Category Archives: science policy

Canadian Science Policy Centre: a 2024 Canadian federal budget event and a call for 2024 conference proposals *(deadline extension)*

2024 Canadian federal budget event

Canada’s 2024 federal budget will be presented on April 16, 2024, according to this March 4, 2024 Government of Canada media advisory. About two weeks later the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) will host their annual budget symposium (Decoding Budget 2024 for Science and Innovation). Here’s more from the March 28, 2024 CSPC announcement (received via email),

The CSPC Budget Symposium will be held on Wednesday May 1, 2024 starting at 12pm. The Symposium will feature a detailed budget analysis presented by David Watters and Omer Kaya from Global Advantage Consulting Group followed by panel discussions with leaders from across the country, representing academic, business, and non-profit sectors.

Details

Date: May 1 [2024]
Time: 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm EDT
Event Category: Virtual Session
Registration Page: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Zu0_hqZaRZuADWwT7y5rIw

Venue

Zoom

Organizer

Canadian Science Policy Centre
Email info@sciencepolicy.ca

Mark your calendar to be part of insightful discussions around the Federal Budget 2024!

Register Now

Kaya and Watters were both scheduled to speak at last year’s (2023) federal budget symposium and both have been guest speakers in years previous to 2023. Presumably more speakers and specific topics will be identified as the May 1, 2024 budget symposium draws nearer.

2024 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC): call for proposals

I gather the conference organizers (the Canadian Science Policy Centre) are short of ‘panel proposals’ but have enough ‘short talk proposals’ as the the March 28, 2024 CSPC announcement (received via email) highlights the panels only,

Call for Panel Proposals, Three Weeks
Left to the Deadline: April 19, 2024 *(extended to April 26, 2024)*

The call for proposals is open with only 3 weeks left until the submission deadline of Friday, April 19, 2024. We invite you to submit proposals that revolve around any of the conference’s six tracks. The theme and topics can be viewed by clicking here, and the submission criteria and panel formats on our website at the link below.

CSPC 2024 Panel Proposal Submission

I have a few details about the 2024 conference, from the CSPC 2024 webpage,

16th Canadian Science Policy Conference

November 20th-22nd, 2024, at the Westin Ottawa hotel

CSPC 2024 Theme:

Empowering Society: The Transformative Value of Science, Knowledge, and Innovation

The 16th Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC 2024), will be held in person on November 20th – 22nd, 2024. The conference expects 1000+ participants, more than 300 speakers, in 60 panel sessions. CSPC 2024 will also include a spectacular Gala dinner featuring its award ceremony which has become a signature annual event to celebrate Canadian science and innovation policy achievements.

We invite you to submit proposals in a variety of presentation formats that revolve around any of the conference topics. …

Track One: Science, Knowledge, and Policy

*The national STI ecosystem: Strategy for the next ten years; building on strengths and opportunities; addressing weaknesses
*Managing the evolving/changing research landscape: AI, Open Science
*Evidence for policy
*Science policy futures

Track Two: Science, Knowledge, and Society


*Systemic racism, otherism

*Science, Knowledge, and Truth and Reconciliation
*Ethics of emerging technologies

*Citizen Scientist

Track Three: Innovation Policy and Economic Development

*Emerging economic opportunities
*Emerging and disruptive technologies

*Scale up and commercialization

Track Four: Science, International Affairs and Security


*Science diplomacy, research security and geopolitics
*Scientists on the move

Track Five: Science and the Next Generation


*Enabling the next generation of researchers with non-research skills
*Trainees’ well-being
*Grassroots science policy networks, opportunities and lessons learned

Track Six: Grand Challenges – Adaptation, Resilience, Canada’s Role

*Climate change
*The North
*Food, agriculture, water

For details about proposal submissions for either a short talk or a panel, go to the 2024 CSPC proposal webpage. If you’re curious about previous conferences, you can find the proceedings for the 2023 CSPC here.

*Deadline for 2024 CSPC conference proposals extended to April 26, 2024.*

Who owns prehistory? The relationship between science and sovereignty

Brachiopod (photo taken in Alberta, Canada). Courtesy: AlbertaWow.com

This February 28, 2024 news item on phys.org takes the discussion about appropriating cultural artifacts out of the world of art and into museum fossil collections , Note: Links have been removed,

Many museums and other cultural institutions in the West have faced, in recent years, demands for artistic repatriation. The Elgin Marbles, currently housed in the British Museum, are perhaps the most prominent subject of this charge, with numerous appeals having been made for their return to their original home in Greece.

Taking up the issue of cultural imperialism is a new article in Isis [journal of the History of Science Society],.

“Fossils and Sovereignty: Science Diplomacy and the Politics of Deep Time in the Sino-American Fossil Dispute of the 1920s” by author Hsiao-pei Yen, narrates the controversy surrounding paleontological excavation in the interwar period through a conflict between the American Museum of Natural History and the emerging Chinese scientific nationalist movement, and, ultimately, examines the place of fossil ownership in global politics.

A February 28, 2024 (?) University of Chicago Press news release, which originated the news item, delves further into the topic,

In the early decades of the 20th century, many scientists were convinced that the key to understanding human origins, the so-called “missing link,” could be found in Central Asia. A delegation from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was sent to the Gobi Desert in search of this great intellectual prize and failed to find any evidence of human ancestry in the region, but, over the course of the first half of the 1920s, sent many other valuable fossils and archaeological relics back to the United States. In 1928, however, amidst the changing political landscape of Chiang Kai-shek’s revolutionary reunification of China, the Americans were frustrated to discover that their findings had been detained under orders of the Beijing Society for the Preservation of Cultural Objects (SPCO). The resulting negotiations between the Americans and the Chinese inspired conflicting perspectives not only regarding the ownership of these prehistoric remains, but also the very nature of the relationship between fossils and sovereignty.

Nationalists in China were keen to correct the historical imbalance in treaties concerning trade between their country and rich Western nations. The debate over the fate of relics uncovered in China represented a unique opportunity to reclaim a measure of autonomy. As Yen writes, “The antiquities were deemed priceless national treasures not only because they were a link to China’s past but because … they were also resources of cultural capital with high academic value as research objects that would enable native scholars to establish and develop their own knowledge framework.” The representatives of the AMNH and those of the SPCO initially agreed to share botanical, zoological, and mineral specimens, while all archaeological materials and invertebrate fossils were to be kept in China, and all vertebrate fossils sent to America, with duplicates returning to their home country. The AMNH was insistent on this distinction between archaeological remains and fossils. Paleontological fossils, they claimed, “were formed in geological time and had no historical or cultural attachment to the people of the place where they were found.” As a result, argued the AMNH, they could be exported and retained by representatives of any country.

Following this agreement, however, the Chinese government called for a reclassification of fossils as sovereign property. This decision, part of a “vertical turn” in geopolitical history, was summarized by one government official: “’the territory of a nation-state is not limited to the surface. The terrain up to the sky and down to the subterranean should all be included in the national domain.’” As of 1930, China rejected the interpretation of fossils and the geological time they represented as universal, and therefore easily exploitable by more powerful countries, and claimed them instead as local, and contingent. The protections around Chinese fossils by no means limited the production of knowledge surrounding their discovery, but meant, instead, that the Chinese state had more control over their study and their diplomatic applications. The author concludes, “A vertical sensitivity enacted a new political and temporal imagination: geoscience and Earth history might be universal, but they should be explored within national boundaries.”

Since its inception in 1912, Isis has featured scholarly articles, research notes, and commentary on the history of science, medicine, and technology and their cultural influences. Review essays and book reviews on new contributions to the discipline are also included. An official publication of the History of Science Society, Isis is the oldest English-language journal in the field.

Founded in 1924, the History of Science Society is the world’s largest society dedicated to understanding science, technology, medicine, and their interactions with society in historical context.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Fossils and Sovereignty: Science Diplomacy and the Politics of Deep Time in the Sino-American Fossil Dispute of the 1920s by Hsiao-pei Yen. Isis Volume 115, Number 1 March 2024 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/729176

This paper is behind a paywall.

Neural (brain) implants and hype (long read)

There was a big splash a few weeks ago when it was announced that Neuralink’s (Elon Musk company) brain implant had been surgically inserted into its first human patient.

Getting approval

David Tuffley, senior lecturer in Applied Ethics & CyberSecurity at Griffith University (Australia), provides a good overview of the road Neuralink took to getting FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval for human clinical trials in his May 29, 2023 essay for The Conversation, Note: Links have been removed,

Since its founding in 2016, Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink has had the ambitious mission to build a next-generation brain implant with at least 100 times more brain connections than devices currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The company has now reached a significant milestone, having received FDA approval to begin human trials. So what were the issues keeping the technology in the pre-clinical trial phase for as long as it was? And have these concerns been addressed?

Neuralink is making a Class III medical device known as a brain-computer interface (BCI). The device connects the brain to an external computer via a Bluetooth signal, enabling continuous communication back and forth.

The device itself is a coin-sized unit called a Link. It’s implanted within a small disk-shaped cutout in the skull using a precision surgical robot. The robot splices a thousand tiny threads from the Link to certain neurons in the brain. [emphasis mine] Each thread is about a quarter the diameter of a human hair.

The company says the device could enable precise control of prosthetic limbs, giving amputees natural motor skills. It could revolutionise treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries. It also shows some promise for potential treatment of obesity, autism, depression, schizophrenia and tinnitus.

Several other neurotechnology companies and researchers have already developed BCI technologies that have helped people with limited mobility regain movement and complete daily tasks.

In February 2021, Musk said Neuralink was working with the FDA to secure permission to start initial human trials later that year. But human trials didn’t commence in 2021.

Then, in March 2022, Neuralink made a further application to the FDA to establish its readiness to begin humans trials.

One year and three months later, on May 25 2023, Neuralink finally received FDA approval for its first human clinical trial. Given how hard Neuralink has pushed for permission to begin, we can assume it will begin very soon. [emphasis mine]

The approval has come less than six months after the US Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into Neuralink over potential animal welfare violations. [emphasis mine]

In accessible language, Tuffley goes on to discuss the FDA’s specific technical issues with implants and how they were addressed in his May 29, 2023 essay.

