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Wanted: A coordinated national strategy for AI

Wanted: A coordinated national strategy for AI

But any strategy needs to address societal implications of AI, including ethical concerns, detecting bias, accountability and the changing workforce.

New Zealand needs to develop a coordinated national AI strategy to maximise the benefits of AI for the whole population.

This is one of the recommendations of a report, Artificial Intelligence: Shaping a Future New Zealand which outlines the opportunities and challenges for New Zealand in adopting AI.

AI should be a core pillar of New Zealand’s Digital Strategy, facilitating an integrated approach to AI and the adjacent data sciences,” according to the report, which was commissioned by the Artificial Intelligence Forum of New Zealand (AIFNZ).

The report identified more than 140 organisations already working with, or investing in AI in New Zealand. It says AI has the potential to increase New Zealand’s gross domestic product by up to $53 billion by 2035 across 18 industries.

“If New Zealand fails to act on the opportunities identified in this report, it will likely lead to increased competitive pressures,” says  AIFNZ executive director Ben Reid.

AIFNZ executive director Ben Reid: "If New Zealand fails to act on the opportunities identified in this report, it will likely lead to increased competitive pressures."
AIFNZ executive director Ben Reid: "If New Zealand fails to act on the opportunities identified in this report, it will likely lead to increased competitive pressures."

He points out the country’s traditional export earners including agriculture and tourism “are starting to show early signs of vulnerability to overseas technology enabled competition and disruption”.

New Zealand, he says, needs to engage substantially with AI now to shape a prosperous, inclusive and thriving future for our nation.

Minister for Government Digital Services and Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, Clare Curran says the report creates an opportunity for business, government, academia and all Kiwis to join the AI conversation.

"Coming together to develop the right support and frameworks to grow our AI expertise will be critical to shaping our future,” says Curran.

Curran points out an action plan and ethical framework is urgently needed to educate and upskill people on AI technologies.

“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,” she says.

She says as a first step and because of the importance of ethics and governance issues around AI, she is formalising the government’s relationship with Otago University’s NZ Law Foundation Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies.

“We must prepare for the ethical challenges AI poses to our legal and political systems, as well as the impact AI will have on workforce planning,” says Curran. “The wider issues of digital rights, data bias, transparency and accountability are also important for this Government to consider.

The report says other nations have developed coordinating plans,policies or programmes to address the opportunities and challenges around AI.

Australia, for instance, has a history of investing in AI research and development. In 1988, the Australian government established the Australian Artificial Intelligence Institute, which by 1996, had over 40 staff. Its clients included Daimler-Benz, Optus Communications and the Australian Department of Defence. The institute researched and commercialised agent-oriented software or what we refer to today as 'bots'.

Last year,  the Australian CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) commissioned Dell EMC to build an AU$4 million deep-learning supercomputer called Bracewell.

Canada is another major player, having produced several world leading experts including Geoffrey Hinton of the University of Toronto (and now Google) and Yoshua Bengio of McGill University, Montreal. The Canadian Government continues to show interest and willingness in AI, allotting CA$125 million in its 2017 budget for AI. The Canadian government formed the Vector Institute in 2017, which aims to develop and sustain AI innovation, growth and productivity.

We must prepare for the ethical challenges AI poses to our legal and political systems, as well as the impact AI will have on workforce planning

Clare Curran

China also issued its Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, which looks at AI as a new focus of’ international competition’ and ‘engine of economic development.’

Early adopters

The report notes a growing number of AI solutions being deployed or already deployed across the New Zealand economy including in the agriculture, energy, financial services, retail and transport sectors.

“We are seeing encouraging signs of AI innovation across all sectors in New Zealand. Companies including Air New Zealand, Soul Machines, Xero and a range of startups are leading the development of AI nationally. New Zealand’s leading universities have teams of AI experts publishing world class research and with promising potential for commercialisation success,” says Reid.

Over 20 per cent of the organisations surveyed for the report have already adopted some form of AI system.

However, this result may not be truly representative of the economy as a whole, as survey respondents were primarily large enterprises that already have significant investments in information technology, the report states.

