Parliament launches second inquiry into AI

Brandon How

Parliament has launched a second inquiry into artificial intelligence, this time to probe general issues presented by the disruptive technology, following a government-supported push by the Greens.

The inquiry, which arrives at the same time as another Coalition-led inquiry is rejected, will look into the opportunities and impacts that stem from the uptake of AI.

It follows an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the use of generative AI in the education system that was set up 10 months ago and has since probed issues beyond the sector.

The new inquiry was established on Tuesday, with Greens Senator David Shoebridge leading the push with the blessing of Industry and Science minister Ed Husic.

A motion to create the inquiry was tabled in the Senate with Assistant Minister for Manufacturing Tim Ayres and independent Senator David Pocock. Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe and the Jacqui Lambie Party also voted in favour.

A new six-member Senate Select Committee on Adopting AI has also been established to conduct the inquiry. The chair of the committee will be a Labor Senator, while the deputy chair will be from the Greens or the crossbench.

The terms of reference for the new committee on adopting artificial intelligence are:

  • Recent trends and opportunities in the development and adoption of AI technologies in Australia and overseas, in particular regarding generative AI
  • Risks and harms arising from the adoption of AI technologies, including bias, discrimination and error
  • Emerging international approaches to mitigating AI risks
  • Opportunities to adopt AI in ways that benefit citizens, the environment and/or economic growth, for example in health and climate management
  • Opportunities to foster a responsible AI industry in Australia
  • Potential threats to democracy and trust in institutions from generative AI
  • Environmental impacts of AI technologies and opportunities for limiting and mitigating impacts

Senator Shoebridge hopes that the inquiry will help push for a more coordinated response to data security policy and regulating AI. He said the current task of trying to identify which government department or agency is responsible for these issues feels like “pin the tail on a jellyfish”.

The new committee is being framed as a complement to the government’s ongoing work on ‘safe and responsible AI’, which will include the introduction of mandatory guardrails for high-risk use cases.

Senator Shoebridge told that “there are urgent risks, particularly to democracy and trust in institutions that come about particularly through generative AI that believe needs to be urgently addressed before the next federal election”.

“I’m heartened by the government leaning into and co-signing and supporting this inquiry, so that we can have a thorough review of them and report back [by September 19],” the Senator said.

Liberal Senator James McGrath had proposed an Opposition co-chaired committee on the opportunities and threats arising from AI last week, but it was rejected for being too broad.

A second attempt to create a committee on Tuesday was withdrawn minutes after the Greens-led motion passed. Senator McGrath also attempted to amend the Greens-led motion, which leapfrogged his.

Independent senators David Pocock and Lidia Thorpe, who had abstained from voting on McGrath’s motion last week, joined with the Greens and the government to prevent the amendment.

“Isn’t this interesting?” an exasperated Senator McGrath immediately probed of the Senate.

“The Coalition moved the motion last week to set up a select committee into AI following negotiations with the Labor Party, following a serious attempt to take the politics out of AI.

“The Labor Party and the Greens said no, but lo and behold something suddenly happens over the weekend.”

A slew of accusations followed, with Labor accused of reverting to “partisan petty pathetic personal politics”. Another unflattering reflection was made on Senator Pocock’s character, which Senator McGrath sternly withdrew.

Speaking to, Senator Shoebridge rejected the claim that the inquiry was purely political, stressing that the committee had been backed as a “constructive” attempt to “provide urgent guidance and advice to the parliament before the next federal election”.

Questioning Senator McGrath’s motivations for proposing his own committee, Senator Shoebridge mused that “it is interesting that some senators who have not shown any career interest in digital rights and issues such as AI recently found passion in that space”.

Before Senator Shoebridge put his proposed Committee on the notice paper, he disclosed the move to a room of scientists who had gathered in Parliament last Thursday.

At the time, he also flagged his support for a Parliamentary Tech Office that could raise the scientific literacy of politicians in a bid to improve policymaking.

A costed proposal for such an office is expected before the next federal election, which is distinct from efforts being led by Liberal backbencher Aaron Violi.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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