More about how Neuralink’s implant works and some concerns

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) journalist Andrew Chang offers an almost 13 minute video, “Neuralink brain chip’s first human patient. How does it work?” Chang is a little overenthused for my taste but he offers some good information about neural implants, along with informative graphics in his presentation.

So, Tuffley was right about Neuralink getting ready quickly for human clinical trials as you can guess from the title of Chang’s CBC video.

Jennifer Korn announced that recruitment had started in her September 20, 2023 article for CNN (Cable News Network), Note: Links have been removed,

Elon Musk’s controversial biotechnology startup Neuralink opened up recruitment for its first human clinical trial Tuesday, according to a company blog.

After receiving approval from an independent review board, Neuralink is set to begin offering brain implants to paralysis patients as part of the PRIME Study, the company said. PRIME, short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, is being carried out to evaluate both the safety and functionality of the implant.

Trial patients will have a chip surgically placed in the part of the brain that controls the intention to move. The chip, installed by a robot, will then record and send brain signals to an app, with the initial goal being “to grant people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone,” the company wrote.

Those with quadriplegia [sometimes known as tetraplegia] due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) may qualify for the six-year-long study – 18 months of at-home and clinic visits followed by follow-up visits over five years. Interested people can sign up in the patient registry on Neuralink’s website.

Musk has been working on Neuralink’s goal of using implants to connect the human brain to a computer for five years, but the company so far has only tested on animals. The company also faced scrutiny after a monkey died in project testing in 2022 as part of efforts to get the animal to play Pong, one of the first video games.

I mentioned three Reuters investigative journalists who were reporting on Neuralink’s animal abuse allegations (emphasized in Tuffley’s essay) in a July 7, 2023 posting, “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology on July 13, 2023 led by UNESCO.” Later that year, Neuralink was cleared by the US Department of Agriculture (see September 24,, 2023 article by Mahnoor Jehangir for BNN Breaking).

Plus, Neuralink was being investigated over more allegations according to a February 9, 2023 article by Rachel Levy for Reuters, this time regarding hazardous pathogens,

The U.S. Department of Transportation said on Thursday it is investigating Elon Musk’s brain-implant company Neuralink over the potentially illegal movement of hazardous pathogens.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson told Reuters about the probe after the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an animal-welfare advocacy group,wrote to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, opens new tab earlier on Thursday to alert it of records it obtained on the matter.

PCRM said it obtained emails and other documents that suggest unsafe packaging and movement of implants removed from the brains of monkeys. These implants may have carried infectious diseases in violation of federal law, PCRM said.

There’s an update about the hazardous materials in the next section. Spoiler alert, the company got fined.

Neuralink’s first human implant

A January 30, 2024 article (Associated Press with files from Reuters) on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news webspace heralded the latest about Neurlink’s human clinical trials,

The first human patient received an implant from Elon Musk’s computer-brain interface company Neuralink over the weekend, the billionaire says.

In a post Monday [January 29, 2024] on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Musk said that the patient received the implant the day prior and was “recovering well.” He added that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection.”

Spikes are activity by neurons, which the National Institutes of Health describe as cells that use electrical and chemical signals to send information around the brain and to the body.

The billionaire, who owns X and co-founded Neuralink, did not provide additional details about the patient.

When Neuralink announced in September [2023] that it would begin recruiting people, the company said it was searching for individuals with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Neuralink reposted Musk’s Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, but did not publish any additional statements acknowledging the human implant. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press or Reuters on Tuesday [January 30, 2024].

In a separate Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, Musk said that the first Neuralink product is called “Telepathy” — which, he said, will enable users to control their phones or computers “just by thinking.” He said initial users would be those who have lost use of their limbs.

The startup’s PRIME Study is a trial for its wireless brain-computer interface to evaluate the safety of the implant and surgical robot.

Now for the hazardous materials, January 30, 2024 article, Note: A link has been removed,

Earlier this month [January 2024], a Reuters investigation found that Neuralink was fined for violating U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rules regarding the movement of hazardous materials. During inspections of the company’s facilities in Texas and California in February 2023, DOT investigators found the company had failed to register itself as a transporter of hazardous material.

They also found improper packaging of hazardous waste, including the flammable liquid Xylene. Xylene can cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, loss of muscle co-ordination and even death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The records do not say why Neuralink would need to transport hazardous materials or whether any harm resulted from the violations.

Skeptical thoughts about Elon Musk and Neuralink

Earlier this month (February 2024), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published an article by health reporters, Jim Reed and Joe McFadden, that highlights the history of brain implants, the possibilities, and notes some of Elon Musk’s more outrageous claims for Neuralink’s brain implants,

Elon Musk is no stranger to bold claims – from his plans to colonise Mars to his dreams of building transport links underneath our biggest cities. This week the world’s richest man said his Neuralink division had successfully implanted its first wireless brain chip into a human.

Is he right when he says this technology could – in the long term – save the human race itself?

Sticking electrodes into brain tissue is really nothing new.

In the 1960s and 70s electrical stimulation was used to trigger or suppress aggressive behaviour in cats. By the early 2000s monkeys were being trained to move a cursor around a computer screen using just their thoughts.

“It’s nothing novel, but implantable technology takes a long time to mature, and reach a stage where companies have all the pieces of the puzzle, and can really start to put them together,” says Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of active implantable medical devices, at King’s College London.

Neuralink is one of a growing number of companies and university departments attempting to refine and ultimately commercialise this technology. The focus, at least to start with, is on paralysis and the treatment of complex neurological conditions.

Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article describes a few of the other brain implant efforts, Note: Links have been removed,

One of its [Neuralink’s] main rivals, a start-up called Synchron backed by funding from investment firms controlled by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, has already implanted its stent-like device into 10 patients.

Back in December 2021, Philip O’Keefe, a 62-year old Australian who lives with a form of motor neurone disease, composed the first tweet using just his thoughts to control a cursor.

And researchers at Lausanne University in Switzerland have shown it is possible for a paralysed man to walk again by implanting multiple devices to bypass damage caused by a cycling accident.

In a research paper published this year, they demonstrated a signal could be beamed down from a device in his brain to a second device implanted at the base of his spine, which could then trigger his limbs to move.

Some people living with spinal injuries are sceptical about the sudden interest in this new kind of technology.

“These breakthroughs get announced time and time again and don’t seem to be getting any further along,” says Glyn Hayes, who was paralysed in a motorbike accident in 2017, and now runs public affairs for the Spinal Injuries Association.

If I could have anything back, it wouldn’t be the ability to walk. It would be putting more money into a way of removing nerve pain, for example, or ways to improve bowel, bladder and sexual function.” [emphasis mine]

Musk, however, is focused on something far more grand for Neuralink implants, from Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article, Note: A link has been removed,

But for Elon Musk, “solving” brain and spinal injuries is just the first step for Neuralink.

The longer-term goal is “human/AI symbiosis” [emphasis mine], something he describes as “species-level important”.

Musk himself has already talked about a future where his device could allow people to communicate with a phone or computer “faster than a speed typist or auctioneer”.

In the past, he has even said saving and replaying memories may be possible, although he recognised “this is sounding increasingly like a Black Mirror episode.”

One of the experts quoted in Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article asks a pointed question,

… “At the moment, I’m struggling to see an application that a consumer would benefit from, where they would take the risk of invasive surgery,” says Prof Vanhoestenberghe.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, would you risk brain surgery just to be able to order a pizza on your phone?”

Rae Hodge’s February 11, 2024 article about Elon Musk and his hyped up Neuralink implant for Salon is worth reading in its entirety but for those who don’t have the time or need a little persuading, here are a few excerpts, Note 1: This is a warning; Hodge provides more detail about the animal cruelty allegations; Note 2: Links have been removed,

Elon Musk’s controversial brain-computer interface (BCI) tech, Neuralink, has supposedly been implanted in its first recipient — and as much as I want to see progress for treatment of paralysis and neurodegenerative disease, I’m not celebrating. I bet the neuroscientists he reportedly drove out of the company aren’t either, especially not after seeing the gruesome torture of test monkeys and apparent cover-up that paved the way for this moment. 

All of which is an ethics horror show on its own. But the timing of Musk’s overhyped implant announcement gives it an additional insulting subtext. Football players are currently in a battle for their lives against concussion-based brain diseases that plague autopsy reports of former NFL players. And Musk’s boast of false hope came just two weeks before living players take the field in the biggest and most brutal game of the year. [2024 Super Bowl LVIII]

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert reports neuro-damage is up this year as “players suffered a total of 52 concussions from the start of training camp to the beginning of the regular season. The combined total of 213 preseason and regular season concussions was 14% higher than 2021 but within range of the three-year average from 2018 to 2020 (203).”

I’m a big fan of body-tech: pacemakers, 3D-printed hips and prosthetic limbs that allow you to wear your wedding ring again after 17 years. Same for brain chips. But BCI is the slow-moving front of body-tech development for good reason. The brain is too understudied. Consequences of the wrong move are dire. Overpromising marketable results on profit-driven timelines — on the backs of such a small community of researchers in a relatively new field — would be either idiotic or fiendish. 

Brown University’s research in the sector goes back to the 1990s. Since the emergence of a floodgate-opening 2002 study and the first implant in 2004 by med-tech company BrainGate, more promising results have inspired broader investment into careful research. But BrainGate’s clinical trials started back in 2009, and as noted by Business Insider’s Hilary Brueck, are expected to continue until 2038 — with only 15 participants who have devices installed. 

Anne Vanhoestenberghe is a professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London. In a recent release, she cautioned against the kind of hype peddled by Musk.

“Whilst there are a few other companies already using their devices in humans and the neuroscience community have made remarkable achievements with those devices, the potential benefits are still significantly limited by technology,” she said. “Developing and validating core technology for long term use in humans takes time and we need more investments to ensure we do the work that will underpin the next generation of BCIs.” 

Neuralink is a metal coin in your head that connects to something as flimsy as an app. And we’ve seen how Elon treats those. We’ve also seen corporate goons steal a veteran’s prosthetic legs — and companies turn brain surgeons and dentists into repo-men by having them yank anti-epilepsy chips out of people’s skulls, and dentures out of their mouths. 

“I think we have a chance with Neuralink to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury,” Musk said at a 2023 tech summit, adding that the chip could possibly “make up for whatever lost capacity somebody has.”

