COLLABORATION

3 global powers, 1 shared mission: To fund ethical AI research

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If wielded irresponsibly, AI could be used to violate individual privacy and the right to informational self-determination.

Progress in artificial intelligence research has been remarkable in recent years, with global superpowers like China and the US successfully demonstrating in various ways the powerful extent of the technology.

But at the heart of all that lies an ever-present concern over the ethical use of the technology, and how, if wielded irresponsibly, it could violate individual privacy and the right to informational self-determination.

This is what Germany, France and Japan have set out to make sure won’t happen.

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The three global economies have joined forces to fund research into “human-centered” AI that respects privacy and transparency, according to the recent reports.

The trilateral arrangement saw the funding bodies of the countries put out a joint call for research proposals in July, backed by an initial funding of EUR$7.4 million (US$8.2 million). In the call, they said they “share the same values” on ethical AI and were aiming to advance research in the technology with a focus on upholding these values.

According to Times Higher Education (THE), industry observers see the move as cementing the global split on the approach to AI research. Where Europe, plus Japan and perhaps Canada, are leading the approach on ethical AI development, others have placed its development, whether inadvertently or deliberately, in the hands of the public or private sectors.

“We share the same beliefs and the same standards,” said Susanne Sangenstedt, a program officer at the German Research Foundation who is helping to oversee the collaboration, in THE’s report.

Among the central research themes in the funding call is “human-centered approaches towards AI methods”, which includes issues such as GDPR in AI, the democratisation of AI, the integrity of data for fairness and AI ethics to avoid gender or age segmentation.

Other themes include knowledge extraction and learning; knowledge management methods and models, as well as advancing AI applications to allow for autonomous decision-making systems.

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Sengenstedt said the results of the research should, if possible, be released on an “open-access basis”, THE reported.

Holger Hoos, Professor of Machine Learning at Leiden University, said the trilateral party of Germany, France and Japan were concerned that “if you let this (AI) go wild, it can cause profound damage to society.” He also said Canada was likely to join the trio soon.

“AI is a game of critical mass. Japan can’t compete with China on AI, so they need allies. And the same goes for Canada,” he said in THE.

China, he said, has placed AI development under the control of the government. The US, on the other hand, has allowed private technology companies to dominate advancements in the technology.

The European way, on the other hand, is to seek balance and synergy between government, industry and the individual. Japan, he noted, supports this approach.

It remains to be seen who else would take Europe’s side in AI development but in recent years countries from Finland to India have devised national strategies to respond to the technology’s spread across the world, focusing on measures to ensure investments in the field are prioritised and current workforces are skilled up to meet its demands.

Companies around the world have also expressed their intention to apply AI within their organisations in the next few years, even if sorely missing is discussions on the ethics around it.

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Against such a backdrop, the joint efforts of Germany, France and Japan to chart a pathway to ethical AI development are not just timely but much needed.

Sangenstedt said the joint funding call is right now just a pilot, “but possibly it will be the starting point for a discussion about regular calls.”

Applications close this October 25.