Media release: Artificial intelligence and government accountability - 2019 Solomon Lecture

29 August 2019

The question if human rights and artificial intelligence can co-exist was a hot topic at yesterday’s 2019 Solomon Lecture in Brisbane, presented by Fiona McLeod SC, eminent barrister and human rights advocate.

Ms McLeod was invited to speak at the event held at the State Library, as part of the Office of the Information Commissioner’s celebrations marking 10 years of the Right to Information Act 2009 and Information Privacy Act 2009 in Queensland.

The lecture focused on transparency, openness and accountability in the context of increasing adoption of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) in government functions and decision-making.

“In Australia and elsewhere in the world, accountability is and has always been under threat. We have settled for a ‘trust us or vote us out’ model of democracy and a veneer of transparency resulting in a piecemeal and un-strategic approach to accountability,” Ms McLeod said.

“Naturally those with power would prefer to avoid scrutiny and criticism, to control the means by which we find things out and talk about them. This is a natural.

“While openness can be productive of discomfort, governments embracing this scrutiny and the direct participation of citizens, ultimately make better, more informed, decisions. Greater accountability builds trust and respect and supports a more equitable society.”

Ms McLeod outlined seven challenges to accountability in this ‘Age of the Artificial’ from the absence of ethics, to forfeiting rights, and the very real possibility that everything digital could be hacked, corrupted or manipulated.

However, she ended her lecture by identifying key areas that could hold back the tide and protect accountability, such as greater education and digital literacy, only collecting and retaining data for a specific agreed purpose, informed consent, strong integrity frameworks, law reform, and adopting a safety first or ‘do no harm’ approach.

Queensland Information Commissioner Rachael Rangihaeata said, “AI offers great opportunities to provide better outcomes for the community, however there are critical issues and risks to consider and address to get the right balance. This discussion is particularly topical in Queensland given the recent enactment of the Human Rights Act 2019.

“The Solomon Lecture along with other recent reports* focusing on AI are vital pieces of the puzzle aimed at moving the conversation about accountability, human rights, big data and AI forward.

“It was a privilege to have Fiona as our 2019 guest lecturer, bringing her diverse experience including Co-Chair of the Open Government Forum, Open Government Partnership and Chair of both Transparency International Australia and the Accountability Round Table,” Ms Rangihaeata said.

The panel discussion that followed was able to build on Fiona’s insights as well as the valuable experience of Scott McDougall (Human Rights Commissioner), Dr Brent Richards (Medical Director of Innovation, Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service), Mr Simon McKee (Deputy Commissioner, Queensland Treasury), Phil Green (Privacy Commissioner) and Madonna King (Master of Ceremonies).

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Lecture abstract - Accountability in the Age of the Artificial

Our aspiration for open and accountable government faces innumerable challenges, not least the natural reluctance of all governments to expose themselves to criticism and accept responsibility for failure.

Time and again, corporate and political goals take priority over just outcomes, and the human rights of individuals and communities are undervalued and ignored.

Numerous examples of bad behaviour shock us for a while, some even receiving the focused attention of high quality investigative journalism and Royal Commissions, but we are left unsatisfied, cynical and disengaged, more jaded than before, accepting the inevitability of existential threats, the comfort of algorithmic news feeds and vague promises to ‘drain the swamp’.

In this context, are big data and artificial intelligence the enemies of the people, the ultimate tools of the oligarch, or the vital tools needed to eliminate bias, improve scrutiny and just outcomes for the visionary? Is there a future in which humanity evolves alongside an enhanced hive-mind in time to avert global catastrophe and create a new vision for humanity?

* The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report ‘The effective and ethical development of artificial intelligence: an opportunity to improve our wellbeing’ (30 July 2019) can be found at: https://acola.org/hs4-artificial-intelligence-australia/

The Standards Australia discussion paper ‘Developing standards for artificial intelligence: hearing Australia’s voice’ (June 2019) can be found at: https://www.standards.org.au/news/strengthening-trust-colon-hearing-australia%E2%80%99s-voice-on-artificial-intelligence

Media contact: Steve Haigh, Manager, Training and Stakeholder Relations
Phone: (07) 3234 7373