Maybe BCI can. But only in the careful hands of scientists who don’t have Musk squawking “go faster!” over their shoulders. His greedy frustration with the speed of BCI science is telling, as is the animal cruelty it reportedly prompted.

There have been other examples of Musk’s grandiosity. Notably, David Lee expressed skepticism about hyperloop in his August 13, 2013 article for BBC news online

Is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop just a pipe dream?

Much like the pun in the headline, the bright idea of transporting people using some kind of vacuum-like tube is neither new nor imaginative.

There was Robert Goddard, considered the “father of modern rocket propulsion”, who claimed in 1909 that his vacuum system could suck passengers from Boston to New York at 1,200mph.

And then there were Soviet plans for an amphibious monorail  – mooted in 1934  – in which two long pods would start their journey attached to a metal track before flying off the end and slipping into the water like a two-fingered Kit Kat dropped into some tea.

So ever since inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk hit the world’s media with his plans for the Hyperloop, a healthy dose of scepticism has been in the air.

“This is by no means a new idea,” says Rod Muttram, formerly of Bombardier Transportation and Railtrack.

“It has been previously suggested as a possible transatlantic transport system. The only novel feature I see is the proposal to put the tubes above existing roads.”

Here’s the latest I’ve found on hyperloop, from the Hyperloop Wikipedia entry,

As of 2024, some companies continued to pursue technology development under the hyperloop moniker, however, one of the biggest, well funded players, Hyperloop One, declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2023.[15]

Musk is impatient and impulsive as noted in a September 12, 2023 posting by Mike Masnick on Techdirt, Note: A link has been removed,

The Batshit Crazy Story Of The Day Elon Musk Decided To Personally Rip Servers Out Of A Sacramento Data Center

Back on Christmas Eve [December 24, 2022] of last year there were some reports that Elon Musk was in the process of shutting down Twitter’s Sacramento data center. In that article, a number of ex-Twitter employees were quoted about how much work it would be to do that cleanly, noting that there’s a ton of stuff hardcoded in Twitter code referring to that data center (hold that thought).

That same day, Elon tweeted out that he had “disconnected one of the more sensitive server racks.”

Masnick follows with a story of reckless behaviour from someone who should have known better.

Ethics of implants—where to look for more information

While Musk doesn’t use the term when he describes a “human/AI symbiosis” (presumably by way of a neural implant), he’s talking about a cyborg. Here’s a 2018 paper, which looks at some of the implications,

Do you want to be a cyborg? The moderating effect of ethics on neural implant acceptance by Eva Reinares-Lara, Cristina Olarte-Pascual, and Jorge Pelegrín-Borondo. Computers in Human Behavior Volume 85, August 2018, Pages 43-53 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.03.032

This paper is open access.

Getting back to Neuralink, I have two blog posts that discuss the company and the ethics of brain implants from way back in 2021.

First, there’s Jazzy Benes’ March 1, 2021 posting on the Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics blog. It stands out as it includes a discussion of the disabled community’s issues, Note: Links have been removed,

In the heart of Silicon Valley we are constantly enticed by the newest technological advances. With the big influencers Grimes [a Canadian musician and the mother of three children with Elon Musk] and Lil Uzi Vert publicly announcing their willingness to become experimental subjects for Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain implantation device, we are left wondering if future technology will actually give us “the knowledge of the Gods.” Is it part of the natural order for humans to become omniscient beings? Who will have access to the devices? What other ethical considerations must be discussed before releasing such technology to the public?

A significant issue that arises from developing technologies for the disabled community is the assumption that disabled persons desire the abilities of what some abled individuals may define as “normal.” Individuals with disabilities may object to technologies intended to make them fit an able-bodied norm. “Normal” is relative to each individual, and it could be potentially harmful to use a deficit view of disability, which means judging a disability as a deficiency. However, this is not to say that all disabled individuals will reject a technology that may enhance their abilities. Instead, I believe it is a consideration that must be recognized when developing technologies for the disabled community, and it can only be addressed through communication with disabled persons. As a result, I believe this is a conversation that must be had with the community for whom the technology is developed–disabled persons.

With technologies that aim to address disabilities, we walk a fine line between therapeutics and enhancement. Though not the first neural implant medical device, the Link may have been the first BCI system openly discussed for its potential transhumanism uses, such as “enhanced cognitive abilities, memory storage and retrieval, gaming, telepathy, and even symbiosis with machines.” …

Benes also discusses transhumanism, privacy issues, and consent issues. It’s a thoughtful reading experience.

Second is a July 9, 2021 posting by anonymous on the University of California at Berkeley School of Information blog which provides more insight into privacy and other issues associated with data collection (and introduced me to the concept of decisional interference),

As the development of microchips furthers and advances in neuroscience occur, the possibility for seamless brain-machine interfaces, where a device decodes inputs from the user’s brain to perform functions, becomes more of a reality. These various forms of these technologies already exist. However, technological advances have made implantable and portable devices possible. Imagine a future where humans don’t need to talk to each other, but rather can transmit their thoughts directly to another person. This idea is the eventual goal of Elon Musk, the founder of Neuralink. Currently, Neuralink is one of the main companies involved in the advancement of this type of technology. Analysis of the Neuralink’s technology and their overall mission statement provide an interesting insight into the future of this type of human-computer interface and the potential privacy and ethical concerns with this technology.

As this technology further develops, several privacy and ethical concerns come into question. To begin, using Solove’s Taxonomy as a privacy framework, many areas of potential harm are revealed. In the realm of information collection, there is much risk. Brain-computer interfaces, depending on where they are implanted, could have access to people’s most private thoughts and emotions. This information would need to be transmitted to another device for processing. The collection of this information by companies such as advertisers would represent a major breach of privacy. Additionally, there is risk to the user from information processing. These devices must work concurrently with other devices and often wirelessly. Given the widespread importance of cloud computing in much of today’s technology, offloading information from these devices to the cloud would be likely. Having the data stored in a database puts the user at the risk of secondary use if proper privacy policies are not implemented. The trove of information stored within the information collected from the brain is vast. These datasets could be combined with existing databases such as browsing history on Google to provide third parties with unimaginable context on individuals. Lastly, there is risk for information dissemination, more specifically, exposure. The information collected and processed by these devices would need to be stored digitally. Keeping such private information, even if anonymized, would be a huge potential for harm, as the contents of the information may in itself be re-identifiable to a specific individual. Lastly there is risk for invasions such as decisional interference. Brain-machine interfaces would not only be able to read information in the brain but also write information. This would allow the device to make potential emotional changes in its users, which be a major example of decisional interference. …

For the most recent Neuralink and brain implant ethics piece, there’s this February 14, 2024 essay on The Conversation, which, unusually, for this publication was solicited by the editors, Note: Links have been removed,

In January 2024, Musk announced that Neuralink implanted its first chip in a human subject’s brain. The Conversation reached out to two scholars at the University of Washington School of Medicine – Nancy Jecker, a bioethicst, and Andrew Ko, a neurosurgeon who implants brain chip devices – for their thoughts on the ethics of this new horizon in neuroscience.

Information about the implant, however, is scarce, aside from a brochure aimed at recruiting trial subjects. Neuralink did not register at ClinicalTrials.gov, as is customary, and required by some academic journals. [all emphases mine]

Some scientists are troubled by this lack of transparency. Sharing information about clinical trials is important because it helps other investigators learn about areas related to their research and can improve patient care. Academic journals can also be biased toward positive results, preventing researchers from learning from unsuccessful experiments.

Fellows at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, have warned that Musk’s brand of “science by press release, while increasingly common, is not science. [emphases mine]” They advise against relying on someone with a huge financial stake in a research outcome to function as the sole source of information.

When scientific research is funded by government agencies or philanthropic groups, its aim is to promote the public good. Neuralink, on the other hand, embodies a private equity model [emphasis mine], which is becoming more common in science. Firms pooling funds from private investors to back science breakthroughs may strive to do good, but they also strive to maximize profits, which can conflict with patients’ best interests.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated animal cruelty at Neuralink, according to a Reuters report, after employees accused the company of rushing tests and botching procedures on test animals in a race for results. The agency’s inspection found no breaches, according to a letter from the USDA secretary to lawmakers, which Reuters reviewed. However, the secretary did note an “adverse surgical event” in 2019 that Neuralink had self-reported.

In a separate incident also reported by Reuters, the Department of Transportation fined Neuralink for violating rules about transporting hazardous materials, including a flammable liquid.

…the possibility that the device could be increasingly shown to be helpful for people with disabilities, but become unavailable due to loss of research funding. For patients whose access to a device is tied to a research study, the prospect of losing access after the study ends can be devastating. [emphasis mine] This raises thorny questions about whether it is ever ethical to provide early access to breakthrough medical interventions prior to their receiving full FDA approval.

Not registering a clinical trial would seem to suggest there won’t be much oversight. As for Musk’s “science by press release” activities, I hope those will be treated with more skepticism by mainstream media although that seems unlikely given the current situation with journalism (more about that in a future post).

As for the issues associated with private equity models for science research and the problem of losing access to devices after a clinical trial is ended, my April 5, 2022 posting, “Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)” offers some cautionary tales, in addition to being the most comprehensive piece I’ve published on ethics and brain implants.

My July 17, 2023 posting, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report” offers a brief overview of the international scene.

First round of seed funding announced for NSF (US National Science Foundation) Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS)

Having published an earlier January 2024 US National Science Foundation (NSF) funding announcement for the TRAILS (Trustworthy AI in Law & Society) Institute yesterday (February 21, 2024), I’m following up with an announcement about the initiative’s first round of seed funding.

From a TRAILS undated ‘story‘ by Tom Ventsias on the initiative’s website (and published January 24, 2024 as a University of Maryland news release on EurekAlert),

The Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS) has unveiled an inaugural round of seed grants designed to integrate a greater diversity of stakeholders into the artificial intelligence (AI) development and governance lifecycle, ultimately creating positive feedback loops to improve trustworthiness, accessibility and efficacy in AI-infused systems.

The eight grants announced on January 24, 2024—ranging from $100K to $150K apiece and totaling just over $1.5 million—were awarded to interdisciplinary teams of faculty associated with the institute. Funded projects include developing AI chatbots to assist with smoking cessation, designing animal-like robots that can improve autism-specific support at home, and exploring how people use and rely upon AI-generated language translation systems.

