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Opinion Artificial intelligence can no longer be ignored - we need policies to deal with it

Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne says AI tech is advancing at pace and politics must move to meet it.

WE ARE AT the start of some of the most significant changes in human history that will result from the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) in virtually every area of life. The speed of some of these changes will be exciting or frightening, depending on your perspective.

In medicine, AI is being used already to diagnose and remotely treat patients, as well as to identify potential new drugs and make prescriptions. Job applicants are shortlisted using AI and credit ratings are determined by the same technology. Data is increasingly being used to determine large swathes of public policy, from policing to transport planning.

In science fiction, the cyborg is this part human, part machine where the technology can carry out many of the traditional functions at speed of the human. If we consider all of the actions and decisions that our mobile phones now carry out on our behalf, could we already be considered as cyborgs?

Rapid developments

In the 2030s, driverless vehicles will mean significant changes in employment of those traditionally behind the wheel, while the advance of 3D printing combined with AI planning and design will see buildings constructed in unprecedented ways.

AI will be able to detect patterns in weather patterns and in markets faster than meteorologists or economists or traders. This can be advantageous if applied to the good, protecting during adverse weather or ensuring that vital product supply chains remain open. But greed could also see such knowledge derived from AI used to advantage the few.

Our lives are arguably being made easier with the use of AI but there continue to be serious concerns. The algorithms that AI uses are based on the data that they are fed. There is always a need to safeguard against particular bias in that data. There are well-documented cases of algorithmic bias in some instances against women, people of colour, certain minorities.

There are obvious concerns about the extent to which machines can make decisions. The weaponisation of AI by States or by private parties is a key debate for multilateral organisations.

Where are the policies?

We, therefore, need to be prepared from a policy and planning perspective but also to adapt our education system to one where engagement with AI is at its centre. These issues will be at the centre of political and philosophical debate over the next decade.

In July 2021, the Government published a national strategy on AI – ‘Here for Good’. There was a strong emphasis on building public trust in new technology and that its use should be ethical and people centred.

The European Union is currently moving toward adopting the Artificial Intelligence Act, in a move that will regulate the increased use of automated decision making by public and private institutions. Much like how the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) set the bar around data privacy and protection, the EU is hoping that the new Act will set the standards around how we use AI.

We need to regulate and monitor how AI is used in public and private hands. The risks of a surveillance society, such as that in China where every citizen is monitored by the State and given a credit score, are very real. The increased power being subsumed into the boardrooms of a small number of global tech companies also needs to be checked to ensure that AI is not misused.

Given the speeds at which AI will be able to operate, there is a case for global agreement on where human intervention is appropriate. The risk of cyberwarfare is very real. We need to look at mechanisms to prevent automated decision making that could lead to destruction.

Ethical challenges

There will be deep ethical questions. Should we allow AI to recreate avatars of those who have died? In making judicial decisions, what role should AI play? For us as legislators, in the impossible battle to keep pace with trying to regulate new technologies, to what extent might we have to use AI to guide us?

Artificial intelligence will be transformative and our education systems will have to adapt. Very soon, students will simply don virtual or augmented reality headsets and be educated immersively with the aid of machine learning. But there will be broader questions. In the same way that debates happen around children’s exposure to screentime, families and society will debate whether children can effectively be minded by AI babysitters or befriended by humanlike robots.

Sectors of society will spend the majority of their time in an online metaverse while others will reject new technologies and choose to live, Amish-like, in an AI free world. How do we build a social contract when society may divide in such a way?

Of course, AI (thus far!) lacks those very qualities that should influence all of human activity – emotions such as love, compassion, fear – even though increasingly machines are learning to recognise such expressions. We need to ensure that those qualities that make us human continue to guide our decision making.

The debate about our relationship with Artificial Intelligence cannot be confined to a small minority, mostly within the tech sector. This is a critical debate that demands the attention of politicians, policymakers and the public at large. It will become one of the dominant themes of public discourse over the next decade.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator and the party’s spokesperson on Further & Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science.


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