COLLABORATION

Australia-led global project wants to ensure robots make better decisions

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Autonomous decision-making technologies are changing the way we live and work. But are we using them right?


By U2B Staff 

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Experts from Australia and around the world in the humanities, social and technological sciences are collaborating on a government-funded initiative to investigate how automated decision-making technologies can be used safely and ethically.

Australia’s Education Minister Dan Tehan announced Wednesday that the government is providing AU$31.8 million in funding to set up the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society for this purpose.

The centre will be hosted at RMIT University, with the research initiative to be led by RMIT Professor Julian Thomas.

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“This exciting new centre will be the only one of its kind, and RMIT is proud to host it,” RMIT Vice-Chancellor and President Martin Bean CBE said.

“We have a long history of operating at the intersection of technology and the human experience and, working closely with industry and other partners around the world, we’re focused on improving life for our communities in a time of constant change.

“We are delighted that the centre encapsulates RMIT’s approach to tackling challenging problems in both policy and practice.”

Tehan noted that automated decision-making technology already powers self-driving cars, as well as algorithms used to make medical diagnoses and business decisions.

He said the technology has great potential to improve efficiencies across various industries in both the public and private sectors. 

“However, as with all technology, it is prudent to explore how to mitigate any possible risks,” he said.

“Our government is funding research into automated decision-making to ensure this technology provides the best possible outcomes for society and industry.

“Researchers will formulate world-leading policy and practice, inform public debate, and train a new generation of researchers and practitioners.”

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Professor Thomas said the global research project would help ensure machine-learning and automated decision-making technologies are used responsibly, ethically and inclusively. He agreed that from artificial intelligence to blockchain and big data, automated systems are already transforming daily lives.

However, unfettered use and abuse of these systems could pose substantial risks to humanity. AI experts regularly warn of the harms of algorithm bias, a phenomenon that occurs when human prejudices inadvertently corrupt machine decision-making.

Eliminating these biases is essential because machine learning is used to make business decisions that ultimately affect humans, such as during job interviews or even in medical environments.

Earlier this year, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers discovered that many of the artificially intelligence systems designed to help autonomous cars navigate roads were unable to identify pedestrians with darker skin tones. 

“New systems offer enormous benefits in many areas but they also pose substantial risks to our privacy and security, and to our welfare as citizens and consumers.

“We urgently need a much deeper understanding of the potential risks of the new technologies, and the best strategies for mitigating these risks,” Professor Thomas said. 

“Working with international partners and industry, the research will help Australians gain the full benefits of these new technologies, from better mobility, to improving our responses to humanitarian emergencies.”

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The research initiative will see RMIT experts working with their counterparts in seven other Australian universities and 22 academic and industry partner organisations from Australia, Europe, Asia and America. 

Together, they will pump in a further AU$39.3 million in cash and in-kind support for the initiative, in addition to access to top national and international facilities, systems and research expertise.

The Australian universities involved are: Monash University, University of Melbourne, Swinburne University, Queensland University of Technology, University of Queensland, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales.

Foreign participants are the University of Oxford, University of Birmingham, Cornell University, New York University, University of Maryland, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, Hans-Bredow-Institut, University of Hamburg, Halmstad University, Sweden.

The who’s who of industry will also offer research expertise. These include Google Australia, Volvo, Australian Red Cross Society, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Council of Social Service, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network Limited, Consumers Health Forum of Australia, Victorian Information Commissioner, Bendigo Hospital, Max Kelsen, Consumer Policy Research Centre, Data + Society Research Institute (US), Digital Asia Hub (Hong Kong), Algorithm Watch (Germany).