All eight projects fall under the broader mission of TRAILS, which is to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one that is driven by ethics, human rights, and input and feedback from communities whose voices have previously been marginalized.

“At the speed with which AI is developing, our seed grant program will enable us to keep pace—or even stay one step ahead—by incentivizing cutting-edge research and scholarship that spans AI design, development and governance,” said Hal Daumé III, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland who is the director of TRAILS.

After TRAILS was launched in May 2023 with a $20 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), lead faculty met to brainstorm how the institute could best move forward with research, innovation and outreach that would have a meaningful impact.

They determined a seed grant program could quickly leverage the wide range of academic talent at TRAILS’ four primary institutions. This includes the University of Maryland’s expertise in computing and human-computer interaction; George Washington University’s strengths in systems engineering and AI as it relates to law and governance; Morgan State University’s work in addressing bias and inequity in AI; and Cornell University’s research in human behavior and decision-making.

“NIST and NSF’s support of TRAILS enables us to create a structured mechanism to reach across academic and institutional boundaries in search of innovative solutions,” said David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at George Washington University who leads TRAILS activities on the GW campus. “Seed funding from TRAILS will enable multidisciplinary teams to identify opportunities for their research to have impact, and to build the case for even larger, multi-institutional efforts.”

Further discussions were held at a TRAILS faculty retreat to identify seed grant guidelines and collaborative themes that mirror TRAILS’ primary research thrusts—participatory design, methods and metrics, evaluating trust, and participatory governance.

“Some of the funded projects are taking a fresh look at ideas we may have already been working on individually, and others are taking an entirely new approach to timely, pressing issues involving AI and machine learning,” said Virginia Byrne, an assistant professor of higher education & student affairs at Morgan State who is leading TRAILS activities on that campus and who served on the seed grant review committee.

A second round of seed funding will be announced later this year, said Darren Cambridge, who was recently hired as managing director of TRAILS to lead its day-to-day operations.

Projects selected in the first round are eligible for a renewal, while other TRAILS faculty—or any faculty member at the four primary TRAILS institutions—can submit new proposals for consideration, Cambridge said.

Ultimately, the seed funding program is expected to strengthen and incentivize other TRAILS activities that are now taking shape, including K–12 education and outreach programs, AI policy seminars and workshops on Capitol Hill, and multiple postdoc opportunities for early-career researchers.

“We want TRAILS to be the ‘go-to’ resource for educators, policymakers and others who are seeking answers and solutions on how to build, manage and use AI systems that will benefit all of society,” Cambridge said.

The eight projects selected for the first round of TRAILS seed-funding are:

Chung Hyuk Park and Zoe Szajnfarber from GW and Hernisa Kacorri from UMD aim to improve the support infrastructure and access to quality care for families of autistic children. Early interventions are strongly correlated with positive outcomes, while provider shortages and financial burdens have raised challenges—particularly for families without sufficient resources and experience. The researchers will develop novel parent-robot teaming for the home, advance the assistive technology, and assess the impact of teaming to promote more trust in human-robot collaborative settings.

Soheil Feizi from UMD and Robert Brauneis from GW will investigate various issues surrounding text-to-image [emphasis mine] generative AI models like Stable Diffusion, DALL-E 2, and Midjourney, focusing on myriad legal, aesthetic and computational aspects that are currently unresolved. A key question is how copyright law might adapt if these tools create works in an artist’s style. The team will explore how generative AI models represent individual artists’ styles, and whether those representations are complex and distinctive enough to form stable objects of protection. The researchers will also explore legal and technical questions to determine if specific artworks, especially rare and unique ones, have already been used to train AI models.

Huaishu Peng and Ge Gao from UMD will work with Malte Jung from Cornell to increase trust-building in embodied AI systems, which bridge the gap between computers and human physical senses. Specifically, the researchers will explore embodied AI systems in the form of miniaturized on-body or desktop robotic systems that can enable the exchange of nonverbal cues between blind and sighted individuals, an essential component of efficient collaboration. The researchers will also examine multiple factors—both physical and mental—in order to gain a deeper understanding of both groups’ values related to teamwork facilitated by embodied AI.

Marine Carpuat and Ge Gao from UMD will explore “mental models”—how humans perceive things—for language translation systems used by millions of people daily. They will focus on how individuals, depending on their language fluency and familiarity with the technology, make sense of their “error boundary”—that is, deciding whether an AI-generated translation is correct or incorrect. The team will also develop innovative techniques to teach users how to improve their mental models as they interact with machine translation systems.

Hal Daumé III, Furong Huang and Zubin Jelveh from UMD and Donald Braman from GW will propose new philosophies grounded in law to conceptualize, evaluate and achieve “effort-aware fairness,” which involves algorithms for determining whether an individual or a group of individuals is discriminated against in terms of equality of effort. The researchers will develop new metrics, evaluate fairness of datasets, and design novel algorithms that enable AI auditors to uncover and potentially correct unfair decisions.

Lorien Abroms and David Broniatowski from GW will recruit smokers to study the reliability of using generative chatbots, such as ChatGPT, as the basis for a digital smoking cessation program. Additional work will examine the acceptability by smokers and their perceptions of trust in using this rapidly evolving technology for help to quit smoking. The researchers hope their study will directly inform future digital interventions for smoking cessation and/or modifying other health behaviors.

Adam Aviv from GW and Michelle Mazurek from UMD will examine bias, unfairness and untruths such as sexism, racism and other forms of misrepresentation that come out of certain AI and machine learning systems. Though some systems have public warnings of potential biases, the researchers want to explore how users understand these warnings, if they recognize how biases may manifest themselves in the AI-generated responses, and how users attempt to expose, mitigate and manage potentially biased responses.

Susan Ariel Aaronson and David Broniatowski from GW plan to create a prototype of a searchable, easy-to-use website to enable policymakers to better utilize academic research related to trustworthy and participatory AI. The team will analyze research publications by TRAILS-affiliated researchers to ascertain which ones may have policy implications. Then, each relevant publication will be summarized and categorized by research questions, issues, keywords, and relevant policymaking uses. The resulting database prototype will enable the researchers to test the utility of this resource for policymakers over time.

Yes, things are moving quickly where AI is concerned. There’s text-to-image being investigated by Soheil Feizi and Robert Brauneis and, since the funding announcement in early January 2024, text-to-video has been announced (Open AI’s Sora was previewed February 15, 2024). I wonder if that will be added to the project.

One more comment, Huaishu Peng’s, Ge Gao’s, and Malte Jung’s project for “… trust-building in embodied AI systems …” brings to mind Elon Musk’s stated goal of using brain implants for “human/AI symbiosis.” (I have more about that in an upcoming post.) Hopefully, Susan Ariel Aaronson’s and David Broniatowski’s proposed website for policymakers will be able to keep up with what’s happening in the field of AI, including research on the impact of private investments primarily designed for generating profits.

Prioritizing ethical & social considerations in emerging technologies—$16M in US National Science Foundation funding

I haven’t seen this much interest in the ethics and social impacts of emerging technologies in years. It seems that the latest AI (artificial intelligence) panic has stimulated interest not only in regulation but ethics too.

The latest information I have on this topic comes from a January 9, 2024 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (also received via email),

NSF and philanthropic partners announce $16 million in funding to prioritize ethical and social considerations in emerging technologies

ReDDDoT is a collaboration with five philanthropic partners and crosses
all disciplines of science and engineering_

The U.S. National Science Foundation today launched a new $16 million
program in collaboration with five philanthropic partners that seeks to
ensure ethical, legal, community and societal considerations are
embedded in the lifecycle of technology’s creation and use. The
Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT)
program aims to help create technologies that promote the public’s
wellbeing and mitigate potential harms.

“The design, development and deployment of technologies have broad
impacts on society,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “As
discoveries and innovations are translated to practice, it is essential
that we engage and enable diverse communities to participate in this
work. NSF and its philanthropic partners share a strong commitment to
creating a comprehensive approach for co-design through soliciting
community input, incorporating community values and engaging a broad
array of academic and professional voices across the lifecycle of
technology creation and use.”

The ReDDDoT program invites proposals from multidisciplinary,
multi-sector teams that examine and demonstrate the principles,
methodologies and impacts associated with responsible design,
development and deployment of technologies, especially those specified
in the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.” In addition to NSF, the
program is funded and supported by the Ford Foundation, the Patrick J.
McGovern Foundation, Pivotal Ventures, Siegel Family Endowment and the
Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation.

“In recognition of the role responsible technologists can play to
advance human progress, and the danger unaccountable technology poses to
social justice, the ReDDDoT program serves as both a collaboration and a
covenant between philanthropy and government to center public interest
technology into the future of progress,” said Darren Walker, president
of the Ford Foundation. “This $16 million initiative will cultivate
expertise from public interest technologists across sectors who are
rooted in community and grounded by the belief that innovation, equity
and ethics must equally be the catalysts for technological progress.”

The broad goals of ReDDDoT include:  

*Stimulating activity and filling gaps in research, innovation and capacity building in the responsible design, development, and deployment of technologies.
* Creating broad and inclusive communities of interest that bring
together key stakeholders to better inform practices for the design,
development, and deployment of technologies.
* Educating and training the science, technology, engineering, and
mathematics workforce on approaches to responsible design,
development, and deployment of technologies. 
* Accelerating pathways to societal and economic benefits while
developing strategies to avoid or mitigate societal and economic harms.
* Empowering communities, including economically disadvantaged and
marginalized populations, to participate in all stages of technology
development, including the earliest stages of ideation and design.

Phase 1 of the program solicits proposals for Workshops, Planning
Grants, or the creation of Translational Research Coordination Networks,
while Phase 2 solicits full project proposals. The initial areas of
focus for 2024 include artificial intelligence, biotechnology or natural
and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation. Future iterations
of the program may consider other key technology focus areas enumerated
in the CHIPS and Science Act.

For more information about ReDDDoT, visit the program website or register for an informational webinar on Feb. 9, 2024, at 2 p.m. ET.

