Friday 26 November 2021


The member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have agreed on a text of recommended ethics for artificial intelligence (AI) that policy makers can apply on a “voluntary” basis.

The adopted text, which the agency calls “historic”, outlines the “common values and principles which will guide the construction of the necessary legal infrastructure to ensure the healthy development of AI,” UNESCO says.

The text specifies that AI systems “should not be used for social scoring and mass surveillance purposes,” among other recommendations.

The organization’s 193 member states include countries, however, that are known to use AI and other technologies to carry out such surveillance, often targeting minorities and dissidents - including writers and artists. Governments and multinational companies have also used personal data and AI technology to infringe on privacy.

While such states and entities were not named, UNESCO officials acknowledged that the discussions leading up to the adopted text had included “difficult conversations”.

Presenting the agreement Nov. 25 at the organization’s headquarters in Paris, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay said the initiative to have an AI ethics framework had been launched in 2018.

“I remember that many thought it would be extremely hard if not impossible to attain common ground among the 193 states … but after these years of work, we’ve been rewarded by this important victory for multilateralism,” Azoulay told journalists.

She pointed out that AI technology has been developing rapidly and that it entails a range of profound effects that comprise both advantages to humanity and wide-ranging risks. Because of such impact, a global accord with practical recommendations was necessary, based on input from experts around the world, Azoulay stressed.

The accord came during the 41st session of UNESCO’s General Conference, which took place Nov. 9 to 24 and included the adoption of “key agreements demonstrating renewed multilateral cooperation,” UNESCO said.

While the accord does not provide a single definition of AI, the “ambition” is to address the features of AI that are of “central ethical relevance,” according to the text.

These are the features, or systems, that have “the capacity to process data and information in a way that resembles intelligent behaviour, and typically includes aspects of reasoning, learning, perception, prediction, planning or control,” it said.

While the systems are “delivering remarkable results in highly specialized fields such as cancer screening and building inclusive environments for people with disabilities”, they are equally creating new challenges and raising “fundamental ethical concerns,” UNESCO said.

The agreement outlines the biases that AI technologies can “embed and exacerbate” and their potential impact on “human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, gender equality, democracy … and the environment and ecosystems.”

According to UNESCO, these types of technologies “are very invasive, they infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and they are used in a broad way.”

The agreement stresses that when member states develop regulatory frameworks, they should “take into account that ultimate responsibility and accountability must always lie with natural or legal persons” - that is, humans - “and that AI systems should not be given legal personality” themselves.

“New technologies need to provide new means to advocate, defend and exercise human rights and not to infringe them,” the agreement says.

Among the long list of goals, UNESCO said that the accord aims to ensure that digital transformations contribute as well to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals” (a UN blueprint to achieve a “better and more sustainable future” for the world).

“We see increased gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy, dignity and agency, dangers of mass surveillance, and increased use of unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now, there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues,” UNESCO declared.

Regarding climate change, the text says that member states should make sure that AI favours methods that are resource- and energy-efficient, given the impact on the environment of storing huge amounts of data, which requires energy. It additionally asks governments to assess the direct and indirect environmental impact throughout the AI system life cycle.

On the issue of gender, the text says that member states “should ensure that the potential for digital technologies and artificial intelligence to contribute to achieving gender equality is fully maximized.”

It adds that states “must ensure that the human rights and fundamental freedoms of girls and women, and their safety and integrity are not violated at any stage of the AI system life cycle.”

Alessandra Sala, director of Artificial Intelligence and Data Science at Shutterstock and president of the non-profit organization Women in AI, also spoke at the presentation of the agreement, saying that the text provides clear guidelines for the AI field, including on artistic, cultural and gender issues.

“It is a symbol of societal progress,” she told journalists, emphasizing that understanding the ethics of AI was a shared “leadership responsibility” which should include women’s often “excluded voices”.

In answer to concerns raised by reporters about the future of the recommendations, which are essentially non-binding, UNESCO officials said that member states realize that the world “needs” this agreement and that it was a step in the right direction. - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay; a robot seen at a UNESCO conference; Alessandra Sala, of Shutterstock and Women in AI. (Photos by AM/SWAN.)

