How NZ can thrive in the age of AI

Artificial Intelligence is the defining technology of our generation and, surprisingly, some experts think New Zealand is well placed to take advantage.

Partly that’s to do with our perceived ability to adapt to the great changes that AI will bring about. In particular, the threat of automation.

Tom White, a Senior Lecturer in Media Design at Victoria University, is one of this country’s foremost experts in AI. An American native who studied computing at MIT, White believes New Zealand “has amazing potential as a society for the coming wave of AI.”

Because we’re less prone to letting our jobs define us, as is common overseas, White thinks kiwis are more open “to the idea of allowing automation to happen to the benefit of everyone.”

Certainly, New Zealand is better positioned to roll out a guaranteed minimum income – often termed a Universal Basic Income (UBI). In the US, that’s akin to implementing communism. But like it or not, it may be a necessary measure once automation hits.

The new Labour-led coalition government already understands that capitalism, at least in the extreme way it’s practiced in the US, is flawed. Both PM Jacinda Ardern and Deputy PM Winston Peters have expressed reservations about capitalism, particularly for kiwi families who aren’t in the top tax brackets.

If capitalism is not working now, I can guarantee it won’t be able to cope with the economic impact of AI. Or as Tom White put it, “without labour as a balancing force, capitalism unchecked will continue to exacerbate inequality by concentrating capital.”

So what’s the solution to mass automation, other than UBI? Nobody knows yet, but governments around the world will need imagination and flexibility to figure it out.

The outlook for AI is not all dystopian. Used wisely, automation can provide a big boost to productivity. Xero, for example, has been busy implementing AI into its products – which it claims will ultimately benefit customers.

That leads to another interesting question: which AI developments are worth getting behind? While all the big technology companies are now deeply involved in AI research, it turns out there’s a pecking order.

According to Eric Jang, a Research Engineer at Google Brain, DeepMind is the clear leader in AI research. He ranks his own project and Facebook’s as the next best. But in the best tradition of computer engineers, Jang wasn’t shy about ripping into one of his competitors. He ranked IBM Watson, perhaps the most well known AI system in terms of media coverage, the lowest. Hardly an unbiased opinion though.

Ironically, IBM’s problem may be too much human resourcing. A July report from the investment banking firm Jefferies warned that “while IBM offers one of the more mature cognitive computing platforms today, the hefty services component of many AI deployments will be a hindrance to adoption.”

Tom White is also of the view that DeepMind, a British company acquired by Google in 2014, is doing some of the most impressive AI research. “In addition to being way in front of most of their competitors,” he told me, “Deepmind is also very vocal in establishing ethical uses of AI – this was part of the negotiation in the Google acquisition.”

Even better, DeepMind was co-founded by a kiwi. Shane Legg, a New Zealander in his early forties now living in London, was one of the three founders of DeepMind. He’s little known here, but arguably he’s our most influential global kiwi – certainly in the technology field.

Legg is now the chief scientist at Google DeepMind, putting him right at the forefront of AI research. While he gives very few interviews, he’s on record as saying that societies must adapt to AI. “I think the biggest issue isn’t really financial, but cultural,” he told the community blog Less Wrong back in 2011.

It would be sensible for the New Zealand government to tap Shane Legg’s expertise, as our country prepares for an AI future.

What else can we do as nation? Attract more talent, says Tom White. He noted that Canada is doing this aggressively, especially since the current US administration has “embarked on a number of policies that are alienating academics.” He also pointed out that DeepMind has opened a research office in Edmonton. Perhaps we can convince Shane Legg’s company to do the same here.

But even if we’re able to attract emerging talent, White says we shouldn’t just blindly copy Silicon Valley in using it. He suggests that Germany is a better example for our country, because its value system is not centred on individual wealth, recognition, or careers. This makes it “much more conducive to adapting to the near future of living among machines, that are in many ways smarter and more capable than we can currently imagine.”

Coping with automation – and AI in general – will be one of the biggest challenges of the coming decades. But like Tom White, I’m confident that New Zealand is better suited to adapt than many other countries. And if we can attract AI talent to our shores, we’ll do more than just adapt. We’ll thrive in the AI era.