Statements from NSF’s Partners

“The core belief at the heart of ReDDDoT – that technology should be
shaped by ethical, legal, and societal considerations as well as
community values – also drives the work of the Patrick J. McGovern
Foundation to build a human-centered digital future for all. We’re
pleased to support this partnership, committed to advancing the
development of AI, biotechnology, and climate technologies that advance
equity, sustainability, and justice.” – Vilas Dhar, President, Patrick
J. McGovern Foundation

“From generative AI to quantum computing, the pace of technology
development is only accelerating. Too often, technological advances are
not accompanied by discussion and design that considers negative impacts
or unrealized potential. We’re excited to support ReDDDoT as an
opportunity to uplift new and often forgotten perspectives that
critically examine technology’s impact on civic life, and advance Siegel
Family Endowment’s vision of technological change that includes and
improves the lives of all people.” – Katy Knight, President and
Executive Director of Siegel Family Endowment

Only eight months ago, another big NSF funding project was announced but this time focused on AI and promoting trust, from a May 4, 2023 University of Maryland (UMD) news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: A link has been removed,

The University of Maryland has been chosen to lead a multi-institutional effort supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will develop new artificial intelligence (AI) technologies designed to promote trust and mitigate risks, while simultaneously empowering and educating the public.

The NSF Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS) announced on May 4, 2023, unites specialists in AI and machine learning with social scientists, legal scholars, educators and public policy experts. The multidisciplinary team will work with impacted communities, private industry and the federal government to determine what trust in AI looks like, how to develop technical solutions for AI that can be trusted, and which policy models best create and sustain trust.

Funded by a $20 million award from NSF, the new institute is expected to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one that is driven by ethics, human rights, and input and feedback from communities whose voices have previously been marginalized.

“As artificial intelligence continues to grow exponentially, we must embrace its potential for helping to solve the grand challenges of our time, as well as ensure that it is used both ethically and responsibly,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “With strong federal support, this new institute will lead in defining the science and innovation needed to harness the power of AI for the benefit of the public good and all humankind.”

In addition to UMD, TRAILS will include faculty members from George Washington University (GW) and Morgan State University, with more support coming from Cornell University, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and private sector organizations like the DataedX Group, Arthur AI, Checkstep, FinRegLab and Techstars.

At the heart of establishing the new institute is the consensus that AI is currently at a crossroads. AI-infused systems have great potential to enhance human capacity, increase productivity, catalyze innovation, and mitigate complex problems, but today’s systems are developed and deployed in a process that is opaque and insular to the public, and therefore, often untrustworthy to those affected by the technology.

“We’ve structured our research goals to educate, learn from, recruit, retain and support communities whose voices are often not recognized in mainstream AI development,” said Hal Daumé III, a UMD professor of computer science who is lead principal investigator of the NSF award and will serve as the director of TRAILS.

Inappropriate trust in AI can result in many negative outcomes, Daumé said. People often “overtrust” AI systems to do things they’re fundamentally incapable of. This can lead to people or organizations giving up their own power to systems that are not acting in their best interest. At the same time, people can also “undertrust” AI systems, leading them to avoid using systems that could ultimately help them.

Given these conditions—and the fact that AI is increasingly being deployed to mediate society’s online communications, determine health care options, and offer guidelines in the criminal justice system—it has become urgent to ensure that people’s trust in AI systems matches those same systems’ level of trustworthiness.

TRAILS has identified four key research thrusts to promote the development of AI systems that can earn the public’s trust through broader participation in the AI ecosystem.

The first, known as participatory AI, advocates involving human stakeholders in the development, deployment and use of these systems. It aims to create technology in a way that aligns with the values and interests of diverse groups of people, rather than being controlled by a few experts or solely driven by profit.

Leading the efforts in participatory AI is Katie Shilton, an associate professor in UMD’s College of Information Studies who specializes in ethics and sociotechnical systems. Tom Goldstein, a UMD associate professor of computer science, will lead the institute’s second research thrust, developing advanced machine learning algorithms that reflect the values and interests of the relevant stakeholders.

Daumé, Shilton and Goldstein all have appointments in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, which is providing administrative and technical support for TRAILS.

David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GW, will lead the institute’s third research thrust of evaluating how people make sense of the AI systems that are developed, and the degree to which their levels of reliability, fairness, transparency and accountability will lead to appropriate levels of trust. Susan Ariel Aaronson, a research professor of international affairs at GW, will use her expertise in data-driven change and international data governance to lead the institute’s fourth thrust of participatory governance and trust.

Virginia Byrne, an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Morgan State, will lead community-driven projects related to the interplay between AI and education. According to Daumé, the TRAILS team will rely heavily on Morgan State’s leadership—as Maryland’s preeminent public urban research university—in conducting rigorous, participatory community-based research with broad societal impacts.

Additional academic support will come from Valerie Reyna, a professor of human development at Cornell, who will use her expertise in human judgment and cognition to advance efforts focused on how people interpret their use of AI.

Federal officials at NIST will collaborate with TRAILS in the development of meaningful measures, benchmarks, test beds and certification methods—particularly as they apply to important topics essential to trust and trustworthiness such as safety, fairness, privacy, transparency, explainability, accountability, accuracy and reliability.

“The ability to measure AI system trustworthiness and its impacts on individuals, communities and society is limited. TRAILS can help advance our understanding of the foundations of trustworthy AI, ethical and societal considerations of AI, and how to build systems that are trusted by the people who use and are affected by them,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio.

Today’s announcement [May 4, 2023] is the latest in a series of federal grants establishing a cohort of National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. This recent investment in seven new AI institutes, totaling $140 million, follows two previous rounds of awards.

“Maryland is at the forefront of our nation’s scientific innovation thanks to our talented workforce, top-tier universities, and federal partners,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “This National Science Foundation award for the University of Maryland—in coordination with other Maryland-based research institutions including Morgan State University and NIST—will promote ethical and responsible AI development, with the goal of helping us harness the benefits of this powerful emerging technology while limiting the potential risks it poses. This investment entrusts Maryland with a critical priority for our shared future, recognizing the unparalleled ingenuity and world-class reputation of our institutions.” 

The NSF, in collaboration with government agencies and private sector leaders, has now invested close to half a billion dollars in the AI institutes ecosystem—an investment that expands a collaborative AI research network into almost every U.S. state.

“The National AI Research Institutes are a critical component of our nation’s AI innovation, infrastructure, technology, education and partnerships ecosystem,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “[They] are driving discoveries that will ensure our country is at the forefront of the global AI revolution.”

As noted in the UMD news release, this funding is part of a ‘bundle’, here’s more from the May 4, 2023 US NSF news release announcing the full $ 140 million funding program, Note: Links have been removed,

The U.S. National Science Foundation, in collaboration with other federal agencies, higher education institutions and other stakeholders, today announced a $140 million investment to establish seven new National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes. The announcement is part of a broader effort across the federal government to advance a cohesive approach to AI-related opportunities and risks.

The new AI Institutes will advance foundational AI research that promotes ethical and trustworthy AI systems and technologies, develop novel approaches to cybersecurity, contribute to innovative solutions to climate change, expand the understanding of the brain, and leverage AI capabilities to enhance education and public health. The institutes will support the development of a diverse AI workforce in the U.S. and help address the risks and potential harms posed by AI.  This investment means  NSF and its funding partners have now invested close to half a billion dollars in the AI Institutes research network, which reaches almost every U.S. state.

“The National AI Research Institutes are a critical component of our nation’s AI innovation, infrastructure, technology, education and partnerships ecosystem,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These institutes are driving discoveries that will ensure our country is at the forefront of the global AI revolution.”

“These strategic federal investments will advance American AI infrastructure and innovation, so that AI can help tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, from climate change to health. Importantly, the growing network of National AI Research Institutes will promote responsible innovation that safeguards people’s safety and rights,” said White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar.

The new AI Institutes are interdisciplinary collaborations among top AI researchers and are supported by co-funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST); U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T); U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA); U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (ED-IES); U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (DoD OUSD R&E); and IBM Corporation (IBM).

“Foundational research in AI and machine learning has never been more critical to the understanding, creation and deployment of AI-powered systems that deliver transformative and trustworthy solutions across our society,” said NSF Assistant Director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering Margaret Martonosi. “These recent awards, as well as our AI Institutes ecosystem as a whole, represent our active efforts in addressing national economic and societal priorities that hinge on our nation’s AI capability and leadership.”

The new AI Institutes focus on six research themes:

Trustworthy AI

NSF Institute for Trustworthy AI in Law & Society (TRAILS)

Led by the University of Maryland, TRAILS aims to transform the practice of AI from one driven primarily by technological innovation to one driven with attention to ethics, human rights and support for communities whose voices have been marginalized into mainstream AI. TRAILS will be the first institute of its kind to integrate participatory design, technology, and governance of AI systems and technologies and will focus on investigating what trust in AI looks like, whether current technical solutions for AI can be trusted, and which policy models can effectively sustain AI trustworthiness. TRAILS is funded by a partnership between NSF and NIST.

Intelligent Agents for Next-Generation Cybersecurity

AI Institute for Agent-based Cyber Threat Intelligence and Operation (ACTION)

Led by the University of California, Santa Barbara, this institute will develop novel approaches that leverage AI to anticipate and take corrective actions against cyberthreats that target the security and privacy of computer networks and their users. The team of researchers will work with experts in security operations to develop a revolutionary approach to cybersecurity, in which AI-enabled intelligent security agents cooperate with humans across the cyberdefense life cycle to jointly improve the resilience of security of computer systems over time. ACTION is funded by a partnership between NSF, DHS S&T, and IBM.

Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry

AI Institute for Climate-Land Interactions, Mitigation, Adaptation, Tradeoffs and Economy (AI-CLIMATE)

Led by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, this institute aims to advance foundational AI by incorporating knowledge from agriculture and forestry sciences and leveraging these unique, new AI methods to curb climate effects while lifting rural economies. By creating a new scientific discipline and innovation ecosystem intersecting AI and climate-smart agriculture and forestry, our researchers and practitioners will discover and invent compelling AI-powered knowledge and solutions. Examples include AI-enhanced estimation methods of greenhouse gases and specialized field-to-market decision support tools. A key goal is to lower the cost of and improve accounting for carbon in farms and forests to empower carbon markets and inform decision making. The institute will also expand and diversify rural and urban AI workforces. AI-CLIMATE is funded by USDA-NIFA.

