In short time, the Canadian government has taken important steps toward better AI governance. This progress was evident at Student Symposium on AI and Human Rights held in April by Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Participants heard first hand how the Canadian government is responding to AI’s impact on human rights specifically related to equality, privacy, accountability and freedom of expression. With these issues in mind, Canada still has much work to clarify the regulatory environment in place for artificial intelligence. Below are some observations from the event.
Government as a leader in inclusion
The tech sector has been long criticized for being too white and too male, leading to technologies – and policies – that do not accurately represent the experiences of women and POC. The risk is that homogeneous design times will not properly anticipate the real world applications of technologies, creating AI that reflects the biases of the teams that worked on them.
By contrast, the GAC symposium featured a mix of students from different disciplines and backgrounds, young men and women in equal measure hailing mostly from Quebec and Ontario. I enrolled my own graduate students from Concordia’s Media Studies program to participate in the symposium. Their research led to presentations from two groups concerned with the implications of AI on the Canadian labour market as well as the ways that automation might increase race and gender discrimination.
The Symposium exemplifies how the government can lead by creating inclusive spaces. Clearly the government might not be a leader in all cases, especially involving the relationship between AI and indigenous peoples, but the support given to allow students to participate in this conference clearly indicates a commitment to public participation that will need to continue in order to have democratic oversight of this new technology.
A New Generation of AI Scholars?
When we started preparing for the symposium, my students, mostly women, were concerned that they knew nothing about AI governance – a reminder that the rhetoric of high-technology disfranchises many important political discussions. Siva Vaidhyanathan cautions that presumptions like these, about who interacts with technologies and who can claim expertise, means “we forge policies and design systems and devices that match those presumptions”. Overcoming their concerns about who can be considered an ‘expert’.
Students quickly learned the key issues in AI governance. One group considered the ways that AI-led systems for governing divorce proceedings might exacerbate the inherent factors tied to gender inequality between couples seeking a divorce.
Many students raised concerns that Canada lacks accurate good public knowledge about artificial intelligence. Instead, discussions of AI in Canada have tended to use the language from Silicon Valley. Disruption. A fourth industrial revolution. In reality, the hype around AI can foreclose a good policy debate, making AI seem like a complete disruption rather than part of a much longer pattern of technology in society.
That these students could go from being concerned about their lack of expertise to knowledgeable participants at the forefront of AI governance is a potent reminder that the lack of inclusion seen in the conversations around AI seems more to be a lack of engagement than ability.
The capacity of these students to learn and advise on AI supports calls for new researchers trained in assessing the impacts of algorithms. Understanding how AI will impact society requires interdisciplinary research, especially for the social sciences and humanities to understand its lived impacts and our everyday understandings of new technology.
Concentration in the AI Industry
AI does not build itself in a vacuum, nor do our understandings of AI exist without inaccuracies and bias. What’s missing remains an acknowledgement that AI is the key research area of major platform-based companies such as Google or Amazon. These companies face inadequate public scrutiny in spite of a long history of mistakes and abuses in developing their tech. Good AI governance cannot repeat the past missteps of platform policy.
The growing concentration of power amongst the leaders in AI requires us to be aware that the future of AI is political as much as policy-based.The willingness of the government to partner and promote its industry contacts could likewise impede its ability to hold these firms accountable.
Questioning the Language of Disruption
Student presentations questioned how we talk about, describe and imagine the impacts of AI. These representations, as media students students know, are powerful. There is already a concern that too much AI discussion focuses on the omnipotent AI to come ignores the rather mundane applications already here. My students found that much of the hype around AI sidesteps holding it accountable to already existing policy frameworks.
AI policy tends to try and develop new paradigms rather than repurpose existing frameworks. Treating AI as an unprecedented novelty impedes the government’s ability to create clear guidance about AI development and implementation. Why do we need new guidelines for Ethical AI when we have the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Canada could easily advances its approach to AI governance by interpreting the charter for AI research and development.
The innovation agenda, to borrow a popular government phrase, cannot continue to ignore the crucial and very tangible step of interpreting the design and deployment of machine learning systems through effective and already existing humans rights frameworks and labour law.
Global AI Governance, Locally
The progress made by key government agencies suggest that these issues will be addressed soon, but for now there remains a global gap in AI leadership. Considering the impact of General Data Protection Regulation globally, Canada could be a global leader if it adopts strong national initiatives.
The rush to consider the GDPR as a global data framework also indicates there is a first mover advantage in developing new digital policy. Modifying existing frameworks to suit AI, and considering the experiences of a diverse population are important to building AI policies that serve all Canadians effectively.
Canada can can be a global AI leader if we continue at this pace to implement humane, just and inclusive AI governance.