While this will be challenging, due to growing global demand for AI talent, it is essential that New Zealand actively competes for talent or risks becoming merely a downstream consumer of AI research from other countries

Nearly half of the respondents were in the information media or telecommunications industries. These companies however, are the early adopters of AI in New Zealand, with more than half (52 per cent) saying that AI will be, or already is, a game changer in their organisation.

In New Zealand, the most popular implementations of AI are:

Improving business processes: Machine learning algorithms used to build new and better business processes.

Augmentation of current applications: Leveraging machine learning cloud services such as facial recognition to augment current applications.

Process automation: Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software to handle transactional processes such as payments and billing.

Cybersecurity: Automated threat intelligence and prevention systems. • Customer service. Automated conversational interfaces (“chat bots”) and “digital employees” to automate customer service scenarios.

One of the issues New Zealand needs to address is the shortage of AI researchers, according to the report.

Recent international research estimates there are approximately 22,000 PhD qualified AI experts worldwide, of which only 85 are in New Zealand.

Although a doctorate is not technically required to be considered an AI expert, PhD level attainment is a useful proxy for assessing the technical ability of talent pools across different nations, it says.

Moreover, to sustain a good a good AI school or lab, skilled professors with at least five to 10 years of direct experience are required.

At the same time, the industry needs applied engineering and research, especially since needs will become increasingly specialised as the technology evolves.

“How does New Zealand differentiate itself internationally to attract and develop a sustainable pipeline of world class talent?”

In 2016, the New Zealand Government introduced a scheme, with a $35 million investment, to attract world leading entrepreneurial researchers and their teams to help strengthen the country's universities and innovation ecosystem. There is a need to undertake a similar strategy to attract leading AI researchers, the report recommends.

“While this will be challenging, due to growing global demand for AI talent, it is essential that New Zealand actively competes for talent or risks becoming merely a downstream consumer of AI research from other countries.”

The report calls for a pragmatic approach towards addressing AI concerns.

What are the implications of AI use in a business context?

“If we are to remain internationally competitive, it is important that New Zealand business leaders are encouraged to learn more about AI and the value it could bring to their business,” it states.

New Zealand needs to nurture a vibrant, well connected ecosystem of AI developers, researchers, private sector and the Government.

Public AI investments should be coordinated across the AI value chain, from funding pure research and maximising data availability to accelerating Government AI adoption and seizing innovative approaches to grow the talent pool.

One of the ways to do this is to coordinate AI research investment across institutions. A coordinated national structure should be considered to bring adhoc university research teams closer together.

Consideration should be given to leveraging the Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE) model of interinstitutional research networks, with researchers collaborating on commonly agreed work programmes for downstream commercialisation.

This would also provide an opportunity to collaborate with other international centres of AI excellence to increase the research scale and effectiveness.

The report notes the need for increased AI investment from the private sector. While there are  Government incentives to encourage R&D in the private sector, specialist corporate AI investment vehicles, seed funds, angel investment and venture capital funds will be needed to stimulate AI commercialisation at scale in New Zealand, it states.

The report also calls to ensure AI features strongly in the national cybersecurity strategy. The focus should be placed on the implications of weaponised AI software, the potential damage it could cause to national infrastructure, New Zealand’s sovereignty and options for using AI technologies for protection.

Finally, those not working in the tech sector will also need to commit to lifelong learning to be fully engaged as productive members of an increasingly digital nation.

“While the outlook for AI to improve New Zealand’s economy is positive, it requires a coordinated strategy to ensure New Zealand can effectively and safely invest, deploy and benefit from AI,” the report concludes.

Sidebar: Key questions for decision-makers

• What does AI mean in a business context? What benefits can it bring?

• What are the implications of AI use in a business context?

• What legislation or regulation affects our AI? What social impacts do we need to consider?

• What are the competitive threats from AI? Do we understand the impacts of AI to our competitors?

• What are the specific opportunities in business strategy and digital transformation strategy? • Is our business ready to adopt AI? Do we have lean processes, do we have the right data? • How do I navigate the ethical considerations of AI?

• Who in my organisation knows about AI? Who should I go to in the market?

(Source: Artificial Intelligence: Shaping a Future New Zealand [2018])

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Tags ethicsanalyticsroboticsxeroAIAir New Zealandmachine learningclare curranBen ReidNZTechchatbotsArtificial Intelligence Forum of New Zealand

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