ITU - WEF 2024: ITU Secretary-General outlines an inclusive digital future

WEF 2024: ITU Secretary-General outlines an inclusive digital future

The latest World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting placed digital technologies higher than ever before on the global agenda.

In times of deep uncertainty around the world, the weeklong meeting focused on “Rebuilding trust.”

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), joined the gathering of global government, business, and civil society leaders in critical discussions on artificial intelligence (AI), space, and digital inclusion.

Here are three highlights from her participation:

1. Addressing AI governance

Despite uneven progress and widely recognized risks, the ITU Secretary-General remains optimistic about rapid AI development, highlighting the proactive response of governments and the recognition of standards as crucial elements in AI governance.

At WEF, she emphasized the need for a global platform to build consensus on opportunities and risks in this rapidly advancing field.

“We cannot afford a world with diverging strategies on AI,” Bogdan-Martin said, echoing concerns voiced by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Developing accessible standards will also be crucial to level the AI playing field for developing and least developed countries, she added.

AI for Good, the ITU-led push to harness AI innovation to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is part of the growing commitment to optimize the outcomes of AI breakthroughs.

“Standards are a pre-requisite for effective implementation of guardrails and the development and deployment of safe and responsible AI for all,” noted Bogdan-Martin.

2. Ensuring digital inclusion for all

Underscoring the importance of inclusivity, the ITU Secretary-General called for access, equity, and participation in the world’s ongoing digital transformation.

Along with physical infrastructure, closing the digital divide depends on making Internet access and devices like smartphones widely affordable, even in the world’s least developed countries.

Giga, the joint ITU-UNICEF initiative to connect every school worldwide to the Internet, is helping connect remote schools and the communities around them in 30 countries.

GovTech – a whole-of-government approach founded on accessible digital platforms– can also drive wider everyday Internet usage.

But even then, connectivity must be meaningful for people to benefit from it.

While 95 per cent of the world’s population is now covered by 3G, 4G or 5G telecom networks, an estimated 2.6 billion people (or 33 per cent) remain offline. Access and usage, furthermore, tend to vary based on gender, and socio-economic status, resulting in additional digital divides within countries.

To ensure full inclusion, all children need basic literacy skills, as well as safe digital access, starting young. Low learning levels in some countries put the present generation of students at risk of losing up to USD 21 trillion in potential lifetime earnings, according to the World Bank.

“A holistic approach to closing the usage gap is our only chance to achieve universal, meaningful connectivity,” Bogdan-Martin observed.

3. Optimizing communications in space

To support progress and prosperity, space services must be accessible to all. ITU – as custodian of the international Radio Regulations treaty – collaborates with governments and industry members globally to ensure efficient use of the world’s radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits.

“Many may not realize this, but space applications are integral to our daily existence,” Bogdan-Martin said.

The Radio Regulations – upheld by and for ITU’s 193 Member States – provide the stable mechanism needed by industry and governments to preserve and protect their space investments.

ITU’s recent World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-23) affirmed the crucial role of satellites – both to connect everyone on Earth and to support safety-of-life systems, climate monitoring, and even spectrum planning for humanity’s eventual push to the Moon.

In the coming period, ITU will conduct studies on safe and efficient deorbit or disposal, focusing on the radio-frequency spectrum and associated satellite-orbit resources used by space services.

Satellites are essential to achieve the global goals set out by the United Nations for 2030. In fact, 40 per cent of SDG targets rely on data gathered by Earth-observation satellites.

Crucially, WRC decisions uphold access to spectrum and orbital resources for all countries. ITU aims to help developing countries use those resources effectively to advance digital inclusion and connectivity on the ground.

The growing space economy can benefit everyone. Satellite-based services can provide the decisive push to connect the hardest-to-reach communities.

“That is a game-changer for the third of humanity that remains offline,” Bogdan-Martin said.

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