Interview with Patricia Karvelas, Breakfast, ABC Radio National

Patricia Karvelas
Monitoring high-risk AI technologies; Julian Assange to return to Australia; Humanitarian crisis in Rafah.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Artificial Intelligence is developing and expanding rapidly with governments globally scrambling to keep up to make sure their citizens are protected. The EU and the United States are implementing legislation; in Australia, the Minister in charge has tasked an Expert Panel to help decide how the country should respond to and monitor the most high-risk AI technologies.

Ed Husic is the Minister for Industry and Science, and he joins me now from our Parliament House studio. Minister, welcome back to the program.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: I was going to say Happy New Year, but that would be embarrassing, wouldn't it?

ED HUSIC: We've gone beyond the Statute of Limitations for that greeting, sorry.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Facial recognition technology, along with the use of AI in employment and health are considered high risk. What sort of damage could that technology do here?

ED HUSIC: I think the concern is on a number of levels. I mean the best way to summarise it is, does it impact on people's future prospects or their health? In some cases, the use of artificial intelligence in employment scenarios, for instance, has raised the concern that people might get a job based on AI that is tethered to bad data, that is biased or deficient. There are concerns that it might be used in terms of cognitive behavioural manipulation, for example, use in toys with kids, biometric facial recognition and social scoring, which we've seen in different countries.

So, these risks have been identified, and what you're seeing in different jurisdictions is governments thinking, well, how do we, one, identify and manage those risks, and that's what we've been trying to be doing at the moment.

Since the second half of last year, we started consultations on the safe responsible use of AI, in January I released our interim response, this month I've released details, just yesterday, of people we've brought together to do the work of the development of the mandatory guardrail to help manage and respond to those risks.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There are concerns AI can produce biased results that reflect already entrenched inequalities, right, like racism, for instance, is a big one that's been raised.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: That would occur in high-risk and low-risk scenarios too. How can you deal with that?

ED HUSIC: I think it's important that people recognise at the start that AI is not some sort of magical tool that miraculously comes up with predictions or outcomes. It is absolutely grounded on the data that is fed to it by people, and those datasets, you need to pay close attention to.

There have been concerns in times past where, for example, law enforcement has used AI in years past to try and determine likely legal infractions or breaks of the law, breaches of the law, and its overwhelmingly targeted certain groups of people, particularly in a racial context.

So we do have to be alive to the fact that the data you put in influences the output that you receive out of AI, and what the concern now is, is because the phenomenal power that AI has been able to achieve in the last year, particularly through generative AI, and the use of what are known as "large language models", everyone has now taken a step back and gone, "Okay, we really need to think deeply as governments about what we do."  

And in the Australian context, I mean, I think everyone recognises AI, if used correctly, can have huge benefit, and it's got potential huge economic benefit, but there are a lot of people that won't use it because of trust, and we've got to deal with those trust issues so we get the best out of AI.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You're looking at a voluntary set of standards for the industry, but the European Union and the United States are actually legislating, and the Productivity Commission has recommended a proper regulatory approach because the technology is so far-reaching. Why are you looking at voluntary frameworks?

ED HUSIC: Let's just be clear. I mean in the in the EU case, Patricia, they are while waiting for their AI Act to come into effect. They are looking at a voluntary mechanism in the interim as well. And, we are doing two things, and I just need to emphasise and clarify here, we are working with industry on voluntary safety standards, and it is important to work with industry, particularly those at the leading edge, to see how we can improve testing, transparency and accountability. So we're working on that.

But the mandatory guardrails, we'll be looking at how we embed those within either existing pieces of legislation or if we need to do our own legislation or there are other regulatory measures that need to be undertaken to give effect to those guardrails.

So, it's two things that are happening, Patricia; it's the development in the interim, so we can get moving on it for those voluntary guardrails, or standards, I should say, while we develop the mandatory ones.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so there will be mandatory. So how soon will you be able to legislate that? Give me a timeframe for the mandatory part.

ED HUSIC: So, we've asked this expert group that is made of a very high calibre bunch of people from legal, technology, ethical backgrounds, people who have been monitoring the technology for quite some time. We've tasked them to identify risk and also mitigation, and we've asked them to do it by the end of June. So, we expect that that work - we want that work to happen relatively quickly.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Australian Human Rights Commission has argued for an AI Safety Commissioner in 2021. Will you do it?

ED HUSIC: Let's wait and see. I think we've got some - if I can put it to you, we've identified some clear courses of work. We want that to happen relatively quickly. We'll take on board obviously, and I'll always remain open-minded and appreciate the input we get from different corners in terms of what we need to do.

My preference is that we get on with the work that we've identified, and also acknowledge that a lot of my colleagues are thinking deeply about this issue too and that they're working in their different areas about the impacts of AI in their space, be it the Attorney General looking at copyright and AI, I know the Employment Minister is thinking about the impact of AI on jobs, the Communications Minister is looking at online safety with the eSafety Commissioner, so we do have a lot of work that's happening to deal with some of these things that we understand the public's got concerns about and they want greater assurance and confidence about.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yesterday something quite significant happened. Independent MP, Andrew Wilkie, had a motion urging the US and UK to allow Julian Assange to return to Australia, and it passed the House of Reps. That's because your Government supported it. Why did you decide to do it?

ED HUSIC: I think the Prime Minister has been expressing a view for quite some time as members of our Government had, that it's about time that we resolve this matter, it's gone on for long enough, and I think it just reflects what we've expressed publicly.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why do you want him home?

