New Zealand unprepared for AI

AI Forum launches report, claims technology could increase GDP by $54 billion

It could increase GDP by up to NZ$54 billion by 2035, but a report on the state of Artificial Intelligence in New Zealand, shows that this country is generally unprepared for this disruptive technology.

The AI Forum, which has a membership of 43 organisations, has released a 108-page report analysing its adoption in New Zealand. It is based on two streams of research, an online survey, with respondents heavily weighted to organisations in information, media, telecommunications, professional, scientific and financial sectors. And interviews conducted by IDC with 46 active participants in AI in New Zealand. It also provides a summary of international research by the Sapere Research Group.

The report found a lack of expertise and an absence of a national AI strategy, especially when compared to countries that are ploughing millions of dollars into AI, such as Canada, France, Singapore, South Korea, UK, UAE and China.

“Through initial market discussions it became apparent that very few people or organisations are considering AI, or its potential implications,” the report says.

Of the organisations surveyed, over 20% have adopted some form of AI system, but these were mostly large enterprises that have made significant investments in IT. Yet even among the early adopters, AI understanding remains primarily with the tech staff, with only 36% indicating that AI discussions are occurring at board level.

A major concern highlighted in the report a the lack of expertise, with research showing that that worldwide there are around 22,000 PhD qualified AI experts – of which only 85 are located in New Zealand.

“Although PhD 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,” the report says.

On a positive note, the report predicts that AI won’t lead to mass unemployment, pointing out that many jobs in past have disappeared as new technology has rendered them irrelevant. “In New Zealand in 1966, 21,000 people worked as typists or stenographers. Almost all these jobs no longer exist, however this didn’t result in the mass unemployment of 21,000.”

If AI follows the same adoption rate as personal mobile phones, household broadband and business ICT use, it could be 13-15 years before AI is widespread.

In the meantime, the report recommends that consideration be given to the impact that AI will have on society, as well as the economy. It notes that 68% of respondents to its survey were concerned about the potential for AI to make biased, unfair or inaccurate decisions. “However, the research also found that only 15% of firms planning to use AI intend to establish some form of AI ethics committee.”

While advanced AI systems such as Nanny Robots and Personal Robotic Assistants are, according to the report, not expected to become mainstream, so-called ‘robo-advice’ for providing automated financial advice is on its way. But what if it goes a step further and AI systems determine the outcome of loan applications?

“Currently, there are no laws requiring the developer of an AI system to design the system so that it can explain its decisions. In fact, in many cases, the algorithms are proprietary and the company who created them won’t have to unless legally compelled to,” says the report.

“Consider an AI system that makes a recommendation to a bank on whether you apply for a loan. In a traditional banking environment, if you weren’t successful you can ask why you weren’t approved for a loan and receive a reply. But if a loan is turned down by an AI system, it won’t necessarily be able to explain why, even with extensive auditing features.”

The report notes that the Government’s adoption of AI is “disconnected and sparsely deployed”, although New Zealand is ranked 9th in the OCED for government AI readiness.

Minister for Government Digital Service and Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Clare Curran officially launched the report yesterday evening. She says an action plan and ethical framework is urgently needed to educate and upskill people on Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. 

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

“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.”

The AI Forum was launched in June 2017, chaired by Stuart Christie, investment manager at the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund, and with support from NZTech. It is a member of the NZ Technology Alliance, which is managed and supported by NZTech.

Additional reporting by Stuart Corner.

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