New Zealand Law Society - Foundation's early investment in technology research bears fruit

Foundation's early investment in technology research bears fruit

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A decade ago, the Law Foundation took the far-sighted step of establishing a specialist research centre at Otago University to study law and policy challenges for New Zealand arising from the adoption of new technologies.

At that time, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) were only just beginning to emerge. Now AI is with us – more than 140 New Zealand organisations, including many government agencies, are working with or investing in AI.

It’s a complex new field with the possibility of significant public impact, but there is very little regulation or even best-practice guidance on its use. The risks have been illustrated in recent complaints about Immigration New Zealand’s use of an AI-based data profiling system to prioritise overstayers for deportation.

The Government is acting, and it is looking to the Foundation’s Otago-based research centre for help. In early May, the Digital Media and Government Digital Services Minister Clare Curran announced plans to formalise the Government’s relationship with the Law Foundation’s Centre for Law & Policy in Emerging Technologies, with the aim of accessing expert advice on the legal, ethical and policy issues surrounding AI, algorithmic analytics and other new technologies. Since then, we have been talking with officials about how the new relationship will work.

Data gathering

Dr Colin Gavaghan, the Centre’s Director, says the first step is gathering data to understand how and where algorithms are being used.

“There are certainly concerns – about bias and transparency, but also just that money could be being wasted, people buying tools that aren’t any better than what we already have,” he says. “But we won’t have a clear sense of how concerned we should be until we have a fuller picture of what’s being used and how.”

There is also discussion on oversight and advice bodies. “It may or may not turn out that we need a new regulator or a new set of laws – but as a first step, we think there’s a case for best practice guidance. If you’re a government department thinking of buying an AI system, there are questions you should be able to answer: can it be assessed for accuracy, is it value for money, is it transparent and challengeable or a ‘black box’?” says Dr Gavaghan.

Other issues arise around regulation and legal remedies to reassure the public about the use of AI tools. Experts are looking at the adequacy of existing New Zealand rules around this area, but are also looking at what other jurisdictions are doing – for instance, to the European Union, where the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will protect an individual’s right to an explanation of an automated decision, as well as requiring a level of human involvement in such decisions.

Further developments

There have been further developments since Ms Curran’s announcement. A stock-take of how agencies use algorithms to analyse people’s data has been announced by Ms Curran and the Statistics Minister James Shaw. Also, Otago University has established its own Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Public Policy, drawing on a number of existing AI initiatives at the university. The new centre will collaborate with the Emerging Technologies Centre, and draw on findings from the Law Foundation’s three-year Artificial Intelligence and the Law project, also based at Otago University and funded through the Foundation’s Information Law and Policy Project (ILAPP).

Dr Gavaghan says the new arrangement will be a multi-disciplinary hub involving computer scientists, philosophers, economist and other experts. “A multi-disciplinary approach is really vital in this area, as no one specialism can understand the full picture.”

All this is being complemented by the Law Foundation’s ILAPP fund which provided $2 million to investigate law, policy and ethical issues around the development of information technology. ILAPP has been operating for two years, providing new information and insights into current issues. More information about the work from ILAPP-funded projects can be found on the Law Foundation website Law Foundation website.

The findings from ILAPP projects and the current flurry of activity vindicates the Law Foundation’s decision to invest in studying new technology impacts all those years ago, long before their use became widespread.

Lynda Hagen is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation. Further information about the Law Foundation can be found at

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