Neural and Cognitive Foundations of Artificial Intelligence

AI Institute for Artificial and Natural Intelligence (ARNI)

Led by Columbia University, this institute will draw together top researchers across the country to focus on a national priority: connecting the major progress made in AI systems to the revolution in our understanding of the brain. ARNI will meet the urgent need for new paradigms of interdisciplinary research between neuroscience, cognitive science and AI. This will accelerate progress in all three fields and broaden the transformative impact on society in the next decade. ARNI is funded by a partnership between NSF and DoD OUSD R&E.

AI for Decision Making

AI Institute for Societal Decision Making (AI-SDM)

Led by Carnegie Mellon University, this institute seeks to create human-centric AI for decision making to bolster effective response in uncertain, dynamic and resource-constrained scenarios like disaster management and public health. By bringing together an interdisciplinary team of AI and social science researchers, AI-SDM will enable emergency managers, public health officials, first responders, community workers and the public to make decisions that are data driven, robust, agile, resource efficient and trustworthy. The vision of the institute will be realized via development of AI theory and methods, translational research, training and outreach, enabled by partnerships with diverse universities, government organizations, corporate partners, community colleges, public libraries and high schools.

AI-Augmented Learning to Expand Education Opportunities and Improve Outcomes

AI Institute for Inclusive Intelligent Technologies for Education (INVITE)

Led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, this institute seeks to fundamentally reframe how educational technologies interact with learners by developing AI tools and approaches to support three crucial noncognitive skills known to underlie effective learning: persistence, academic resilience and collaboration. The institute’s use-inspired research will focus on how children communicate STEM content, how they learn to persist through challenging work, and how teachers support and promote noncognitive skill development. The resultant AI-based tools will be integrated into classrooms to empower teachers to support learners in more developmentally appropriate ways.

AI Institute for Exceptional Education (AI4ExceptionalEd)

Led by the University at Buffalo, this institute will work toward universal speech and language screening for children. The framework, the AI screener, will analyze video and audio streams of children during classroom interactions and assess the need for evidence-based interventions tailored to individual needs of students. The institute will serve children in need of ability-based speech and language services, advance foundational AI technologies and enhance understanding of childhood speech and language development. The AI Institute for Exceptional Education was previously announced in January 2023. The INVITE and AI4ExceptionalEd institutes are funded by a partnership between NSF and ED-IES.

Statements from NSF’s Federal Government Funding Partners

“Increasing AI system trustworthiness while reducing its risks will be key to unleashing AI’s potential benefits and ensuring our shared societal values,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio. “Today, the ability to measure AI system trustworthiness and its impacts on individuals, communities and society is limited. TRAILS can help advance our understanding of the foundations of trustworthy AI, ethical and societal considerations of AI, and how to build systems that are trusted by the people who use and are affected by them.”

“The ACTION Institute will help us better assess the opportunities and risks of rapidly evolving AI technology and its impact on DHS missions,” said Dimitri Kusnezov, DHS under secretary for science and technology. “This group of researchers and their ambition to push the limits of fundamental AI and apply new insights represents a significant investment in cybersecurity defense. These partnerships allow us to collectively remain on the forefront of leading-edge research for AI technologies.”

“In the tradition of USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture investments, this new institute leverages the scientific power of U.S. land-grant universities informed by close partnership with farmers, producers, educators and innovators to address the grand challenge of rising greenhouse gas concentrations and associated climate change,” said Acting NIFA Director Dionne Toombs. “This innovative center will address the urgent need to counter climate-related threats, lower greenhouse gas emissions, grow the American workforce and increase new rural opportunities.”

“The leading-edge in AI research inevitably draws from our, so far, limited understanding of human cognition. This AI Institute seeks to unify the fields of AI and neuroscience to bring advanced designs and approaches to more capable and trustworthy AI, while also providing better understanding of the human brain,” said Bindu Nair, director, Basic Research Office, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “We are proud to partner with NSF in this critical field of research, as continued advancement in these areas holds the potential for further and significant benefits to national security, the economy and improvements in quality of life.”

“We are excited to partner with NSF on these two AI institutes,” said IES Director Mark Schneider. “We hope that they will provide valuable insights into how to tap modern technologies to improve the education sciences — but more importantly we hope that they will lead to better student outcomes and identify ways to free up the time of teachers to deliver more informed individualized instruction for the students they care so much about.” 

Learn more about the NSF AI Institutes by visiting nsf.gov.

Two things I noticed, (1) No mention of including ethics training or concepts in science and technology education and (2) No mention of integrating ethics and social issues into any of the AI Institutes. So, it seems that ‘Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT)’ occupies its own fiefdom.

Some sobering thoughts

Things can go terribly wrong with new technology as seen in the British television hit series, Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office (based on a true story) , from a January 9, 2024 posting by Ani Blundel for tellyvisions.org,

… what is this show that’s caused the entire country to rise up as one to defend the rights of the lowly sub-postal worker? Known as the “British Post Office scandal,” the incidents first began in 1999 when the U.K. postal system began to switch to digital systems, using the Horizon Accounting system to track the monies brought in. However, the IT system was faulty from the start, and rather than blame the technology, the British government accused, arrested, persecuted, and convicted over 700 postal workers of fraud and theft. This continued through 2015 when the glitch was finally recognized, and in 2019, the convictions were ruled to be a miscarriage of justice.

Here’s the series synopsis:

The drama tells the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting due to a defective IT system. Many of the wronged workers were prosecuted, some of whom were imprisoned for crimes they never committed, and their lives were irreparably ruined by the scandal. Following the landmark Court of Appeal decision to overturn their criminal convictions, dozens of former sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been exonerated on all counts as they battled to finally clear their names. They fought for over ten years, finally proving their innocence and sealing a resounding victory, but all involved believe the fight is not over yet, not by a long way.

Here’s a video trailer for ‘Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office,

More from Blundel’s January 9, 2024 posting, Note: A link has been removed,

The outcry from the general public against the government’s bureaucratic mismanagement and abuse of employees has been loud and sustained enough that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had to come out with a statement condemning what happened back during the 2009 incident. Further, the current Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, is now trying to figure out the fastest way to exonerate the hundreds of sub-post managers and sub-postmistresses who were wrongfully convicted back then and if there are steps to be taken to punish the post office a decade later.

It’s a horrifying story and the worst I’ve seen so far but, sadly, it’s not the only one of its kind.

Too often people’s concerns and worries about new technology are dismissed or trivialized. Somehow, all the work done to establish ethical standards and develop trust seems to be used as a kind of sop to the concerns rather than being integrated into the implementation of life-altering technologies.

Canadian scientists still being muzzled and a call for action on values and ethics in the Canadian federal public service

I’m starting with the older news about a survey finding that Canadian scientists are being muzzled before moving on to news about a recent survey where workers in the Canadian public services (and where most Canadian scientists are employed) criticizes the government’s values and ethics.

Muzzles, anyone?

It’s not exactly surprising to hear that Canadian scientists are still being muzzled for another recent story, (see my November 7, 2023 posting, “Money and its influence on Canada’s fisheries and oceans” for some specifics’ two of the authors are associated with Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada) .

This December 13, 2023 essay is by Alana Westwood, Manjulika E. Robertson and Samantha M. Chu (all of Dalhousie University but none were listed as authors on the ‘money, fisheries, and oceans paper) on The Conversation (h/t December 14, 2023 news item on phys.org). These authors describe some recent research into the Canadian situation, specifically since the 2015 election and the Liberals formed the government and ‘removed’ the muzzles placed on scientists by the previous Conservative government,

We recently surveyed 741 environmental researchers across Canada in two separate studies into interference. We circulated our survey through scientific societies related to environmental fields, as well as directly emailing Canadian authors of peer-reviewed research in environmental disciplines.

Researchers were asked (1) if they believed they had experienced interference in their work, (2) the sources and types of this interference, and (3) the subsequent effects on their career satisfaction and well-being.

We also asked demographic information to understand whether researchers’ perceptions of interference differed by career stage, research area or identity.

Although overall ability to communicate is improving, interference is a pervasive issue in Canada, including from government, private industry and academia. We found 92 per cent of the environmental researchers reported having experienced interference with their ability to communicate or conduct their research in some form.

Interference also manifested in different ways and already-marginalized researchers experienced worse outcomes.

The writers go on to offer a history of the interference (there’s also a more detailed history in this May 20, 2015 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] online news article by Althea Manasan) before offering more information about results from the two recent surveys, Note: Links have been removed,

In our survey, respondents indicated that, overall, their ability to communicate with the public has improved in the recent years. Of the respondents aware of the government’s scientific integrity policies, roughly half of them attribute positive changes to them.

Others argued that the 2015 change in government [from Conservative to Liberal] had the biggest influence. In the first few months of their tenure, the Liberal government created a new cabinet position, the Minister of Science (this position was absorbed into the role of Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry in 2019), and appointed a chief science advisor among other changes.

Though the ability to communicate has generally improved, many of the researchers argued interference still goes on in subtler ways. These included undue restriction on what kind of environmental research they can do, and funding to pursue them. Many respondents attributed those restrictions to the influence of private industry [emphasis mine].

Respondents identified the major sources of external interference as management, workplace policies, and external research partners. The chief motivations for interference, as the scientists saw it, included downplaying environmental risks, justifying an organization’s current position on an issue and avoiding contention.

Our most surprising finding was almost half of respondents said they limited their communications with the public and policymakers due to fears of negative backlash and reduced career opportunities.

In addition, interference had not been experienced equally. Early career and marginalized scientists — including those who identify as women, racialized, living with a disability and 2SLGBTQI+ — reported facing significantly more interference than their counterparts.

Scientists studying climate change, pollution, environmental impacted assessments and threatened species were also more likely to experience interference with their work than scientists in other disciplines.

The researchers used a single survey as the basis for two studies concerning interference in science,

Interference in science: scientists’ perspectives on their ability to communicate and conduct environmental research in Canada by Manjulika E. Robertson, Samantha M. Chu, Anika Cloutier, Philippe Mongeon, Don A. Driscoll, Tej Heer, and Alana R. Westwood. FACETS 8 (1) 30 November 2023 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2023-0005

This paper is open access.

Do environmental researchers from marginalized groups experience greater interference? Understanding scientists’ perceptions by Samantha M. Chu, Manjulika E. Robertson, Anika Cloutier, Suchinta Arif, and Alana R. Westwood.
FACETS 30 November 2023 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2023-0006

This paper is open access.

