Canada, France Plan Global Panel to Study the Effects of AI

In 1988, the US and other nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to study and respond to consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. In Montreal on Thursday, the governments of France and Canada said they will establish a similar group to study and respond to the global changes being wrought by artificial intelligence technology. They say the panel is needed to rein in unethical uses of AI and minimize the risk of economic disruption such as job losses caused by automation.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced plans for the International Panel on Artificial Intelligence with the French minister for digital affairs, Mounir Mahjoubi. Trudeau has launched several programs to advance Canadian investment in AI in recent years, and he said he also wants to lead in considering the technology’s potential downsides. “If Canada is to become a world leader in AI, we must also play a lead role in addressing some of the ethical concerns we will face in this area,” Trudeau said.

In an interview, Mahjoubi said that discussions were already taking place with other members of the Group of Seven, the club of the world’s largest industrialized economies. He expressed confidence that European Union members outside the G7 would be interested in the panel.

Mahjoubi and Trudeau discussed their hopes for the panel at a G7 conference on AI that convened academics, officials, and industry representatives to discuss the opportunities and challenges created by the technology. US officials were among those attending. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said in a statement last week that it hoped to use the event to “promote strategies that maintain America’s leadership in AI, while at the same time maintaining civil liberties, privacy, and American values.”

Canada currently holds the G7’s rotating presidency. It will pass to France in 2019, when Mahjoubi said he hopes to codify the new body and its membership. After many positive discussions with Trudeau and his government, Mahjoubi said, it’s time for “delivery.”

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Trudeau and French president Emmanuel Macron first announced their interest in creating an international forum for the study of artificial intelligence in June but gave few details and left the initiative nameless.

On Thursday, Mahjoubi said IPAI would be modeled on the IPCC and bring together policy experts with researchers in AI, humanities, and the social sciences. A proposed mandate from Trudeau’s office says the group would issue reports aimed at guiding the development of policies that could keep AI technology grounded in human rights. It lists several areas of interest, including how data for AI projects is collected and accessed, the effect of AI on human rights, and whether people trust AI technology. The group will also discuss military uses of AI.

Mahjoubi said “it’s possible” that IPAI would eventually issue rules or guidance on artificial intelligence technology or policy, similar to how IPCC studies have led to agreements to limit carbon emissions. But he stressed that, to start, the new panel’s purpose would be to study the many technical and social challenges. “It’s important that we have an international place where we can discuss all the impacts of AI in the transformation of society,” he said.

The prospect of a global body scrutinizing AI projects and development might seem unwelcome to businesses racing to develop the technology. Mahjoubi argued that failing to consider AI’s disruptive potential would in fact harm the technology’s development. “If you don’t invest in responsibility around AI, you will create resistance and resentment in the population,” Mahjoubi said. “Then you will go slower.”

Jean-François Gagné, CEO of Element AI, the Montreal startup that hosted Thursday’s event, agrees. He’s supportive of the IPAI project and even says that well-crafted rules or guidelines that constrain headlong AI development in areas such as finance or health care could help young companies like his in the long term. “I actually want that—even at the detriment of growing 20 percent faster in the short term—so we don’t get into a situation where people reject this technology,” Gagné said. “To foster innovation you need to present a safe and stable environment.”

Some larger companies hoping to generate profits from AI appear to agree. Also on Thursday, Microsoft president Brad Smith urged governments to regulate facial-recognition technology to avoid a “race to the bottom” that leads to privacy invasions and new forms of discrimination.

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