New Zealand's AI future

Dr Matthew Birchall
Insights Newsletter
8 September, 2023

It is brave to invite an historian to speak at a conference about the future. As the Scottish historian Tom Devine once quipped, the future was not his time period. 

So it was with some trepidation that I addressed a full house at Wellington’s new Tākina conference centre last week for the policy forum Diplosphere’s conference on AI.

The conversation could not be timelier. Large language models such as ChatGPT have fuelled a sense of rapid progress, yet they have also evoked a sense of foreboding.

Regardless of one’s perspective, it is undeniable that AI is on the verge of reshaping how we live and work.

Given the enormous potential and profound implications associated with AI, it is important to consider whether New Zealand is well-prepared to harness the opportunities it offers.

The early signs are not promising.

A recent survey by Ipsos found that Kiwis are more sceptical of AI than the rest of the world, for example. It also found that we are more likely to think that AI will have a negative impact on the job market in the next 3-5 years.

Just as concerning is the apparent appetite for heavy-handed regulation – a sentiment I encountered frequently at Tākina. The EU’s draft AI Act is often cited as a potential model, adopting a “risk-based” classification of AI systems based on perceived threats to rights and safety.

However, the prescriptive approach pioneered by the EU is unlikely to keep pace with fresh developments and it may also hinder progress.

Richard Massey, Senior Associate at Bell Gully, told Newsroom this week that it was vital to strike the right balance. “There are a whole range of really exciting potential use cases that can be unlocked through appropriately regulated AI. And the key is to ensure that it’s not over-regulated in a way that loses some of the benefits or defers those benefits unnecessarily.”

A nimbler regulatory framework like the one proposed by the UK may be a better model to emulate. Such a framework grants existing regulators the flexibility to tailor their approaches to the practical applications of AI in real-world scenarios.

British computer scientist Stuart Russell notes that it would be unwise to bet against human ingenuity. If we want to cash in on Russell’s gamble, a good place to start would be exploring ways to maximise AI’s potential.

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