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Fairness as the big opportunity for Aotearoa in AI

from outer space

Nick Agar is professor of ethics and Albert Bifet is professor of AI at the University of Waikato.

OPINION: Aotearoa needs a powerful response to the rapid pace of change in artificial intelligence (AI). Week after week, we see new advances followed by wild speculation about what they all mean for our future. By doing nothing, we are allowing other countries to decide for us.

The internet created a billionaire class. Will AI now create a new one of trillionaires? Or will AI benefit everyone, for example, by reducing the number of hours we work weekly?

There are so many open possibilities for our future with artificial intelligence. Will we decide that future, or doing nothing, will we let others choose it for us?

We strongly believe in a future chosen by the people. And this is where we see New Zealand’s unique opportunity to lead.

Aotearoa’s point of difference is the internationally recognised strength of our democratic institutions and our value of fairness. In New Zealand, we take pride in looking out for the worst off, and brand Aotearoa offers a powerful opportunity to show the world how democratic societies can find ways to spread the benefits of AI to all. So many of the of principles and frameworks advanced in a panicked response to ChatGPT feature the words “fair” and “fairness”. We believe that Aotearoa’s commitment to fairness in AI and data must be more than a slogan. It can guide our policymakers through dilemmas and demonstrate to the world the distinctiveness of our approach. A focus on fairness and the democratic process will seek responses to the use of AI to manipulate opinions or influence voting choices based on social media. What new challenges could come from the combination of AI and social media?

Aotearoa’s opportunity to lead in an AI future goes beyond leveraging our value of fairness. Brand Aotearoa has already been successfully applied to tech research. Our scholars have made truly distinctive contributions to data sovereignty and sustainability. In addition, since the 90s two open-source AI software, R at the University of Auckland and Weka at the University of Waikato, used by millions of users worldwide, have contributed to democratising AI and data science.

What we need now is to repeat that, developing AI in a way that benefits everyone and not just the wealthy. Is brand Aotearoa, with our commitment to fairness and respect for sovereignty and sustainability, powerful enough to avoid a digital divide between humans without access to AI and humans using AI?

Large language model AIs like ChatGPT find patterns in texts that we give them. They can mimic Witi Ihimaera and produce an amusing version of a zombie novel written in his style. But they can’t match the achievement of the original creation of The Whale Rider. If we freed our imaginations, how many new kinds of work could we dream up for fair society with powerful AI tech? New Zealand’s leaders could be the equivalent of the politicians who dragged the world out of the Great Depression in the 1930s with forward-thinking job creation programmes.

Some jobs won’t survive in an AI future. But there are many valuable things humans do that no current AI is close to doing.

Being ethically proactive about AI requires a different attitude about how AI might remake the world. Leadership from democratic politicians involves not simply accepting that the benefits of AI will all be enjoyed by those with ownership stakes in it and that the rest of us will have to content ourselves with the leftovers.

Perhaps the tech billionaires won’t be especially impressed by an approach to AI that prioritises fairness over profit. But a survey of the many nations of the world struggling just as hard as we on how to share the benefits of AI and minimise its harms reveals many who will be keenly interested in New Zealand’s choices. Let us take our place in the discussion and let our values lead.



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