Eight experts on the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence in government and the public sector


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The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner has published a book on the profound social, technological, and ethical issues that are rearing their heads with the rise of artificial intelligence, co-authored by eight experts and specifically aimed at public servants.

“How governments and regulators respond to technological and social developments in AI will have a large and lasting impact on society,” said information commissioner Sven Bluemmel. “We need to encourage worthwhile technological innovation, but we need to do so with our eyes open.”

Bluemmel’s office developed the free e-book Closer to the Machine: Technical, social and legal aspects of AI to encourage people in the public sector to think about the “potential effects that AI will have on policy, public administration and on society” as they increasingly make use of it.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to improve lives and to cause harm. One needs a good grasp of the technology to understand these risks and benefits, according to Professor Toby Walsh, a leading expert on AI at the University of New South Wales who also leads a research group at CSIRO’s Data61.

“To truly understand the opportunities and risks, you need to understand what AI is, not what Hollywood would have you believe it is,” said Walsh, who co-authored the book with seven other experts.

The book explores issues like algorithmic transparency and accountability, and covers the potential for machine learning to perpetuate discrimination, bias and inequality, as well as the technology itself and related matters like data security. It also looks at how AI can further the public interest and how it can be regulated.


READ MORE: AI was supposed to help this city recruit staff for local kindergartens. Denied transparency, parents compared results to understand the automated decisionmaking


The OVIC has also summarised its contents in a shorter blog post for those who can’t commit to a whole book.

“Everything from restaurant recommendations to dental diagnoses are increasingly being powered by AI. But alongside the many benefits of AI, issues such as privacy, discrimination, accountability and transparency have surfaced. The full potential of AI, both good and bad, is looming on the horizon.”

The book encourages policymakers to consider the implications of using AI for things like predictive policing, jail sentencing and welfare distribution, and notes that AI development often proceeds through tinkering or trial and error. This often means “one researcher cannot reproduce the results of another” and illustrates the fundamental problem with outsourcing important decisions to a black box.

“Humans can justify and explain how they reached a decision. AI systems, on the other hand, make decisions based on statistical predictions from algorithms that are usually complex to the point of being incomprehensible to humans. This is a critical issue for government use of AI — government is expected to be transparent, and if the rationale behind an AI decision cannot be explained, that decision can hardly be described as transparent.”

Do laws need to be reformed to keep up? Leading lawyer and transparency advocate Fiona McLeod certainly thinks so but the OVIC e-book suggests some existing laws might just need to be clarified, adapted or enforced “more vigorously” to govern the emerging field of technology.

The free e-book Closer to the Machine is available from the OVIC website. It was written by:

  • Professor Toby Walsh, University of New South Wales and CSIRO’s Data61
  • Professor Richard Nock, Australian National University and Data61
  • Associate Professor Ben Rubinstein, University of Melbourne
  • Katie Miller, Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission
  • Professor Margaret Jackson, RMIT
  • Dr Jake Goldenfein, Cornell Tech and Swinburne University
  • Professor Fang Chen, University of Technology Sydney
  • Dr Jianlong Zhou, University of Technology Sydney

More: Victorian Information Commissioner Sven Bluemmel has also shared his thoughts on open government and privacy in a free webinar along with Volunteering Victoria chief executive Scott Miller, Objective Corporation’s Industry Solutions Director Sonya Sherman and The Mandarin’s Public Sector Director, Peter Debus.

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