Artificial intelligence poses critical question for Australia

A few weeks ago I took my mother and her best friend Aunty Rosa, both aged in their nineties, to lunch. I decided to tell them about AI: artificial intelligence.

First, I pulled out my iPhone and demonstrated a few tricks with Siri. Then I spoke of what’s next: Google Duplex. Duplex won’t just call the restaurant, or hair salon. It can chat in a natural voice to the receptionist who answers. It could be your natural voice, if Google held your voice-print.

It’s amazing, I said, how much information we’ll give up in exchange for convenience. I’ve got colleagues who hand over all their email accounts to AI personal assistants. Think of the temptation to hack those AI assistants to reveal the juicy details, or steal the identity of a person in a position of power.

A CCTV display using the facial-recognition system Face in Beijing.

A CCTV display using the facial-recognition system Face in Beijing.

It’s not just the tech-savvy serving up their data, I noted. We’ve all seen Facebook tag the people appearing in our photos using facial recognition. That’s AI serving our interests. Of course, the same technologies can tag people walking about in public.

In some parts of China, people are already assigned a “social credit score”. If you’re tagged in the act of littering, or appearing at a protest, down it goes. With a low score, you won’t get a loan, or a job, or permission to travel.

Maybe, I said, we could use AI to take the next step: not just punishing offenders, but anticipating crimes. It’s called “predictive policing”.

As I talked, Aunty Rosa grew tense. Tears welled in her eyes. I remembered, too late, the reason why. She was a Holocaust survivor. For four years, she lived in hiding in Lithuania, at the mercy of every prying shopkeeper and snoopy neighbour. What she didn’t know about was the technology that enabled the evil, at scale.

Data can be used to plan cities, run hospitals and ensure every child goes to school.

Data can be used to plan cities, run hospitals and ensure every child goes to school.

It wasn’t computers, for the Nazis – it was punch-cards and tabulating machines. That was enough to sort humans, in their millions, into categories – and schedule the infamous trains. That’s how Aunty Rosa knew the terror of being watched.

But she survived the war, and she came to Australia. She saw that data in a humane society could be used to help people: to plan cities, run hospitals and enrol every child in school. People weren’t perfect. But for the most part they lived peacefully together, in a society governed by manners and laws, putting technology to the service in human rights.

In that kind of society, the impact of artificial intelligence could be profound. Imagine what self-driving cars could mean for the elderly, and people living with disability. Consider what police could do, with the technology to identify and rescue missing children or the victims of trafficking. Think about the speed and precision that AI could bring to medicine, from diagnosing cancer to grappling with the almost unfathomable complexity of the human brain.

Aunty Rosa would not have our society turn its back on that potential. She asked me to do my best to ensure that Australia remains a place where her descendants would be safe and free. Her challenge to me became my question to every Australian. What kind of society do we want to be?

Imagine what self-driving cars could mean for the elderly.

Imagine what self-driving cars could mean for the elderly.

I look around the world, and it seems to me that every country is pursuing AI its own way. There are questions that we can only resolve at the level of global agreements, like the use of AI in war. And science is global and the technology market is global.

But governments decide how companies are allowed to use data. Governments decide how to invest public funds in AI development. Governments decide how to harness AI for security, healthcare and education – systems that touch us all.

That means nations like Australia have choices. We can be more than customers for other nation’s technologies. We can show the world how a liberal democracy and a fair-minded people build AI into a better way of living, for all.

If we doubt ourselves, we should remember that we’ve been pioneers of progress, with ethics, before. This week the world will mark the 40th birthday of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, who was born in Britain on July 25, 1978. It’s fascinating to look back at the commentary.

The world's first IVF baby, Louise Brown, with her parents in 2003.

The world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, with her parents in 2003.

People said that IVF was unnatural, that the babies weren’t fully human. They imagined a slippery slope to humans mass-produced in factories. But here in Australia we listened to the patients and the clinicians who saw both the promise and the risks.

No one could hand us a readymade rule-book. There wasn’t one. We had to create it. And we did. We were the first country to collate and report on birth outcomes through IVF. We also published the first national ethical guidelines. Clinics in every state worked closely together, with Medicare helping to meet the costs, so that access and success rates improved over time.

We should not forget it: Australia pioneered the path to IVF as a mainstream procedure. Our challenge now is to pioneer the path to ethical AI.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow will formally launch the commission’s major project in his term: exploring the impact of technology, including AI, on human rights. An issues paper will be released for every Australian to reflect on the issues and share their views.

The question is before you. What kind of society do we want to be?

Only Australians, together, can say.

Alan Finkel is Australia's Chief Scientist. This article is an extract of a speech to be delivered at the Australian Human Rights Commission “Human Rights and Technology” conference in Sydney on July 24. 

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