Gabriela Ramos of UNESCO: “Policies matter”

Policies matter. Regulatory frameworks matter. They should achieve a good balance of strong protection while allowing for innovation to flourish. We need to avoid the abuse and misuse of AI technologies, for example to spread hate speech and misinformation and to interfere with democratic processes. We need to promote diversity and inclusion in the whole […]

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Policies matter. Regulatory frameworks matter. They should achieve a good balance of strong protection while allowing for innovation to flourish. We need to avoid the abuse and misuse of AI technologies, for example to spread hate speech and misinformation and to interfere with democratic processes. We need to promote diversity and inclusion in the whole AI system life cycle, particularly by supporting the participation of women and developing countries. We need to fight against the monopolization of AI technologies to ensure equitable access and the sharing of benefits. We need to ensure transparency when decisions are made with AI to increase public scrutiny and hence foster trust in these technologies. At first glance, this can sound like an insurmountable task — but history is replete with examples of humanity coming together to address a critically important issue, and I think this will be another shining example of what we can accomplish with a shared vision and coordinated action. This is where the Recommendation on the Ethics of AI comes in as a critically important element — a blueprint for global consensus on the “what,” as well as the “how” of ethical regulation of this game-changing technology.


As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabriela Ramos.

Gabriela Ramos is the Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO, where she oversees the contributions of the institution to build inclusive and peaceful societies. Her agenda includes the achievement of social inclusion and gender equality, advancing youth development; promotion of values through sports; anti-racism and anti-discriminatory agenda and ethics of artificial intelligence. Her appointment at UNESCO allows her to continue supporting an agenda of inclusive growth, and the respect of human rights and human dignity.

Prior to this position, Ms. Ramos served as the Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20/G7/APEC in the OECD, contributing to the global agenda as well as leading the OECD’s New Approaches to Economic Challenges, Inclusive Growth Initiative, Gender Strategy and the work on well-being and children. In 2019, she launched the Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG) platform, bringing together 40 major multinational companies committed to reducing inequalities. Previously, she was Director of the OECD Office in Mexico and Latin America and a member of the Mexican foreign service.

In 2013, she was decorated with the Ordre du Merit by the President of France. Her work to promote gender equality earned her the 2017 and 2018 Forbes Excellence award as well as being included as part of Apolitical’s 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy in both 2018 and 2019. A Fulbright and Ford McArthur fellow, she is member of the board of the Paris Peace Forum, UNICEF Advisory Board, Steering Group of the International Gender Champions Paris Hub, Multi-Stakeholder Council to the Global Solutions Initiative, Lancet Commission on Gender-Based Violence and Maltreatment of Young People, and Lancet Commission on COVID-19.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

Contributing to achieve better public policies, and international cooperation is my lifelong driver. All of my professional life, I have been working with my country (Mexico), and at the OECD and UNESCO, to improve the lives of people through the development of evidence-based policies. I was proud to promote solid policy reforms in many countries, in education, health, telecommunication, governance, gender, environment, to deliver better for people.

In this sense, I have been a staunch promoter of inclusive growth and the empowerment of women, and I worked hard for the G20 leaders to adopt its very first gender target in 2014 in Australia — on labour force participation (that resulted in the establishment of the W20 and gave rise to gender commitments from then on). Dealing with economic development and the recovery from the 2008 crisis, we could not ignore the promises and downsides of the digital revolution, and therefore, since becoming the OECD Sherpa to the OECD, I worked hard for the G20 members to adopt policies that would align this revolution with human goals and not the other way around. There were two important breakthroughs. First, the adoption of the OECD Principles of Artificial Intelligence by the G20, and the commitment to increase women’s participation in the digital world. These issues are also under my watch as Assistant Director-General of Social and Human Sciences at UNESCO. The main priority of this sector (and of UNESCO) is to achieve the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. This Recommendation is developing a framework informing values principles and policies, in education, science, culture, among others. I am proud to have advanced a very strong chapter on gender equality in the digital and AI world, with concrete measures to ensure they are not only users, but also shapers of these technologies.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

Have a sense of purpose in your endeavours. I did not come to the technology with a preconceived notion. I was focusing on contributing to a more inclusive growth model (in the context of increased inequalities of income and opportunities in our countries), and a more sustainable one. In this context, given the pervasiveness of the digital revolution, it was impossible to engage in these discussions without considering these developments. But the sense of purpose is independent of the field of work. Whatever you do, having a sense of purpose, and helping others delivers beautifully.

