Must act now to shape AI future

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The decisions made today by the federal government and private sector will determine whether Australia capitalises on the opportunities artificial intelligence offers or is left behind the rest of the world, according to a new report.

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report on the emerging technology calls on the federal government to urgently put together a national framework and strategy for artificial intelligence and form an independent body similar to ACMA to guide its implementation.

ACOLA was awarded a project grant last year through the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Learned Academies Special Projects program to investigate AI’s role in Australia’s future.

The project brought together academics and practitioners to look at how the new technology could benefit society and what needs to be done to reach that point and avoid the many associated risks.

The report found that AI brings “myriad new opportunities and potential on the one hand and presents global risks on the other”, and the decisions made now by governments and industry will shape this future.

“What is known is that the future role of AI will be ultimately determined by decisions taken today,” the report said.

“To ensure that AI technologies provide equitable opportunities, foster social inclusion and distribute advantages throughout every sector of society, it will be necessary to develop AI in accordance with broader societal principles centred on improving prosperity, addressing inequity and continued betterment.”

If everything goes right, AI can enhance Australia’s wellbeing, lift the economy, improve environmental sustainability and create a more equitable, inclusive and fair society, according to the report.

It found that Australia can play a prominent role in the international development of AI through acting as a test-bed and playing on its research strengths, but frameworks and regulations need to be put in place now.

“Effective regulation and governance of AI technologies will require involvement of, and work by, all thought-leaders and decision-makers and will need to include the participation of the public, communities and stakeholders directly impacted by the changes,” it said.

“Political leaders are well placed to guide a national discussion about the future of society envisioned for Australia.

“Policy initiatives must be coordinated in relation to existing domestic and international regulatory frameworks.”

The national framework for AI would “articulate the interests of society, uphold safe implementation, be transparent and promote wellbeing”, and focus on education, procurement, regulatory mechanisms, development requirements and research investment.

The report’s authors suggest the creation of an independently-led AI body to oversee the implementation of this framework, made up of representatives from government, industry and public and private sectors.

This group would perform a similar function to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), by providing “institutional leadership on the development and deployment of AI”.

“Our actions in these areas will shape the future of AI, so it is important that decisions made in these contexts are not only carefully considered, but that they align with the nation’s vision for an AI-enabled future that is economically and socially sustainable, equitable and accessible for all, strategic in terms of government and industry interests and places the wellbeing of society in the centre,” the report said.

There has been movement recently in Australia towards this goal, with the federal government earmarking $29.9 million in the 2018 budget for improving Australia’s capability in AI and machine learning.

The majority of the funding went towards projects with the Cooperative Research Centre, while $3 million went towards Data61 to produce an AI technology roadmap and ethics framework. A draft ethical framework was unveiled in April, and public consultation on the issue closed at the end of May, with more than 100 submissions received.

Standards Australia also recently called for national feedback on standards for the application of AI technologies in Australia, with a discussion paper released in June.

In contrast to other similar reports on AI, the ACOLA version argues that new laws to govern the use of AI may not be needed, with existing human rights frameworks and national and international regulations on data, security and privacy provide “ample scope through which to regulate and govern much of the use and development of AI systems and technologies”.

“We should therefore apply existing frameworks to new ethical problems and make modifications only where necessary,” the report said.

ACOLA expert working group co-chair Professor Toby Walsh said Australia can lead in the world in terms of AI regulation and development.

“With careful planning, AI offers great opportunities for Australia, provided we ensure that the use of the technology does not compromise our human values. As a nation, we should look to set the global example of the responsible adoption of AI,” Professor Walsh said.

If the proper regulations and frameworks are in place, Australia can provide the perfect setting to test new AI technologies, the report found.

“With strong legal frameworks for data security and intellectual property and their educated workforces, both Australia and New Zealand would make ideal testbeds for AI development,” it said.

“National, regional and international effort is required across industry, academia and governments to realise the benefits promised by AI. Australia and New Zealand would be prudent to actively promote their interests and invest in their capabilities, lest they let our society by shaped by decisions abroad.”

Australia should also look to play a prominent role in worldwide research of AI, it said.

“The demand for AI skills and expertise is leading to an international race to attract AI talent, and Australia and New Zealand can take advantage of this by positioning themselves as world leaders in AI research and development, through strategic investment as well as recognition of areas of AI application where the countries can, and currently do, excel,” the report said.

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