Speech to the Articial Intelligence Forum 2018

  • Hon Clare Curran
Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media

Good morning everyone, and thank you to the organisers -New Zealand AI and the AI Forum of New Zealand – for their invitation to come along today to give the opening address.

For many of us today this is the first step – or maybe a second or third – in a journey to understand more about this powerful technology and its likely impacts on society, the economy and government.

Events like this are an essential part of the process; we all need to be in the conversation to understand more about the opportunities but to also understand the risks and challenges.

  • I’m very privileged to have three Ministerial portfolios that all relate to New Zealand becoming a leading digital nation. 
    • Government Digital Services, which is a brand new portfolio;
    • Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media; and
    • Open Government, which I am responsible for in my role as Associate Minister for State Services.

These three portfolios link up in a way never seen before in New Zealand, perhaps anywhere.

They are interconnected and allow me to work across a range of issues and opportunities.

Ultimately, together they will significantly strengthen our democracy, renew our economy and ensure that New Zealanders thrive in an increasingly digital world.


The Convergence of Disruptive Technologies

Today’s world is one that is being shaped by technological advancements.

They are disruptive, transformative and interconnected.

It is this interconnection or convergence that is fuelling far greater change, at a pace that has not occurred before.

AI will further accelerate this change, acting as a catalyst for this new world order, amplifying other disruptive technologies such as 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, and robotics.

It is this convergence that is driving the emergence of the digital economy, not only allowing for the development of new business models but also increasing the speed of digital innovation.

International research and evaluation indicates countries as well as companies that are quick to embrace the potential of emerging digital technologies such as AI stand to gain the most from significant productivity gains.

New economic growth will come to those that embrace this technology, not those that resist or delay adopting it.

No one can accurately predict the future. Would any of us have imagined when the first mobile phone came onto the market that it would evolve into a supercomputer that you carry in your pocket?

And some bold predictions that got made:

  • In 1977, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, predicted "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
  • Microsoft’s Bill Gates predicted in 2004 that "Two years from now, spam will be solved."

Well I think we’re still waiting for that one.

The prediction of a future where robots dominate society is best consigned to the realms of Science Fiction.

However, experts do believe that AI will fundamentally change the way people will work and live in the next ten to twenty years.

Exactly how we plan for and manage this change needs to begin now so that we can embrace the opportunities, in a way that also minimises the risks and challenges.

Government has levers and that is the thinking that needs to be done.  Some of it is being done, not enough of it is being done.

We need to accelerate that – as to what those levers are and how they can ultimately be used to the benefit of our economy but also to protect our citizens, our businesses in ways that we perhaps haven’t thought of.

AI and the future of New Zealand

The government is committed to creating a fair and equitable digital economy where we all benefit from the opportunities that adoption of new technologies promise.

Our two biggest priorities right now, coming in as a new government, in this space are digital inclusion - where everyone can connect and participate.  And kick starting our digital economy.

Obviously AI has a huge part to play in that and it’s what and how we can work together that are the questions now.

Having the right skills and the ability to upskill or retrain when needed is an important driver of a more inclusive society.

There’s no doubt that the digital economy will create new jobs that will require new skills. Indeed, many existing jobs will also require new skills. That’s what always happens in the face of technological change.

One of the biggest challenges we have in our country right now is our education system coming up to speed with the new skills that are needed and to make sure we have teachers who can teach those skills. Right now we don’t have enough.  

For the majority of employees it is likely that AI technologies will enhance and enable the tasks required in their roles.

However, it is also likely that increased automation will render some roles obsolete.

This is where we need to concentrate our efforts to ensure that retraining and re-skilling come into play, as well as educating future generations to ensure they have the skills to succeed.

The government working in concert with New Zealand businesses and the wider community will ensure we are developing a culture of life-long learning, building a workforce that is adaptable and agile in the face of rapid change.

It is all about how we prepare today’s workforce for tomorrow’s jobs.

Now these aren’t just words.  Before the Labour party became the leaders in this government, we did a piece of work, a two year piece of work called the Future of Work Commission.

Twelve opposition MPs worked together to plot what the effect of digital disruption would be on our society and what the policy thinking was that we needed to do around that.

Whether it’s in education; whether it’s in our economic development opportunities; whether it’s the impact on Pacific and Maori populations; whether it’s how we look at security of work when people are displaced out of employment; where does government fit in?

So a lot of that thinking has been done.  It’s out of date now, that report was released at the beginning of last year – but it shows joined up thinking can happen and is happening in this government.

New Zealand is already internationally regarded as an innovative country doing some great research and development with AI.

Across all our Universities we have varied research being undertaken on AI.

One example being the ground breaking work of AUT’s NeuCube a world-first development environment and a computational architecture for the creation of Brain-Like Artificial Intelligence.

We also have the internationally leading work of Dr Mark Sagar, CEO and co-founder of Soul Machines, with Baby X- a virtual animated baby that learns and reacts like a human baby. It uses a computer's cameras for "seeing" and microphones to "listen" as the inputs.

Waikato University, its machine learning group is doing a lot of work on deep learning for agritec in soil analysis and grape yield.

New Zealand companies like IMAGR are embracing the opportunities around AI that are allowing them to enter new overseas markets through their innovative work on AI in retail.

FaceMe, in 2017 won the Virgin Business Challenge, voted The Most Likely NZ Start-up to Succeed Internationally. This gave FaceMe access to mentoring from Richard Branson helping build the foundation for them to further develop internationally.

MedicMind, has created a world-first AI medical platform for medical researchers and clinicians, that will eventually use AI to auto-diagnose a large range of diseases based on a single photograph.