This requires hard work. Never stopping in upgrading your skills and fighting for what you care about. Being first Chief of Staff of the OECD, Sherpa to the G20 or UNESCO’s ADG is not a job for me. It is my window to have impact and to influence outcomes in the analogue and digital world.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

I started working on the promotion of inclusive growth and new economic approaches 2 decades ago, with several good outcomes. This agenda, and this commitment continues to be my guiding light in UNESCO’s social and human sciences sector.

I have several interesting projects within this framing. But the most important is to elaborate UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence — the first global standard-setting instrument in this field. The Recommendation is a novel, anticipatory, and transformative framework that aims to provide a basis to make AI systems work for the good of humanity. The Recommendation not only focuses on the articulation of values and principles, but also on their practical realization via concrete policy recommendations. Specific focus was given to gender equality, which is one of UNESCO’s two global priorities, as well as to the environment and ecosystems, as these areas tend to be neglected in other frameworks of similar nature. The Recommendation also provides innovative capacity-building tools to help countries tap into the power of AI, including ethical impact assessment and a readiness index.

Another ongoing project is the International Bioethics Committee’s work on the ethical issues of neurotechnology. The brain is central to notions of human identity, human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, neurotechnology blurs the boundary between the human mind and machines, and raises new ethical issues, such as the protection of brain data and mental privacy. Therefore, this work will look at the intersection between neurotechnology, ethics and human rights, and consider if the ethical and legal issues raised by neurotechnology are so large and so novel that we may need a novel set of neuro-specific human rights (‘neuro-rights’).

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

We always start with our parents. My dad (entrepreneur, writer, journalist) wanted me to be an engineer. He always thought I had ample capabilities to do whatever I wanted and taught me to dream big. My mom, who was a master Olympic athlete, showed me the discipline and the commitment that is needed if we want to succeed. Her message was always there is no limit to what you want to do.

In my professional career I have always had great mentors; the former Climate Envoy of UN SG Guterrez was my first boss (Luis Alfonso de Alba), and he guide me on how to be effective, passionate and committed at working. We fought against apartheid at the UN among others; the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mexico (Fernando Solana) who was a ‘renaissance men” who broadened my perspectives and supported me to get the Fullbright and Ford Mcarthur scholarships that allowed me to study in Harvard (public policies). And lately, the greatest mentor I have ever had is Angel Gurria, former Finance and Foreign Affairs Minister of Mexico, and for 15 years Secretary General of the OECD. With him, we transformed the OECD into an impactful and inclusive institution, and his sense of duty, strategic mind, whard work, and incredible sense of humour were gifts in my career, along with his support for me to pursue major initiatives. He appointed me the first Sherpa to the G20, which allowed me to interact with the representatives of leaders, and achieve major agreements on gender, taxes, investment and trade, employment, steel, innovation and digital matters.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

The immense potential of AI to improve the lives of people. AI can provide new solutions to concrete problems that we face. For example, AI is being used to optimize food production while minimizing waste production, contributing to a more efficient and sustainable food ecosystem. AI is also being used to predict disaster risks, monitor pollution levels and support the use of more sustainable energy sources. It has also support the fight against human trafficking. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the possibilities offered by AI in predicting infectious disease outbreaks, tracking the spread of diseases, and accelerating the development of vaccines and drugs. AI can also support remote working and learning, which opens up more opportunities for the participation of girls and women.

  1. The rapid pace of innovation in the AI industry. Innovations in AI are occurring at speeds faster than ever witnessed before. In the past year alone, we have witnessed the use of AI to produce even more human-like text using GPT-3, solve quantum chemistry problems, as well as classify and map galaxies. In 2019, more than 3 AI preprints were submitted to arXiv per hour, which is over 148 times faster than in 1994. Such rapid innovation will allow for the generation of more novel solutions for the problems plaguing us today.
  2. The sky is the limit. Technology is opening up numerous new possibilities, such as in the Internet of Things, robotics, and space research, and helping us decipher and explain previously unsolvable problem. For example, in four years, Google’s Deepmind solved a 50-year old challenge in biology — how to predict a protein’s final structure based on its amino acid sequence — with Alphafold. This breakthrough in protein structure prediction will contribute to the understanding of specific diseases and enable more precise and rapid work on drug development.
  3. The promise of AI to help developing countries leapfrog. For instance, AI-powered analytics of crop data can help identify diseases and enable soil health monitoring. A machine learning app, Nuru, has been used on farms in Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania to identify leaf damage in photos taken by farmers and to send information to authorities to help monitor the presence of an invasive pest that threatens food security across East Africa. AI can also provide new solutions for access to electricity. Azuri Technologies developed a smart-solar solution based on AI that is used in East Africa and Nigeria. It learns home energy needs and adjusts power output accordingly, for example by automatically dimming lights, to match the customer’s typical daily requirements.
  4. The ability of AI to bring all of us together. AI-powered social networks can help us find like-minded individuals and form new relationships. AI can also help promote social inclusion by providing tech solutions for vulnerable groups, including the disabled. For instance, Amazon has developed a technology for turning sign language into voice commands. Moreover, AI is being used to detect online hate speech and combat misinformation.