This next bit is on a somewhat related topic.

The Canadian government’s public service: values and ethics

Before launching into the latest news, here’s a little background. In 2016 the newly elected Liberal government implemented a new payroll system for the Canadian civil/public service. it was a débacle, which continues to this day (for the latest news I could find, see this September 1, 2023 article by Sam Konnert for CBC online news).

It was preventable and both the Conservative and Liberal governments of the day are responsible. You can get more details from my December 27, 2019 posting; scroll down to “The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle” and read on from there. In short, elected officials of both the Liberal and Conservative governments refused to listen when employees (both from the government and from the contractor) expressed grave concerns about the proposed pay system.

Now for public service employee morale, from a February 7, 2024 article by Robyn Miller for CBC news online, Note: Links have been removed,

Unions representing federal public servants say the government needs to do more to address dissatisfaction among the workforce after a recent report found some employees are unable to feel pride in their work.

“It’s more difficult now to be proud to be a public servant because of people’s perceptions of the institution and because of Canada’s role on the global stage,” said one participant who testified as part of the Deputy Ministers’ Task Team on Values and Ethics Report.

The report was published in late December [2023] by members of a task force assembled by Privy Council Clerk John Hannaford.

It’s the first major values and ethics review since an earlier report titled A Strong Foundation was released nearly 30 years ago.

Alex Silas, a regional executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the union supports the recommendations in the report but wants to see action.

“What we’ve seen historically, unfortunately, is that the values and ethics proposed by the federal government are not implemented in the workplaces of the federal government,” Silas said.

According to the report, it drew its findings from more than 90 conversations with public servants and external stakeholders starting in September 2023.

The report notes “public servants must provide frank and professional advice, without partisan considerations or fear of criticism or political reprisals.” [emphasis mine]

“The higher up the food chain you go, the less accountability seems to exist,” said one participant.

So, either elected officials and/or higher ups don’t listen when you speak up or you’re afraid to speak up for fear of criticism and/or reprisals. Plus, there’s outright interference as noted in the survey of scientists.

For the curious, here’s a link to the Deputy Ministers’ Task Team on Values and Ethics Report to the Clerk of the Privy Council (Canada 2023).

Let’s hope this airing of dirty laundry leads to some changes.

Canada’s voluntary code of conduct relating to advanced generative AI (artificial intelligence) systems

These days there’s a lot of international interest in policy and regulation where AI is concerned. So even though this is a little late, here’s what happened back in September 2023, the Canadian government came to an agreement with various technology companies about adopting a new voluntary code. Quinn Henderson’s September 28, 2023 article for the Daily Hive starts in a typically Canadian fashion, Note: Links have been removed,

While not quite as star-studded [emphasis mine] at the [US] White House’s AI summit, the who’s who of Canadian tech companies have agreed to new rules concerning AI.

What happened: A handful of Canada’s biggest tech companies, including Blackberry, OpenText, and Cohere, agreed to sign on to new voluntary government guidelines for the development of AI technologies and a “robust, responsible AI ecosystem in Canada.”

What’s next: The code of conduct is something of a stopgap until the government’s *real* AI regulation, the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), comes into effect in two years.

The regulation race is on around the globe. The EU is widely viewed as leading the way with the world’s first comprehensive regulatory AI framework set to take effect in 2026. The US is also hard at work but only has a voluntary code in place.

Henderson’s September 28, 2023 article offers a good, brief summary of the situation regarding regulation and self-regulation of AI here in Canada and elsewhere around the world, albeit, from a few months ago. Oddly, there’s no mention of what was then an upcoming international AI summit in the UK (see my November 2, 2023 posting, “UK AI Summit (November 1 – 2, 2023) at Bletchley Park finishes“).

Getting back to Canada’s voluntary code of conduct. here’s the September 27, 2023 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) news release about it, Note: Links have been removed,

Today [September 27, 2023], the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced Canada’s Voluntary Code of Conduct on the Responsible Development and Management of Advanced Generative AI Systems, which is effective immediately. The code identifies measures that organizations are encouraged to apply to their operations when they are developing and managing general-purpose generative artificial intelligence (AI) systems. The Government of Canada has already taken significant steps toward ensuring that AI technology evolves responsibly and safely through the proposed Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), which was introduced as part of Bill C-27 in June 2022. This code is a critical bridge between now and when that legislation would be coming into force.The code outlines measures that are aligned with six core principles:

Accountability: Organizations will implement a clear risk management framework proportionate to the scale and impact of their activities.

Safety: Organizations will perform impact assessments and take steps to mitigate risks to safety, including addressing malicious or inappropriate uses.

Fairness and equity: Organizations will assess and test systems for biases throughout the lifecycle.

Transparency: Organizations will publish information on systems and ensure that AI systems and AI-generated content can be identified.

Human oversight and monitoring: Organizations will ensure that systems are monitored and that incidents are reported and acted on.

Validity and robustness: Organizations will conduct testing to ensure that systems operate effectively and are appropriately secured against attacks.

This code is based on the input received from a cross-section of stakeholders, including the Government of Canada’s Advisory Council on Artificial Intelligence, through the consultation on the development of a Canadian code of practice for generative AI systems. The government will publish a summary of feedback received during the consultation in the coming days. The code will also help reinforce Canada’s contributions to ongoing international deliberations on proposals to address common risks encountered with large-scale deployment of generative AI, including at the G7 and among like-minded partners.

Quotes

“Advances in AI have captured the world’s attention with the immense opportunities they present. Canada is a global AI leader, among the top countries in the world, and Canadians have created many of the world’s top AI innovations. At the same time, Canada takes the potential risks of AI seriously. The government is committed to ensuring Canadians can trust AI systems used across the economy, which in turn will accelerate AI adoption. Through our Voluntary Code of Conduct on the Responsible Development and Management of

Advanced Generative AI Systems, leading Canadian companies will adopt responsible guardrails for advanced generative AI systems in order to build safety and trust as the technology spreads. We will continue to ensure Canada’s AI policies are fit for purpose in a fast-changing world.”
– The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry

“We are very pleased to see the Canadian government taking a strong leadership role in building a regulatory framework that will help society maximize the benefits of AI, while addressing the many legitimate concerns that exist. It is essential that we, as an industry, address key issues like bias and ensure that humans maintain a clear role in oversight and monitoring of this incredibly exciting technology.”
– Aidan Gomez, CEO and Co-founder, Cohere

“AI technologies represent immense opportunities for every citizen and business in Canada. The societal impacts of AI are profound across education, biotech, climate and the very nature of work. Canada’s AI Code of Conduct will help accelerate innovation and citizen adoption by setting the standard on how to do it best. As Canada’s largest software company, we are honoured to partner with Minister Champagne and the Government of Canada in supporting this important step forward.”
– Mark J. Barrenechea, CEO and CTO, OpenText

“CCI has been calling for Canada to take a leadership role on AI regulation, and this should be done in the spirit of collaboration between government and industry leaders. The AI Code of Conduct is a meaningful step in the right direction and marks the beginning of an ongoing conversation about how to build a policy ecosystem for AI that fosters public trust and creates the conditions for success among Canadian companies. The global landscape for artificial intelligence regulation and adoption will evolve, and we are optimistic to see future collaboration to adapt to the emerging technological reality.”
– Benjamin Bergen, President, Council of Canadian Innovators

Quick facts

*The proposed Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), part of Bill C-27, is designed to promote the responsible design, development and use of AI systems in Canada’s private sector, with a focus on systems with the greatest impact on health, safety and human rights (high-impact systems).

*Since the introduction of the bill, the government has engaged extensively with stakeholders on AIDA and will continue to seek the advice of Canadians, experts—including the government’s Advisory Council on AI—and international partners on the novel challenges posed by generative AI, as outlined in the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA) – Companion document.

*Bill C-27 was adopted at second reading in the House of Commons in April 2023 and was referred to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry and Technology for study.

You can read more about Canada’s regulation efforts (Bill C-27) and some of the critiques in my May 1, 2023 posting, “Canada, AI regulation, and the second reading of the Digital Charter Implementation Act, 2022 (Bill C-27).”

For now, the “Voluntary Code of Conduct on the Responsible Development and Management of Advanced Generative AI Systems” can be found on this ISED September 2023 webpage.

Other Canadian AI policy bits and bobs

Back in 2016, shiny new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy (you can find out more about the strategy (Pillar 1: Commercialization) from this ISED Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy webpage, which was last updated July 20, 2022).

More recently, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), a prominent player in the Pan-Canadian AI strategy, published a report about regulating AI, from a November 21, 2023 CIFAR news release by Kathleen Sandusky, Note: Links have been removed,

New report from the CIFAR AI Insights Policy Briefs series cautions that current efforts to regulate AI are doomed to fail if they ignore a crucial aspect: the transformative impact of AI on regulatory processes themselves.

As rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) continue to reshape our world, global legislators and policy experts are working full-tilt to regulate this transformative technology. A new report, part of the CIFAR AI Insights Policy Briefs series, provides novel tools and strategies for a new way of thinking about regulation.

“Regulatory Transformation in the Age of AI” was authored by members of the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society at the University of Toronto: Director and Chair Gillian Hadfield, who is also a Canada CIFAR AI Chair at the Vector Institute; Policy Researcher Jamie Amarat Sandhu; and Graduate Affiliate Noam Kolt.

The report challenges the current regulatory focus, arguing that the standard “harms paradigm” of regulating AI is necessary but incomplete. For example, current car safety regulations were not developed to address the advent of autonomous vehicles. In this way, the introduction of AI into vehicles has made some existing car safety regulations inefficient or irrelevant.

Through three Canadian case studies—in healthcare, financial services, and nuclear energy—the report illustrates some of the ways in which the targets and tools of regulation could be reconsidered for a world increasingly shaped by AI.

The brief proposes a novel concept—Regulatory Impacts Analysis (RIA)—as a means to evaluate the impact of AI on regulatory regimes. RIA aims to assess the likely impact of AI on regulatory targets and tools, helping policymakers adapt governance institutions to the changing conditions brought about by AI. The authors provide a real-world adaptable tool—a sample questionnaire—for policymakers to identify potential gaps in their domain as AI becomes more prevalent.