Thursday 25 November 2021


 Art is back with a bang in the French capital.

After numerous cancellations throughout 2020 and in the spring of this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fall cultural calendar has been packed, with people flocking to see contemporary art (at FIAC), photography (at Paris Photo), and African art (at AKAA – Also Known as Africa), in addition to a host of new museum exhibitions.

The fairs and shows have featured artists from around the world, with naturally some overlap in the different genres.

Still, AKAA - which took place Nov. 12-14 - stood out for “centering” African art in Paris once again, bouncing back strongly with more than 130 artists and 35 galleries at the imposing Carreau du Temple venue.

This year, the 6-year-old fair showed an increased number of Caribbean and African American artists as well, expanding its focus with some bold, innovative works.

A few days after the well-attended 2021 edition closed its doors, SWAN spoke with AKAA’s founder Victoria Mann about the cultural calendar and about AKAA’s raison d’être. An edited version of the telephone interview follows.

SWAN: How has the fair turned out, in your view?

VICTORIA MANN: We’re extremely happy. We were coming back after a last-minute cancellation in 2020 because of the pandemic, and losing a year between two editions when there are so many fairs all around us is not an easy thing. So, it was important for us to be back with a fair that was high in quality for the public. And in terms of public, it was just as important for us to have our collectors and institutions here to allow for good business for our exhibitors, as well as a more general public who really want to discover and know more about these artistic scenes that we defend at the fair.

SWAN: Did you notice new attendees - people coming for the first time?

VM: I think we definitely had that kind of visiting and viewership. It’s important for us every year to work on that. We want those who know us to come back but we also wish to expand our visitorship, and that’s the kind of work we do all year-long - and in this case, all two-year-long – so that more and more people who don’t know the fair can come and discover it. That’s also part of why it’s important for us to be here during that week of November when Paris Photo is taking place because there is a significant back and forth between the two fairs, and every year we get visitors from Paris Photo who come and discover our event.

SWAN: Is there a danger of people getting “art fatigue”, or “arted out” with so many events crowded together? How do you situate yourself differently?

VM: I think this year is particular, right? Because the truth is that all the events that were planned even for the spring sort of got pushed back because of the pandemic. So, I agree - this fall was completely crazy in terms of cultural calendar, with fairs popping up in the middle of the regular calendar which is already quite full. I think that things will shape back up to be normal, hopefully, although I see some Covid cases rising in certain countries, which makes me quite anxious like everybody else. But, if we do come back to a semi-normal state, I think that the calendar will spread over more evenly around the year.

In terms of AKAA, I think we bring … that fresh outlook, and that’s really the identity that we seek to develop and to push forward - we’re a discovery fair. And I think that’s what our visitors and collectors really appreciate. They know that every time they come to AKAA, they might see several artists that haven’t already been presented in the fair in the years past, and artists that are starting to have important standards in the world of art. But they will also automatically discover these brand-new talents, and I think that’s what is exciting.

SWAN: There aren’t that many events in Paris that focus on Africa or the Caribbean, but when they take place, people do come out in support. For instance, the First African Book Fair of Paris earlier this year attracted a very high number of visitors. How do you see the space for more events like this?

VM: In order to properly answer that question, I think it’s important to resituate our positioning and our philosophy. When we created AKAA, the idea was to create a platform that was both a commercial one - we’re a fair, so the idea was for business to be able to happen - but it was also going to be a cultural platform to bring about dialogue, to bring about encounter, and therefore to bring about education regarding certain art scenes. As I said, we’re a fair that’s positioned on discovery, but with discovery you need to bring the right tools to understand what you’re discovering. And, what was really important to us, is to not create an artistic ghetto, but rather to be able to open up as much as possible over the years.

So, the way we defend our message is that we try to actually take the geography out of the equation… that’s not really what interests us but rather that link to the African continent that each artist sheds light on in their work. And all of a sudden, when you look at things through that angle, then the possibilities are infinite and the space can be shared. So, of course, we do have a lot of artists that live and work on the African continent. That goes without saying, and it’s the number-one link that is easiest to identify.

