Curran turns to Otago University for AI action plan

New Zealand falling behind, communications minister says.

The government is turning to Otago University for help with an "AI action plan."

With more and more New Zealand companies investing in artificial intelligence, Communications Minister Clare Curran says there needs to be a policy framework "that ensures we can maximise the potential of AI while still protecting all of our citizens."

Today, AI is being used by Air New Zealand partner Soul Machines for chat services with customers. And Xero uses AI for new prompts that are designed to help small business people, who often know little about accounting, with basic bookkeeping tasks such as bank reconciliation and invoicing.

Of course, there have also been darker visions of AI, from Terminator's SkyNet to AI pioneer Eric Drexler's fear of out-of-control, self-replicating robots covering the world in "grey goo" (a worry recently given fresh voice by Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk) to Flight of the Conchords' entertaining grim vision of a human-free future.

While many regard the singularity (AIs reaching equivalent intelligence to humans) to be some time off, Google, IBM and others have recently passed the milestone of creating AIs that can learn for themselves rather than having to be taught tasks by humans.

Thorny questions await for humans. Not to mention AIs. What do you do when you could swerve to miss an object that could kill your human passenger, but likely kill two pedestrians?

“An ethical framework will give people the tools to participate in conversations about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its implications in our society and economy,” Ms Curran says.

Although the minister has favoured advisory panels in other areas, for AI she will lean on Otago University.

“As a first step and because of the importance of ethics and governance issues around AI, I will be formalising the government’s relationship with Otago University’s NZ Law Foundation Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies," Ms Curran says.

The minister tells NBR no extra government spending is required. The policy framework envisaged will all be covered by the existing Law Foundation grant.

Ms Curran also released a report by the AI Forum, which includes academics, industry and government agencies, which says "AI has the potential to increase New Zealand GDP by up to $54b by 2035, as AI and automation frees people up to focus on more complex, higher value tasks in their jobs. It may also help address potential labour shortages and the demographic challenge of an ageing workforce."

But it adds, that while "AI is considered a game changer by New Zealand business, very few boards are discussing its adoption."

NZ lagging
“There are economic opportunities but also some pressing risks and ethical challenges with AI and New Zealand is lagging behind comparable countries in its work in these areas," Ms Curran says.

“With many other countries already focusing on the strategic development of AI, New Zealand must be at the forefront of AI adoption as we strive to compete in the global marketplace."

Meanwhile, companies including Air New Zealand and Xero have made big strides with services based on artificial intelligence. 

Xero country manager Craig Hudson says AI made one billion recommendations to users in the past year.

RELATED VIDEO: Xero NZ country manager Craig Hudson on AI (May 7)

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