit here as heads of departments and ministers and talk about AI. We discuss the moral, the ethical issues that people are going to confront with AI technology—positive and negative.

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Final word

Riazi has spent her career as an IT professional and policy-maker, and the interview concluded with a reflection about technology and innovation.

"Policies are being written in lines of code, in the algorithms."
Atefeh Riazi, United Nations CITO

We have a paradox in technology and IT, said Riazi. "We think a lot about IT being hardware and software and tools, and we think a lot about the visible risks of technology," she said. "But we do not think as much about the invisible risks of innovation."

"[Innovation] has an impact," said Riazi. "If you look at the single combustion engine and its impact globally, what was one simple innovation, [resulted in] suburbia, popular mass transportation," and a significant environmental and economical shift. It's impossible to control the technology, she emphasized, so IT policy makers in particular have a responsibility to consider the ramifications and unintended consequences of rapidly-evolving innovation.

"How do we build the white blood cells of the web? Can we create positive algorithms to fight the Dark Web and to fight crime. We're creating something we don't necessarily own," said Riazi. "We're creating philosophy and a mindset and a movement, a positive movement. Because when we look at these big issues, we can't solve them on our own."

Note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

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UN headquarters in New York, lit up with flags and data points.
Image: United Nations/Cia Pak

About

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.