ED HUSIC: Well, it's been 12 years now between being in exile in effect, or in house detention in that Ecuadorian Embassy in the UK serving, you know, being in prison, and trying to get this resolution moving. There hasn't been any other action that's taken effect or been activated against Mr Assange, and I just think, as many people have, and have said this quite publicly, that it's now time to end this.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I just want to move to another issue, Minister, that you've spoken about, and that is of course the war in the Middle East. You've said the Government has been sending a strong signal of its concern of a military ground invasion in Rafah in the South of Gaza. What more should the Government be doing? How concerned are you about this potential ground invasion, but also the military strikes?

ED HUSIC: Well, I mean I - when you think about what is happening right now, I mean more broadly over the last few months, this has been a humanitarian catastrophe, but it's a particular crisis given that you've got about 1.5 million people crammed into an area in Rafah that's about the size of Heathrow Airport.

These are people that have left homes that have been just completely destroyed. They've gone - this will be potentially the third or fourth safe zone; this was set up as a safe zone to create refuge for people, and it's now being potentially targeted for military action, and there are a lot of women and children that are in that area right now, and the international community has been speaking up, and Australia has been a voice saying that you cannot conceivably go in there and conduct military action in that last area where everyone has been told, "Move here, it will be safe here" and now they'll undertake military action.

There is a, as I said, it is heartbreaking to see the humanitarian crisis that's unfolded there; no sanitation, no housing, no food, no water, no functioning medical system in there, and the whole notion that you would conduct military action in there with vulnerable people, particularly women and children, is unfathomable.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The US is asking Israel to formulate a credible plan for an assault in Rafah. Do you believe there is any credible way?

ED HUSIC: It's hard to see how you can. As I said, this is an area the size of Heathrow Airport where 1.5 million people are being crammed in. How do you undertake military exercise in there? I mean, I think about 80 per cent of the Gazan population, 1.75 million people, they've got nowhere to live, and there are a lot of them that have now moved into Rafah.

And on top of that, what Palestinian people, and particularly children, like one - as John Lyons has said, we can't look away, this is your - the ABC's Global Affairs Editor, has pointed out, you know, every 15 minutes a Palestinian child dies; one in 10 of the children that have died didn't make their first birthday.

These statistics, these are not numbers, these are people, and these are people whose futures have been ended, and there are life-and-death decisions that are potentially being made by the Israeli Government in an area where people are vulnerable. And I just cannot see how you do a credible plan to protect civilians undertaking military action in that area where civilians are crammed in in that way, and I think the Israeli Government cannot ignore international opinion, and particularly from some of its closest allies and friends, like the US, for instance.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is it ignoring international opinion and its friends' advice?

ED HUSIC: Well, it appears to be. I mean let's be frank. I think if you've now got a US President that has expressed the view that the action that is being taken is over the top, that is very serious language for a US President to express, and I think - I don't want to - I mean obviously it's not my role to interpret the underpinnings or the assumptions driving the expression of that statement, but I think there is a degree of concern that the Israeli Government is not listening, and people are very conscious, as I said, of the statistics that I just mentioned to you before, and the fact that you know, 70 per cent of the people who've lost their lives, who've been killed as a result of this military action in Gaza have been women and children. People are just very conscious that that is, one, unacceptable, and two, cannot continue. We're now at 30,000 people who've been killed as a result of this military action in Gaza.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There are people who would like to see the aid to UNRWA restored, the Australian Government still hasn't announced that. When's that going to happen?

ED HUSIC: I'm very keen, and I think you've seen the Foreign Minister express a keenness for this to happen as quickly as possible. You know, in terms of UNRWA, they are the principal mechanism by which humanitarian aid is delivered into this part of the world, and they have had their funds suspended. So that means there is no one else that is able, credibly to extend humanitarian assistance in an area, as I've said, where there's no sanitation, food, water, medicine, and we need to get that moving as quickly as possible.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But why hasn't it been restored then, if that's the argument?

ED HUSIC: Well, look, the concerns are legitimate and real, that there may have been workers in there, in that agency, that assisted Hamas, undertake its brutal activities on October 7, and so that is a very serious allegation, and people who have been found to do that have to be absolutely held to account.

So, you know, I understand the UN is undertaking those investigations, and as soon as those are done, the better, because we do need to have that humanitarian assistance flowing, and in the absence - while Israel's been very successful, obviously, in getting countries to take that issue seriously, and you've seen that defunding occur, I think Israel - the Israeli Government's got a responsibility too, in that case, to step in and provide humanitarian assistance, or allow that assistance, I should say, to flow in there while these other matters are being resolved, and I think there is a focus and a determination, particularly within our Government, to get this resolved as quickly as we can, and I'm certain one of those voices that is expressing the need for that to occur as quickly as possible.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you a Swifty?

ED HUSIC: No, I'm not, I'm afraid.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Oh, I just wanted to know whether you were a Swifty. Who's your favourite band?

ED HUSIC: I respect - I am not going into my musical tastes, because I am one of the world's greatest dags, and I just don't feel like that is a safe area for me to talk about on RN Breakfast.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You like Nirvana. Ed Husic there    


PATRICIA KARVELAS:    Minister for Industry and Science joining us this morning, and always good to get a lighter side of Ed Husic as well, because there's some pretty serious and heavy news to talk about this morning. You're listening to RN Breakfast.