Speech launching the AI Forum report

  • Hon Clare Curran

Good evening everyone. Thank you to Stuart Christie the Chair of the AI Forum, for his introduction and to members of the AI Forum – many of whom are in attendance tonight - for their invitation to formally launch the research report Artificial Intelligence: Shaping a Future New Zealand. 

I would like to congratulate the Forum and its supporters on its release.

This report is an important moment for us as we grapple with the issues and opportunities that AI presents.

It brings together the views of New Zealanders, businesses, academics and Government to map out what is currently going on in AI in New Zealand and the potential economic and societal opportunities.

Crucially the report pushes us to think about what ethical challenges AI may pose, the glaring skills gaps and the need for an action plan driven by government and industry.

New Zealand like many other countries is beginning to investigate how we as a nation can ensure we all benefit from the opportunities that new technologies such as AI promise.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment provided foundational support to the AI Forum for this major study on the implications for AI on New Zealand society, the economy and government.

Supporting this research has enabled us all to come from a position of knowledge and understanding.

Digital inclusion is a priority of this Government. We want all New Zealander’s to benefit from the opportunities that new technologies offer. 

The report will help us progress the conversation on how we want AI to be integrated into our society for the benefit of us all. 

New Zealand has always been a nation of innovators one that readily embraces new technologies and their opportunities, but we find ourselves at a crucial point.

This report is New Zealand’s report. It has been over a year in the planning and research, it has involved interviewing our academics, our businesses, our legal profession and our government officials all to better understand New Zealand’s position on AI.

It provides us with the first current-state snapshot of New Zealand’s AI landscape and it also outlines the potential AI has for our economic and social development.

But this is also a timely wake-up for us all. AI isn’t coming - it is already here. It is a technology that will ultimately touch on all facets of our daily lives. And it is one that we need to understand and not fear, because of the potential that it offers.

AI is no longer just the domain of the technologist; it needs to be considered from New Zealand’s boardrooms, to the Beehive and beyond.

New technologies as well as offering new opportunities also bring new challenges and in order to mitigate those challenges we must plan and prepare. This report and the work of the AI Forum is a model for how to do that. 

The wider issues of data bias, transparency and accountability are very important for this Government to consider. And very much in line with the work I am leading within the Digital 7 nations on digital rights. 

The D7 nations, NZ, the UK, Israel, Estonia, South Korea, Canada and Uruguay are working together to map the digital rights landscape in their respective countries, looking at key areas of concern and working together to develop global solutions.  New Zealand is leading this work.

D7 countries will share examples of best practice and programmes designed to support digital rights, and will form working groups to focus on key issues such as algorithmic accountability, the impact of AI on digital rights, line of sight for personal data, and digital inclusion.  

What we already know from the introduction of previous technologies is that those that are quick to embrace the potential are the ones to gain the most. 

New economic growth comes to those that embrace innovation, not those that resist or delay adopting it.

The economic potential from AI

The report reveals just how big the economic opportunity for New Zealand might be. It estimates that AI could lift New Zealand’s GDP by between $23 and $53 billion by 2035. Obviously this is a starting point for more work.

It reveals that New Zealand already has a flourishing, if small, AI sector with innovative systems rapidly evolving at all levels.

Most importantly from my perspective, the report found that AI will not lead to mass unemployment. 

Again, more analysis is needed on this as we are already seeing significant change occur across industries.

Rather the technology could augment many roles freeing up employees from the more mundane or rote tasks to allow them to tackle more complex and creative work, enhancing our unique human attributes, such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

For those individuals who will be impacted by technological change, retraining and re-skilling is where we can concentrate our efforts. It will take a plan – a better plan than we have now.

Future generations must have the best education so they have the skills to succeed in an increasingly technologically advanced world.

This government is committed to increasing the investment in digital learning in schools and also among the wider population through an emphasis on enabling lifelong learning.

We’ll do that through a range of measures including supporting the new digital Technologies and Hangarau Matihiko curriculum which starts in schools next year and through the fees-free initiative which will benefit tens of thousands of students next year and even more when it expands by 2024 to provide three years fees free.

The government, businesses and the wider community working together will build a workforce that is adaptable, agile and capable in the face of change.

Recommendations and next steps

The report makes a number of recommendations to business and to government to ensure that we are all able to reap the projected benefits. It behoves us to listen.

In particular, I welcome the recommendations in the Report to look at ethics and society, and the need for us to look at AI legislation and regulation.  

I am in the process of formalising government’s relationship with Otago University’s NZ Law Foundation Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies in the next few weeks.

The chair in Law and Emerging Technologies at Otago, Colin Gavaghan told me this morning the group will be formed into the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Public Policy this month

It will initially include personnel from computer sciences, law and philosophy, but may expand to include other disciplines. A formal relationship with the Centre will give government access to high quality, expert advice on the legal, ethical and policy issues surrounding AI, algorithmic analytics and other new technologies. This is urgent. Why is it so urgent? Because more than 140 organisations are already working with, or investing in AI in NZ.

A number of those are in government agencies, as well as the private sector and in universities being developed or purchased and operating in an unregulated, unfettered space. Across government there are AI tools being used in Immigration, MSD, ACC, Corrections, MPI. Across the private sector in law, finance, agritech, the environment, construction, manufacturing, health, retail, transport. This is exciting but there are risks.

There is a lot of work going on in this area, with officials looking at thorny issues such as digital rights, “line of sight” for personal information and algorithmic decision making and accountability.  

But this work needs to prioritised across government and be joined up – co-ordinated and gap-free.  There is also a lot going on internationally that we need to take into account.  

Through the Digital 7 Nations work, with our new relationship with Otago University and the Law Foundation, and through existing relationships with the Law Commission and Privacy Commission, my officials will continue to join up work in this area and identify gaps where we could be doing more as a government.

We will ensure AI is a key part of a NZ Digital Strategy and understanding the risks and implications, as well as the benefits of AI.  

Together with my colleagues, I will be looking at ways – such as frameworks and standards - to ensure proper governance and care of government data, and ensuring accountability, transparency and privacy concerns are considered as the use of AI expands. 

We will also look at ways to ensure we build the correct and proper use of AI into government process such as procurement of services and improving service design and delivery.

As the Minister for Digital – with portfolios covering Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, Government Digital Services, and Open Government, I am ideally placed to work with my Ministerial colleagues to ensure that the government provides leadership.  

I have asked my Officials to work across Government, with the AI Forum, the soon to be appointed CTO, and other interested parties to quickly come up with a detailed action plan that will address the full set of recommendations in this report.

Officials will be reviewing the report and its recommendations and will look at the best ways to create awareness of AI, build skills and capability across New Zealand, and support all levels of society to adopt AI.

We know that we need to increase skills and grow talent in this area, and I am committed to ensuring all areas of government work together to ensure New Zealand has the right talent to enable it to embrace the digital future.

When I appoint the CTO, he or she will work with government and supported by the Digital Economy, Digital Inclusion Advisory Group, to look at how AI fits into New Zealand’s national digital strategy.

I look forward to continuing the partnership alongside the AI Forum as its work programme develops. So New Zealand can embrace the opportunity AI promises not only for economic growth but for the benefit and prosperity of all New Zealanders.

If we work on this together, we will be in an excellent position to maximise the potential of AI and shape our future to ensure all New Zealanders can thrive in a digital world.