What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

We need to ensure that AI technologies contribute to the good of humanity and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and not infringe upon human rights or exacerbate inequalities. There is still much to be done to achieve human-centric AI. The risks and pitfalls of AI are often forgotten amidst the technology hype, but they need to be addressed to ensure that AI works for everyone’s benefit. The regulatory frameworks for AI are still in their infancy, and we are not yet able to assign responsibility and liability for actions performed by AI. Therefore, it is critical that we work to secure the rule of law in the digital world.

  1. AI has the potential to reproducing biases and discriminatory practices present in the analogue world. Only 22% of AI professionals globally are female and AI technologies developed by male-dominated teams may contribute to perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes. For instance, some AI-powered recruitment software have been found to discriminate against women due to the use of male-dominated datasets. Furthermore, the widening digital divide between countries causes developing countries to be left even further behind in developments and knowledge regarding AI.
  2. There is also high industrial concentration in this sector, and economic dominance. Much of AI technology is currently concentrated in the hands of a few companies in a limited number of countries. Big tech companies, dominate patenting activity. In 2019, IBM had the largest portfolio of AI patent applications, with 8,290 inventions, followed by Microsoft, with 5,930. This monopolization makes it even harder for SMEs to enter and survive the AI market.
  3. It is also worrying that many companies continue to think that self-regulation of AI is enough. Given AI’s far-reaching impact on all aspects of society, self-regulation is insufficient for keeping AI in check and such voluntary standards could easily be disregarded in the pursuit of profits. Therefore, governments need to adopt a regulatory framework to mitigate risks and avoid the harmful consequences of AI.
  4. The governance of data is another area for concern. The current COVID-19 pandemic has seen the explosion of AI-powered applications for monitoring and contact tracing. However, this has implications privacy and data protection. In some cases, there are no precautions against the potential use of the personal and sensitive data collected for purposes beyond pandemic control — for instance, for mass surveillance of the population.
  5. Finally, we need to achieving human oversight and determination for AI technologies. While humans can resort to AI systems in decision-making, an AI system can never replace ultimate human responsibility and accountability. While this may be difficult to realize — as AI decisions, particularly those based on machine learning, cannot be fully predictable or understood, given the existence of black boxes — we must ensure that these technologies do not cause any harm to individuals.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

The outcomes we can achieve from technological developments depend on us. They are not exogenous and policy matters. AI technologies pose additional new risks that require global reflection and innovative approaches to ensure that these technologies are developed and used in a way that respects human rights and human dignity. Technological developments in general if left unchecked, can be risky. We need governance and regulatory tools to ensure that these technologies contribute to finding solutions to the challenges we face, to prevent their misuse in the wrong hands of criminals and to address the unintended failures, including those stemming from self-learned biases. This is precisely what we are trying to achieve through the development of the Recommendation on the Ethics of AI. The Recommendation provides concrete mechanisms, such as the ethical impact assessment and the readiness assessment tools to help countries and companies evaluate the benefits and risks of AI systems, put in place risk prevention, mitigation and monitoring measures, and to deploy various redress mechanisms for those who have been adversely affected by these new technologies.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

