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Artificial intelligence is hard to define, but it is affecting everyone’s lives already and will shape the world’s future, a visiting world leader in the field says.
"I think a lot of people don’t realise what we call narrow AI is already in their homes and computers," Ms Kay Firth-Butterfield said.
"I always say that AI is the engine of the fourth industrial revolution. For example, people talk a lot about the changes autonomous vehicles will bring, but you wouldn’t have autonomous vehicles without the underpinning of artificial intelligence."
An English lawyer, Ms Firth-Butterfield has a background in both law and international relations.
In the United States she became a professor and helped set up AI Austin, a non-profit organisation which encourages practical and responsible design, development and use of Artificial Intelligence — machines which can learn and make decisions without human guidance.
Last September she was headhunted by the World Economic Forum, and now heads its artificial intelligence and machine learning project.
In that capacity she advises world leaders and business executives on AI issues; last week she was in Davos for the WEF’s annual winter meeting.
"It is an amazing privilege to be able to actually create projects that will hopefully make a difference," Ms Firth-Butterfield said.
"I’ve moved from thinking about things academically, to the non-profit and trying to make a difference on the ground, and now to actually be able to make a difference by running projects at a national and international level is a huge privilege and I’m delighted to be able to do it."
Ms Firth-Butterfield calls her part of the WEF a "do tank, not a think tank".
It works with together with organisations and governments on AI regulation projects. Three months are spent on planning and scoping and nine months on creating the project.
"If we are working with a country there will also be six months of piloting the regulation or governance structure we have come up with, and if that works well we hope it will serve as a model for other governments."
At the WEF’s San Francisco Centre of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Ms Firth-Butterfield’s AI and machine-learning team sits alongside seven other AI portfolios — blockchain, drones, autonomous vehicles, medicine, the environment, e-commerce and cross-border data flow, and the internet of things.
"All of us have our specific subject areas, but the cross-cutting themes of the work we are all doing is ethics and values and social inclusion," she said.
"Whenever I look at a project I look at its impact on those three things."
Like many thinkers in this area, Ms Firth-Butterfield and her team find themselves battling to keep up with developments in such a fast-moving field, and how to ensure accountability, transparency, bias and privacy concerns are considered as the use of AI expands.
Those creating these new technologies might not have thought of the ethical and legal implications of their work, and governments might not have considered how best to regulate the field.
Greater education about AI and its implications was needed at all levels, Ms Firth-Butterfield said.
"One of our concerns is that the average citizen doesn’t understand enough about artificial intelligence to actually play a proper part in regulation or governance of the technology," she said.
"I think we see that also among business leaders who don’t know enough about the way AI could impact their business, and also how it may impact the brand if they do their artificial intelligence incorrectly — by which I mean irresponsibly and not ethically."
The regulation framework for artificial intelligence is pretty much a blank slate, with tools such as codes of conduct, protocols or global conventions few and far between.
"Not even around lethal autonomous weapons," Ms Firth-Butterfield said.
"I think AI will be of huge benefit to humanity, but I absolutely believe the time is now for us to be mitigating the negative consequences.
"We need to go forward, but also understand the challenges as well."
While in New Zealand Ms Firth-Butterfield paid a visit to the University of Otago’s AI project.
The Dunedin-based, Law Foundation-funded initiative might seem light years away from the presidents, prime ministers and CEOs Ms Firth-Butterfield usually deals with, but she said national projects such as the one in Otago were vital for the development of a worldwide framework for the implementation of ethical AI.
"AI has its own specific challenges and benefits, and countries need to analyse those and say how will this work for us.
"Each country needs to create its own artificial intelligence strategy ... and create its own centres of AI excellence, because at that point it will be possible to join in the global conversation."