World Telecommunications Day: ICT for development

World Telecommunications and Information Society Day is used to raise awareness about possible uses of the internet, information and communication technology (ICT) in improving people's lives. Image: frayintermedia

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) used World Telecommunications and Information Society Day (WTISD) on May 17 2018 to focus on how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

WTISD commemorates the signing of the 1865 International Telegraphs Convention in France. The day marked the end of a conference called by Emperor Napoléon III 153 years ago. He was the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte.

In the twenty-first century WTISD is used to raise awareness about how advances in information and communication technology (ICT) can be used for development. It is also used to find ways of bridging the digital divide between technologically advanced countries and the world's less developed regions.

Speaking at the AI for Good Summit held by ITU on May 15-17, professor and researcher at Spain’s Autònoma University, Joaquin Rodriguez Alvarez said although there was lot of optimism about ICT the world still had to be careful.

He said the world must realise that data can also cause world disasters with the same impact as the1986 nuclear fallout in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Alvarez said incidents like the Cambridge Analytica scandal are of a similar scale and pose a danger to democracy in a world where there are racist, homophobic and xenophobic societies.

“Democracy is something very fragile. It's very easy to manufacture consent. It’s easy to manipulate public opinion with the tools that we have right now,” Alvarez said.

He used the examples of the Rwandan genocide and the holocaust to show how data had been used to aid evil.

ICT in Rwanda: The bad

In the Rwandan genocide the media was used to transmit messages that incited the Hutu population to exterminate the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus. Broadcasts from Radio Rwanda and Radio Télévision des Milles Collines (RTLM) gave detailed information to listeners about exact locations of Tutsi hideouts. They referred to them as Inyenzi - cockroaches.

The late RTLM journalist Kantano Habimana occasionally broadcast to audiences in specific villages in Rwanda and neighbouring countries like Congo, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda. On May 30 1994 he told youth in Gatsata village that weapons were available.

Transcript of Kantano Habimana's May 30 1994 broadcast to eleven villages about Tutsis hiding at a church in Gatsata village, Rwanda.

On March 14 2018 workers digging a sewage system for a new house discovered the remains of 20 people. Some of the remains had identification documents labelling them as Tutsi. The 20 remains were added to another 157 newly discovered victims who were reburied during the April 7-14 genocide memorials.

The good

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who was also at the summit, said he believes the subject of AI is important in advancing health for all. He said ICT has gained more importance in aiding efforts to achieve their top priority, universal health coverage.

“Today digital technologies and AI give us a wealth of tools that we did not have 70 years ago. Mobile technologies and telemedicine can make a huge difference in helping reach people in the remotest villages with medical services. For example Rwanda is piloting drone technology in delivering blood supplies,” Ghebreyesus said.

Hospitals in Rwanda place orders for delivery by sending text messages to a drone operator. Zipline, the company operating the drones, takes the blood supplies from a refrigerating facility and packs them in a box with a parachute.

The package is loaded in a drone plane and dropped at the blood transfusion facility. The whole operation is automated.

Storytelling and ICT

Storytellers are emerging as vital in the interface between people from various fields and AI experts.

According to ITU senior communications and membership officer Frederick Werner the challenge is how to make AI relatable to non-AI experts. Added to this is the challenge of making the Sustainable Development Goals easy to understand for people who are know very little about the UN.

Among the storytellers atb the summit was assistant professor of ethics and robots Aimee van Wynsberghe, who said one of the main tasks for her was to take research about the relationship between robotics and ethics outside of the walls of academia.

Aimee said there is ongoing debate about how norms and values influence technology. She made an example about how this played out in the relationship between gender and technology.

“One of the most famous examples that talks about this looks at razor blades, talking about how female razor blades are these pink, very simple technologies reflective of what we would imagine a woman would want in a razor. Whereas the male razor blade is the black and the blue very masculine colours, sophisticated technological-like looking device.”

She said technology could change the elements of what we think make the good life.

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