Policies matter. Regulatory frameworks matter. They should achieve a good balance of strong protection while allowing for innovation to flourish. We need to avoid the abuse and misuse of AI technologies, for example to spread hate speech and misinformation and to interfere with democratic processes. We need to promote diversity and inclusion in the whole AI system life cycle, particularly by supporting the participation of women and developing countries. We need to fight against the monopolization of AI technologies to ensure equitable access and the sharing of benefits. We need to ensure transparency when decisions are made with AI to increase public scrutiny and hence foster trust in these technologies. At first glance, this can sound like an insurmountable task — but history is replete with examples of humanity coming together to address a critically important issue, and I think this will be another shining example of what we can accomplish with a shared vision and coordinated action. This is where the Recommendation on the Ethics of AI comes in as a critically important element — a blueprint for global consensus on the “what,” as well as the “how” of ethical regulation of this game-changing technology.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I always dared to take risks when I thought it was worth doing so, and to speak truth to power. When the French Presidency of the COP20 were negotiating the agreement, there was a stumbling block as the developing world did not trust that the advanced economies were providing the committed finance for them to advance mitigation and adaptation. Minister Fabius asked the SG of the OECD to prepare a report on the flows.

It was a minefield. There were many G7 countries (particularly the US) who opposed this, and the developing countries were not convinced either. However, as I felt this was of major importance, I provided leadership and financial support for the teams to work on it, and we delivered. At the end, everybody criticized the report, but everybody used it, and the French Presidency confirmed that this analysis had helped them to achieve the agreement.

I have also many other stories, where working with the governments, my involvement helped to deliver. I was proud particularly to use the analytical skills of the OECD to push for a telecommunication reform (against the biggest monopoly) in Mexico, that brought 70 percent decrease in prices and 55 million more subscriptions. My sister was super happy that her bill was lower thanks to my work. I was also glad to work with the Mexican Congress to establish a quota, and with the Tunisian government to repeal discriminatory laws for women.

I was also proud to launch NinasStemPueden to engage more girls in STEM and ITC in Mexico. I gathered together a group of successful scientific and engineering female professionals that became the mentors, and talk to young ladies to encourage them to pursue their dreams. We have touched thousands of girls through this.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

  1. Take advantage and push for opportunities to be in this field and to grow. Women face many barriers, but the most pernicious is the lack of self-confidence that results in many women not asking for promotions, or daring to go to certain fields. Do not be your own obstacle. Dream big, and act accordingly.
  2. Break with gender stereotypes and biases in the disciplines that we study. Go for engineering, for ITC disciplines. Inform yourself about the lack of women, and promote more women.
  3. If you are there, become a role model for others and mentor and educate. It is the only way the presence of women in this industry will grow.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?

As I said, breaking gender norms and stereotypes that prevent girls from seeing themselves in this kind of profession. So we need to eliminate these stereotypes from an early age, producing neutral textbooks with no stereotyping. Then we need more women in STEM, ITC, and daring to go into the industry. We also need to be conscious of the fact that, the work environment is tough, and even women who have studied the necessary disciplines cannot exercise their profession, as they find hostile working environments. We need to raise awareness, particularly of men, who do not realize that they can be unwelcoming. Create support networks from women in the field. Push for affirmative actions and for quotas at the top and develop support systems.

Moreover, increasing women in AI requires broader changes that are not only related to the digital world. The lack of women representation in many fields has to do with the unequal distribution of caring work, for families and for the elderly. Women spent four or more hours a day, compared to men, taking care of children. We need to re-balance this, as women do not go into ITC as it looks too demanding and difficult to combine a career there with family obligations. Again policies matter. We need to create the incentives to attract and retain women. We need dual parental leaves; we need to legislate equality, and equal pay, and we need to encourage girls to fulfil their full potential.

What is your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

When I was in primary school, my parents told me that the power of will is unstoppable and makes you reach your goals. I was too young to understand the exact meaning, but playing with my brother and my sister, we would use this quote to push our boundaries on sports, on climbing trees on reading. This broke up all the obstacles in our minds, and this is something we need to achieve with all children.

More recently, the OECD SG always said “Proper preparation prevents poor performance”. This became a mantra to us (5 “ps”), and it has also accompanied me for the last 15 years.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would launch a world movement to break stereotypes, biases and prejudices that set people apart, and that undermine the potential of women to shine. I would change role models that place men in certain areas (decision makers, bread-winners, strong, competitive) and women in other ones (subservient, dependent, weak). These stereotypes hurt men and women. Breaking them would liberate the energy for people to fulfil their full potential and to be what they want to be, and not what society ask them to be. It will ensure equal opportunities, and fair outcomes for people. This will also contribute to a more peaceful and compassionate world, that is needed in the post-COVID era.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @gabramosp

Instagram: @gabrielailianramos

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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