Recently, Vodafone NZ has announced it is looking to enhance our start-ups in IoT and AI through its accelerator program, Vodafone xone.


AI in government

In the recently published Oxford Insights Government AI Readiness rankings, New Zealand was ranked at number nine in preparedness for implementing AI in public service delivery.

This publication comprises nine metrics, ranging from digital skills and government innovation to existing data capabilities.

I am aware of several examples where Government agencies are already utilising AI technologies.

In this context, officials are carefully thinking about the potential risks of unintended consequences (including unconscious bias in how the algorithms are developed) as a result of the unethical application of AI technologies. This is a really critical thing.

For example, the New Zealand Customs Service is investigating the use of AI techniques not to make decisions, but to help develop a justifiable rule-set that officials can then use in their own decision-making.

This illustrates how AI technologies are being utilised by Government to support and improve human decision-making and service delivery, supported by a culture that gives careful considerations – but I contend not enough yet -  to the ethics of using AI.

AI also has the potential to improve Government Digital Services, by automating repetitive tasks, thereby freeing up our staff to deliver higher value services.

We envisage that this will see ‘human-machine pairing’ in the future, where the human capability is augmented and enhanced by AI.

The Ministry of Primary Industries’ (MPI) world-first trial of a digital biosecurity officer named Vai is the first ever Digital Employee to be deployed at an airport.

During peak times, Vai will take some of the load off MPI officers by answering simple biosecurity questions from the public freeing up officers’ time so they can deal with the really important aspects of their roles.

What a great example of AI being adapted and applied to challenges that are uniquely distinctive to us.

The Service Innovation Lab in the Department of Internal Affairs is developing principles on how AI can be applied to active government as a platform.

In the Ministry of Social development – giving human rights and an ethics framework to ensure every priority is given to data within the Ministry required to go through a formal assessment.

MBIE – they’re working on a project to work out what sort of jobs and how many will be in the future and what are the policy implications.

The Chief Science Officer is working with the OECD to frame up indictors of wellbeing and digital privacy and what are the importance of predictive algorithms.

And the Privacy Commissioner is investigating privacy issues arising from algorithms.

We also know the Department of Corrections, ACC, Oranga Tamariki, Inland Revenue, NZTA, the social investment agency – they’re all working on algorithmic work in some way or another.

My fear is that this is all a bit disconnected. That there is no centralised co-ordination around this.  There is no centralised way of looking yet at how we can do this in the best possible way, where data governance is really important.  That’s something that I will be looking at in the future.

A couple of things I want to touch on that the government has started a piece of work on. We’re part of a group of countries called the Digital 7 countries.

We recently hosted them in New Zealand and New Zealand is now leading a piece of work to progress the opportunities that AI promises but also to understand the risks.

This is a piece of work on digital rights – it’s very much looking at human rights in a digital context.

What sort of rights? The rights to line of sight; rights to where your data is being used; how it’s being used; what privacy rights are; the right to an explanation and possibly the right to appeal if you are not happy with how your data is being used.

It’s urgent that we are doing a piece of work on this.  The United Kingdom is has established the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation – an advisory body to ensure data driven technologies like AI are used safely and ethically.

And the Canadian government has also begun the first round of consultation around the responsible use of AI in government.

Those developments are going to help inform New Zealand’s thinking.

So what is this government doing to try to work more closely with you out there in the community?


Working with the community & the establishment of the DEDIMAG and the CTO

A few weeks ago I was pleased to announce the working group on Digital Economy and Digital Inclusion.

This group has been set up to canvass a wide range of opinions and insights about how we as a nation will evolve into an equitable and inclusive digital nation.

The group brings together innovators and leading thinkers from urban and rural New Zealand, NGOs, Māoridom, industry, and community groups.

The first eight members have been appointed, they’ve had one meeting. The Group will expand to 14 members, with Frances Valintine serving as Chair.

Membership of the group will change over time, and additional subject-matter experts may be called upon to advise the Group as its work develops.

Members will be reaching back into their communities for broader input and innovation rather than a more traditional monthly attendance at a meeting.

The group will be one that is highly collaborative who see their own stakeholders, colleagues, communities and the public, as virtual members of the Group.

I see this group as a vehicle to help explore and to widen the discussion around some of the social license and ethical use of AI questions that are arising.

It will also assist me with appointing a Chief Technology Officer - a vital role to ensure we can use and develop digital technologies for the benefit of all New Zealanders.


Research into AI in New Zealand

As New Zealand prepares to understand more about AI and its effects it is essential that we all understand the opportunities this technology will bring, but to also understand the risks associated with it.

In order to do this, government has supported the AI Forum to commission a piece of research looking at AI and its potential impact in New Zealand.

This analysis will be published in May of this year and will further facilitate an open discussion from an informed base.  

And you will see this government doing its best to try and work differently. What will that look like? A more joined up approach, across government agencies and between government and the community.

And there’ll be a new approach to risk.  We have to, we have to start taking a new approach to risk. It’s not easy within the way that our adversarial system but we have to take a new approach to risk, we have to practice what we are starting to preach.

Putting wellbeing at the core of how we measure success – economic and social success – in our country.  So look out for that being discussed this year and being implemented in our budget next year.

Government knows we have to invest in life-long learning. It’s essential to keep the cohesiveness of our society together with disruption that technology is bringing. Active and agile government and a new social partnership between government and the community.


So as you embark on your journey to discover more about this technology, I would also urge you to think more broadly about how we as Kiwi’s can adapt and innovate with this technology for our unique opportunities and challenges.

And I urge you to give your messages to the government about how we can do this better.

And that we all begin this journey together in an inclusive and equitable way - “Kia mahitahi tātau i runga i te tika me te pono”.