Vic privacy chief enters AI debate

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Victorian Information Commissioner has entered the national discussion on the future of artificial intelligence, and warned that the new technology has the potential to deliver a profound impact on society that is both good and bad.

The Office of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner (OVIC) on Thursday published an e-book on AI titled titled Closer to the Machine: Technical, social and legal aspects of AI.

OVIC collaborated with eight experts to produce the book including Professor Toby Walsh (University of New South Wales and CSIRO’s Data61), Professor Richard Nock (Australian National University and CSIRO’s Data61), Associate Professor Ben Rubinstein (University of Melbourne), Katie Miller (Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission), and Professor Margaret Jackson (RMIT).

Victorian Information Commissioner, Sven Bluemmel said that as the privacy regulator in the state, he says that in the development of AI his office “is very aware of the really fundamental impact it can have on what kind of society that we live in – and that can be both good and bad.”

“We’re certainly aware that AI has the potential for some really good public benefit. But we’re also aware that letting AI run [without oversight] can lead to some very bad outcomes. It can lead to the reinforcement of biases that are inherent in datasets,” Mr Bluemmel said.

“Even quite fundamentally, we need to ask ourselves how do we feel as individuals when government makes decisions that affect us without a human being as the primary decision-maker,” he said.

“I’m not saying that we should never [use AI], but we’re not a society of machines we are a society of humans, and we need to be aware of what is important to is – and what [AI] means to our dignity and our sense of fairness when machines make decisions that have a big impact on us.”

It is worth at least noting that the NSW government’s vehicle to prompt public discussion about artificial intelligence has come through a plan to hold an AI leaders forum through the delivery through the state’s delivery agency – the Department of Customer Service – while in Victoria it has come from the privacy regulator.

The public sector has increasingly turned to AI technologies to carry out its functions, develop and inform policy and deliver services to its citizens.

OVIC developed Closer to the Machine to increase the Victorian public sector’s understanding of AI technologies and to encourage consideration of the potential effects that AI will have on policy, public administration and on society.

“The book itself does not in any way set out a policy or a roadmap for how Victoria can or should adopt AI. But we’re hoping to inject some more information into the discussion,” Mr Bluemmel said.

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner is not just the state’s privacy regulator, but also regulates freedom of information and information security.

“From an FoI perspective, this idea of transparency and accountability is really central. One of the potential problems with AI is that in some cases you can not in any traditional or meaningful way explain why an AI made a particular decision in a particular case,” he said.

“That’s the inherent nature of AI at its more sophisticated level. So what does that mean? Well, government has to be accountable, and therefore government has to be to some extent transparent.”

“So we want the development of AI to have built in this accountability by design.”

OVIC is hosting an event on Friday 30 August at the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne. The event will feature panel discussions with the expert co-authors and guest speakers, and will be hosted by TV science geek and comedian Adam Spencer. The event will be live streamed on OVIC’s Twitter feed from 1pm AEST: @OVIC_AU.

The e-book is available to download for free.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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