But we also have all these other artists that find their relationship to the African continent through a number of different things. With the African American artists, for example, there’s the link of heritage, the link of memory, the link of ancestry. This is extremely important for us. And they have their place alongside artists who are from the continent in the same capacity, as well as artists who have a link through different elements, through - for example - collaboration with artists from the continent, or residency or projects put together. And so, we’re talking about a very international art scene centred on the African continent.

SWAN: That’s an interesting perspective …

VM: Yes, what we try to do is to basically offer a new angle, a new point of view of that contemporary art map, and instead of looking at it with Europe and the States in the centre as we’re a little bit used to doing when we talk about contemporary art, we’re looking at it with Africa in the centre, and from that centre, all these dialogues, all these connections, and all these confrontations as well, that may happen. So, from that point, the more this artistic echo system grows, the richer it gets.

Photos (top to bottom): Le soleil est coeur by Amadou Opa Bathily, 2021, mixed media on canvas, at African Arty Gallery - photo AM:SWAN; Victoria Mann; Hanging Fruit by Jamaican-born artist Shoshana Weinberger, 2021, mixed media on paper, courtesy NOMAD Gallery; by Justin Ebanda, 2021, acrylic on canvas, courtesy / copyright Galerie Carole Kvasnevski.

Saturday 13 November 2021


Passionate speeches, fervent performances by renowned artists, and the presence of special envoys such as actor Forest Whitaker marked a significant milestone for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Founded in 1946, the body is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, with a range of events taking place during its current General Conference, which runs until Nov. 24 at the headquarters in Paris, France.

The agency’s director-general Audrey Azoulay was re-elected at the start of the Conference on Nov 9 for a second four-year term – a re-election that officials said had the “overwhelming backing” of UNESCO’s 193 Member States; Azoulay obtained “155 votes out of a total of 169 ballots cast”.

“I see this result as a sign of regained unity within our organization,” Azoulay stated after the vote. “Over the last four years, we have been able to restore confidence in UNESCO, and in some respects, this has also been about restoring UNESCO’s confidence in itself.”

With the re-election out of the way, the organization followed up on Nov. 12 with an anniversary ceremony attended by some 25 heads of state and government, as well as ministers from about 50 countries. The festivities were accompanied by the beaming of the UNESCO logo onto Paris’ iconic Eiffel Tower, and the organization even asked the public to share images of this lighting-up “as a symbol of hope for the creation of a more peaceful world”.

As officials recalled in speech after speech during the anniversary ceremony, UNESCO was born of a “clear vision” after two world wars: to build peace “in the minds of men” and women.

The founders believed that economic and political agreements among states were not enough “to achieve lasting peace”; therefore, people needed to be brought together with a strengthening of the “intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind, through mutual understanding and dialogue between cultures,” according to UNESCO.

In her speech for the anniversary, Azoulay referred to this history and highlighted UNESCO’s record in working for the advancement of science, culture and education. She said that for 75 years, the organization “has led the fight for education, focusing first on literacy campaigns with major campaigns starting in the late 1940s”.

When Azoulay began her first term in 2017 (after the United States and Israel had withdrawn from UNESCO following Palestine’s membership), she called for unity and humanism. She said then that the world’s inability to prevent “tragedies” such as the “massive degradation of the environment, obscurantism, terrorism, deliberate attacks on cultural diversity, the oppression of women, massive displacements of populations” could be explained by a common blindness: “the lack of knowledge, the denial of universal values, and the absence of a global and humanist response.”

This week, she reiterated her appeal for solidarity and for increased work by governments to respect the dignity and freedom of citizens - the freedom to think, to learn, to speak and to access education.

Photos - from top to bottom: UNESCO's director director (second from left) with actor Forest Whitaker and other dignitaries at the 75th anniversary ceremony; a group photo of officials attending the ceremony. Pictures courtesy of UNESCO / C. Alix.