‘Oversight needed’ so AI can be used for good in Asia-Pacific

Academics urge governments to set up frameworks for ethical use of technology and reaffirm the need for greater multidisciplinarity 

November 12, 2020
woman’s face with (AI) data superimposed
Source: iStock

Asia-Pacific universities could use artificial intelligence to harness their strengths in combating epidemics and other global problems, but only if there were regulatory frameworks to ensure ethical use, experts said.

Artificial Intelligence for Social Good, a nearly 300-page report by academics in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand, was launched the same day as the event, held by the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Google. The research, co-published by APRU and Keio University in Japan, laid out recommendations for using AI in the region to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

While the report outlined the great potential for AI in the region, it also said that risks must be managed, privacy concerns must be addressed and testing must be conducted before large-scale technology projects were implemented.

Christopher Tremewan, APRU’s secretary general and a former vice-president at the University of Auckland, said that Pacific Rim universities “have incredible research depth in the challenges facing this region, from extreme climate events and the global Covid-19 pandemic to complex cross-border problems. Their collective expertise and AI innovation makes a powerful contribution to our societies and our planet’s health.”

However, he also said there were potential problems with “rapid technological changes rolled out amid inequality and heightened international tensions”.

“As educators, we know that technology is not neutral and that public accountability at all levels is vital,” he said.

The APRU, which includes 50 research universities in Asia, Australasia and the west coast of the Americas, is based at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

In answering questions, Dr Tremewan drew on his own observations in New Zealand and Hong Kong, two places where Covid responses have been lauded.

“The feeling in Hong Kong is that there is tremendous experience from Sars,” he said, referring to a 2003 epidemic. “The universities here have capability in medical research, particularly on the structure of this type of disease, and also in public health strategy.”

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, “confidence in science” and the prominence of researchers and experts speaking out aided in the public response.

“Universities are playing key roles locally and internationally,” he said, adding that expertise was also needed in policy, communications and social behaviour. “The solutions are multidisciplinary, not only technological or medical.”

Soraj Hongladarom, director of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and one of the authors of the report, said their work had “broken new ground” in Asia.

“We’re trying to focus on the cultural context of AI, which hasn’t been done very much in an academic context,” he said.

Professor Hongladarom, a philosopher, urged greater interdisciplinarity in tackling social problems.

“Engineers and computer scientists must work with social scientists, anthropologists and philosophers to look beyond the purely technical side of AI – but also at its social, cultural and political aspects,” he said.

He added that policy and regulation were vital in keeping control over technology: “Every government must take action – it’s particularly important in South-east Asia.”

Dr Tremewan said that, aside from crossing disciplinary boundaries, AI also had to cross national borders. “Universities have huge social power in their local contexts. So how do we bring that influence internationally?” he asked.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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