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Human intelligence will be the key to preparng for AI

6 August 2019

Human intelligence will be the key to preparing for ‘age of artificial intelligence’ in Aotearoa

What could the growing use of artificial intelligence mean for Aotearoa and how can we ensure that all New Zealanders can prosper in an AI world?

These are questions Royal Society Te Apārangi introduces in a new summary report The Age of Artificial Intelligence in Aotearoa.

The Society urges New Zealanders to reflect on what AI-enabled future the nation wants, as the future impact of artificial intelligence on our society will be ultimately determined by decisions taken today.

The report outlines what artificial intelligence is, how it is or could be used in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the risks that need to be managed to ensure all can benefit.

It has come out of a project led by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) that New Zealand has contributed to, called ‘The Effective and Ethical Development of Artificial Intelligence: An Opportunity to Improve Our Wellbeing’.

Artificial Intelligence is a term for a collection of computer methods and techniques that would require human thought if performed by us. This includes applications like speech and image recognition and automated reasoning.

It is already being used in New Zealand in many sectors but its use is expected to rise steadily, driven by advances in data storage, computer processing power and connectivity.

Professor James Maclaurin, Co-director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Public Policy at the University of Otago, who is an author on the ACOLA report, says there has been a lot of disagreement about how much artificial intelligence will disrupt the workforce by replacing workers.

“In reality we don’t know and likely cannot usefully predict how many jobs there will be in 20 years’ time and what those jobs will look like. It’s important that we don’t conflate the number of jobs that disappear with the number of people unemployed, because, as with any new technology, many new roles will be created. Some of these new jobs will be high pay, high value and others will be low paid, low value, resulting in under-employment. It’s fair to say that few jobs will be unaffected. We will need safety nets and AI-aware labour laws. But there is genuine excitement that human cooperation with intelligent machines may define the next era of our history and could bring many benefits to society.”

The report outlines a number of sectors where artificial intelligence is already being applied in New Zealand.

One area where New Zealand is world-leading is in our use of AI in the government sector, with most government agencies using AI, as noted in the government’s recent Algorithm Assessment Report, Professor Maclaurin said.

The report highlights other uses which include an application to predict vineyard harvests, an AI tutor for high school students and the introduction of automated assistants in the banking sector.

Applications under development include those for better health diagnoses, smarter management of resources such as water and fertilizer on farms or in the energy sector, faster identification of biosecurity threats or tracking of endangered species.

In our personal lives, we could benefit from driverless cars, digital assistants for travel booking and language translation and one-on-one tech support or tutoring.

“AI is good for processing information faster in order to select and weigh options more efficiently or to identify connections that were not obvious before, but we need to make sure that we ask the right questions and provide the right data so as to avoid bias,” Professor Maclaurin said.

“Ideally people would have confidence to make well-informed decisions about when to share their data and, when they do share data, they should know that it will be handled securely and used to make decisions fairly without discriminating against them or others.

“Also, it is important that artificial intelligence can benefit everyone, not just a small number of companies or a small proportion of New Zealand’s population.

“As a country New Zealand must ensure safe and just use of artificial intelligence. We can show international leadership, developing a mix of regulation, education, new business practices, even new institutions.

“At the moment, almost all of New Zealand's focus is on research into the development of AI, rather than on research into its impacts. That has to change.

“The decisions we make now will determine our future, which is where human intelligence comes in. We have the opportunity to set a global example for responsible adoption of AI. With proper oversight, AI has the potential to enhance wellbeing and provide a range of benefits to all New Zealanders.”

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