After three days at CogX in London, the world's biggest "Festival of Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology", I came away with the view that New Zealand has the potential to keep pace with the world's AI leaders but needs continued focus on investment to
At CogX, I rubbed shoulders with 15,000 delegates, listening to world experts on 10 stages spread throughout the completely transformed Kings Cross district, at what is billed as the "Glastonbury of Tech" (complete with mud in an atrocious British summer).
Our relatively small AI community is well progressed in many conversations including open data, ethics, false media, the future of work and regulation. However, we fall down in AI investment.
For anyone with eyes on the future, CogX was akin to a rock festival when your three favourite bands are playing on different stages at the same time - it was impossible to tick everything off my list. Topics covered included AI applications for healthcare, infrastructure, finance and economy, agriculture and security, all areas where AI innovation in New Zealand is happening.
In particular, this year's event focused on how new technology such as AI can support the delivery of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals - the overarching message was that AI is a fundamental new tool to help solve the world's major development challenges whether social, environmental or how we feed ourselves.
World leading economists, researchers, technologists (including our own Dr Mark Sagar, CEO of Soul Machines), business leaders and ethicists demonstrated the latest machine learning research, conversational tech and human-machine interfaces and discussed investment strategy, venture capital and the future of work. Another highlight was a discussion with the world's first "Minister for Artificial Intelligence" from the United Arab Emirates.
Panels covered the increasing sophistication of "Data Trusts" to manage complex data rights issues, as well as the constant need for debate on regulation, safety and ethics. Getting these settings right in New Zealand will be crucial for supporting a successful Kiwi
Of note is the sheer volume of AI investment underway globally - including the UK government's £1bn "AI Sector Deal" which includes £100 million for 1,000 new AI PhDs, a new fellowship scheme for researchers and up to 2,500 places in AI and data masters conversion courses. This key policy lever to nurture AI talent has the potential to tip the scales in the UK's favour.
I left CogX inspired by what is happening globally and reflecting on what this means for New Zealand:
Our relatively small AI community is well progressed in many conversations including open data, ethics, false media, the future of work and regulation. However, we fall down in AI investment – both private (venture capital) and public (strategic Government investment), together with talent development and attraction.
There's a deepening international AI talent crunch and an urgent need to attract and retain experts here - the UK is showing the way.
"Data Trusts" have potential to resolve complex data rights issues and should be actively explored. (The recent initiative by Stats NZ to provide up to date population density information based on location-based cellphone data is a move in this direction).
And finally, two global "AI hemispheres" are emerging – "The West" and China, with very different settings around AI ethics and individual privacy. Arguably the Chinese approach enables AI innovation to progress and deploy faster at a much larger scale, but at what cost? New Zealand has an opportunity to play a role by facilitating dialogue among these two traditions and find common ground.
New Zealand's economic, environmental and social future will depend on leveraging new technologies - in particular AI - to improve wellbeing outcomes in the face of rapid competitive international investment. We are certainly achieving - but could do better.
* Ben Reid is executive director of The AI Forum of New Zealand and attended CogX in London on June 10-12