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Ben Reid

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – what should New Zealand be doing about it?

Burgeoning Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies present both major challenges and opportunities for our country.  Yesterday, the Artificial Intelligence Forum of New Zealand (AIFNZ) hosted a panel discussion in Wellington; AI – what should New Zealand be doing about it?

Canterbury University’s Amy Fletcher was joined by NZTA’s Martin McMullan, ANZ’s Koren O’Brien, Google’s Ross Young and the AI Forum’s Ben Reid.  The wide ranging discussion focussed on local AI applications currently being deployed, education, job automation, legal implications, safety concerns and barriers to accelerating AI adoption.

The panel discussed the key opportunities for AI to provide social and economic benefits to New Zealand.  These include intelligent road pricing algorithms to reduce congestion, autonomous vehicles to improve road safety (and remove the need for crash barriers!), machine learning algorithms which can detect native birdsong and also replacing repetitive and manual tasks from jobs with more creative tasks and also free up more time for leisure.

It was agreed that to accelerate AI adoption several barriers need to be overcome; demystifying AI among the general public and creating a better understanding of the opportunities together with more availability of the right skills (both technical and executive management).

There was further discussion on whether our education system is equipped to generate the skills and mindsets to thrive in the not so distant future. In particular, should tertiary institutions be redesigning their curriculum (a long and slow process) to teach technical AI skills (which are likely to have moved on by the time the new courses are launched) or focus instead on teaching more general thinking and problem solving skills.  The presence of many new entrants into the teaching market providing nano and micro degrees was also discussed as an opportunity for students to self direct their technical skills path.

The topic of automation was covered in depth: there are many different reports worldwide giving conflicting opinions on whether AI will cause large scale job displacement, or whether workers are able to leverage AI enabled tools to be more productive in new jobs which don’t involve many repetitive tasks. The panel was asked for their opinions on how society should prepare for these impacts and there was general consensus that this is as much a political question as an economic one and New Zealand needs to have a broad participation debate on how our country should respond to. the social impacts of increased labour automation.

The panel also touched on key legal implications for autonomous robots, vehicles and weapons as part of the ongoing AI safety debate.

Discussion then turned to local policy considerations to maximise New Zealand’s readiness for AI.  The panel acknowledged that several other countries have published national AI strategies and New Zealand would do well to follow.  The panel also reflected that AI is currently on a ‘hype cycle’ and organisations have time to prepare before AI is rolled out more widely.

A vibrant session with audience questions followed, including, whether superintelligence really is a major risk or is it ever likely to happen?  In line with international surveys on the issue, there were a wide range of views expressed by the panel and the audience.

The conversation concluded with a call to action for New Zealand to consider the social license of AI technologies.  How do we ensure that people have a say in how AI is deployed and whether they want to opt in or opt out?  This historical analogy was given: prior to their existence, were people asked whether they wanted an electric light bulb or a candle?

Special thanks to virtual and mixed reality centre, ProjectR for hosting this event and WREDA for their event support.  The Artificial Intelligence Forum of New Zealand (AIFNZ) works to connect, promote and advance the AI ecosystem for a prosperous and thriving New Zealand.

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Links referred to during the panel discussion:

Life 3.0  by Max Tegmark

Reshaping Business With Artificial Intelligence  report by HBR and BCG

  • AI

o People and AI Research Initiative

o Google-built AI software boosts NZ birdsong study

  • Automation

o Automation Advantage, Alphabeta

o Will robots take our jobs (SMH article that links through to Jeff Borlands paper)

Ben Reid I head up the AI Forum of New Zealand - working to harness the power of AI to help bring about a prosperous and inclusive future for New Zealand and the world. The AI Forum NZ brings together technology firms, businesses, universities and the government to connect, promote and advance the national AI ecosystem.