This report also highlights the need for a comprehensive regulatory approach that goes beyond mitigating immediate harms, recognizing AI as a “general-purpose technology” with far-reaching implications, including on the very act of regulation itself.

As AI is expected to play a pivotal role in the global economy, the authors emphasize the need for regulators to go beyond traditional approaches. The evolving landscape requires a more flexible and adaptive playbook, with tools like RIA helping to shape strategies to harness the benefits of AI, address associated risks, and prepare for the technology’s transformative impact.

You can find CIFAR’s November 2023 report, “Regulatory Transformation in the Age of AI” (PDF) here.

I have two more AI bits and these concern provincial AI policies, one from Ontario and the other from British Columbia (BC),

Stay tuned, there will be more about AI policy throughout 2024.

Canadian Science Policy Centre appeals to BC scientists: please apply for 2024 Science Meets ‘Parliament/Legislative Assembly’

A January 11, 2024 Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) notice (also received via email) makes a special announcement,

Science Meets Parliament BC Applications [in BC, it’s not a provincial Parliament, it’s the Legislative Assembly]
Deadline Extended to Jan 19th, 2024!

The SMP-BC application deadline has been extended to Friday, January 19th, 2024, with expanded eligibility!

SMP-BC is an invaluable opportunity for scientists in BC to engage with the legislative process. The non-advocacy program provides researchers with the opportunity to interact with MLAs, attend committee meetings, and delve into political decision-making. The program will be open to three groups of researchers who are working in an academic institution in BC:

  • Faculty members within their first 10 years of appointment
  • Indigenous researchers 
  • Postdoctoral fellows and have been directly awarded either a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship or a CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] / NSERC [Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada] / SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada] Tri-agency Postdoctoral Fellowship 

For more information on the program, eligibility, and how to apply, please click the [on the link] below

Read More and Apply Here

According to the SMP program webpage, applications for the standard SMP program in Ottawa, which will take place May 6-7, 2024 (see 2024 program brochure, PDF), are closed.

Here’s a little more about this special version of Science Meets Parliament (Legislative Assembly), from the SMP-BC 2024 webpage,

The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), with the honourary patronage of the Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Janet Austin, and made possible with the support of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the Honourable Raj Chouhan, are pleased to announce that registration is now open for the first edition of Science Meets Parliament – British Columbia! This program is scheduled to take place in Victoria in April 22-23, 2024.

Apply now! Deadline Extended: January 19, 2024
Eligibility expanded!

Apply Now

There’s more, from the SMP-BC 2024 webpage,

The objective of the Science Meets Parliament (SMP) – British Columbia program is that scientists in BC learn about the process of policy making at the provincial legislature and become familiar with the provincial parliamentary process. In addition, it serves as an opportunity for BC MLAs [Members of the Legislative Assembly] to explore the application of scientific evidence in policy making.

The program helps to strengthen the connections between Canada’s scientific and political communities, enable a two-way dialogue, and promote mutual understanding. Delegates will gain practical knowledge of the inner workings of political policy making, broaden their professional networks to include influential members of the science and policy communities, enhance their communication skills for new contexts and audiences, and carry their experiences back to share with their home institutions. The program is NOT an advocacy exercise for science or for the scientific community.

The program has been a great success, receiving positive feedback from both Science Meets Parliament delegates and participating Parliamentarians. We are delighted to expand our program to the provincial level with Science Meets Parliament – British Columbia.

This program is funded only through registration fees and sponsorship. We invite interested organizations to consider sponsorship opportunities – please contact sciencemeetsparliament@sciencepolicy.ca for more information.

Good luck!

Money and its influence on Canada’s fisheries and oceans

Having neither the research skills nor the resources to investigate the impact *that* money (and power) have on science in Canada, more specifically, on our fisheries and oceans, I have to thank the Canadian Science Media Centre for the link to a paper on the topic.

As usual, you’ll find a citation and link to the paper at the end of this posting. First, a few reasons why you may want to take a look at the paper in its entirety. From the “Is scientific inquiry still incompatible with government information control? A quarter-century later” paper,

Abstract

Twenty-six years ago, in response to regionally devastating fisheries collapses [collapse of Maritime provinces cod fisheries] in Canada, Hutchings et al. asked “Is scientific inquiry incompatible with government information control?” Now, a quarter-century later, we review how government science advice continues to be influenced by non-science interests, particularly those with a financial stake in the outcome of the advice. We use the example of salmon aquaculture in British Columbia, Canada, to demonstrate how science advice from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) can fail to be impartial, evidence-based, transparent, and independently reviewed—four widely implemented standards of robust science advice. Consequently, DFO’s policies are not always supported by the best available science. These observations are particularly important in the context of DFO having struggled to sustainably manage Canada’s marine resources, creating socio-economic uncertainty and putting the country’s international reputation at risk as it lags behind its peers. We conclude by reiterating Hutchings et al.’s unheeded recommendation for a truly independent fisheries-science advisory body in Canada to be enshrined in the decision-making process.

Over a quarter of a century later, the cod fisheries and others are in dire conditions, Note: Links have been removed,

… numerous Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) populations are at historically low abundances (Peterman and Dorner 2012; Riddell et al. 2013; Bendriem et al. 2019; COSEWIC 2019), and Canada’s Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) stocks remain in a “critical” state (Fisheries and Oceans Canada 2020).

Much of the paper is written in an academic style and features an alphabet soup. For example, COSEWIC is Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. That said, there are many valuable comments, from the “Is scientific inquiry still incompatible with government information control? A quarter-century later” paper, Note: Links have been removed,

… Science advice is integral to DFO’s [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] role, but the provision of Canadian fisheries-science advice is challenging, due not only to the diversity and large geographic scale of Canada’s ocean environments, but also to the pitfalls inherent in providing science advice.

Although science can play an important role in the mitigation and reversal of anthropogenic stresses by supplying evidence for policy decisions, competing interests and ideologies can impede the delivery of robust science advice and its integration into government policy decisions. In particular, individuals or groups with vested interests can manipulate the science-policy process through the “disinformation playbook” (Reed et al. 2021)—a collection of strategies that downplay and obscure risk by seeding doubt about scientific consensus (Freudenburg et al. 2008). These tactics can be used to discount the connections between negative health or environmental outcomes and their corporate or industrial causes, at times resulting in regulatory capture, a “process by which regulation… is consistently or repeatedly directed away from the public interest and toward the interests of the regulated industry, by the intent and action of the industry itself” (Carpenter and Moss 2013). Examples of regulatory capture exist in relation to cancers from tobacco use, bird-population declines from dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), ozone-layer depletion from chlorofluorocarbons, and climate change from greenhouse gas emissions (Oreskes and Conway 2010; Anker et al. 2011).

It’s not all bad news, from the “Is scientific inquiry still incompatible with government information control? A quarter-century later” paper, Note: Links have been removed,

Reassuringly, governments commonly seek to incorporate evidence and scientific findings to strengthen policy and better inform decision-making. A flagship example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), provides policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis for climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation (Masson-Delmotte et al. 2021). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assesses the global extinction risks for animal, fungal, and plant species (IUCN Red List 2022). In Canada, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) (Waples et al. 2013) provides species threat-status assessments whose quality and independence are internationally recognized (Waples et al. 2013). Recently, to inform their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, many national governments drew on science advisory bodies, such as the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) in Canada (Macdonald and Pickering 2009; Ismail et al. 2010).

The authors make note of how social, political, legal, and economic issues affect decisions and then they call out a few specific problems with the Canadian effort, specifically, Pacific Coast salmon aquaculture, from the “Is scientific inquiry still incompatible with government information control? A quarter-century later” paper, Note: Links have been removed,

Salmon aquaculture has had a turbulent history in Canada, particularly on the Pacific coast, where non-native Atlantic salmon comprises 89% of aquaculture production by quantity and 95% by value (FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022). The controversy on the Pacific coast—where the industry is regulated federally, by DFO, rather than provincially, as in Atlantic Canada—is largely due to the amplification of disease and its transmission from farmed to wild salmon, a concern for salmon farming globally (Garseth et al. 2013; Krkošek 2017; Kibenge 2019; Mordecai et al. 2021). The Pacific coast of Canada is perhaps the only region in the world where salmon farming was developed alongside abundant, viable wild salmon stocks (FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022). In this context, widespread declines of many wild Pacific salmon populations (Peterman and Dorner 2012; Riddell et al. 2013; Bendriem et al. 2019, 2019), in parallel with growing evidence of the ecological effects of salmon farms, have eroded the social license for the industry to operate (Wiber et al. 2021; Reid et al. 2022). …

The quality of DFO’s science advice on salmon farming in BC is particularly important in the context of growing evidence that⁠ (due to multiple causes⁠) wild salmon are not thriving (Peterman and Dorner 2012; Riddell et al. 2013; Bendriem et al. 2019; COSEWIC 2019), and has repeatedly been a cause for concern among scientists, nongovernmental organisations, Indigenous groups, and even government bodies (Proboszcz 2018; Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans 2021a). …

… for some, the close relationships between members of the salmon aquaculture industry and DFO personnel raise concerns that these standards of impartiality are not being met. For example, the former Director of DFO’s Aquaculture, Biotechnology, and Aquatic Animal Health Science Branch was previously the President of the Aquaculture Association of Canada (Supplementary data, pp. 80–82), an organisation with the objective to “promote, support, and encourage… [the] advancement of aquaculture in Canada” (Supplementary data, p. 83). Similarly, the former Director of the Pacific Biological Station and Head of Aquaculture for DFO later served as Chair of the Science Advisory Council for the BC Salmon Farmers Association, by which he was described as “a strong advocate for the aquaculture industry in BC” (Supplementary data, pp. 84–85). These are just two examples among many. …

DFO’s accountability to industry was once again brought to light in 2022 when a prominent DFO research scientist testified in front of a parliamentary committee that DFO’s ability to conduct robust, transparent evidence-based risk assessments on aquaculture–wild interactions was compromised by a lack of independence from industry (Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans 2021b). Examples of the Department’s processes for developing salmon-farm regulations, while not examples of science advice, further call industry influence into question. …

In the end, the authors had this to say about all of the fisheries and oceans science advice given to the department, from the “Is scientific inquiry still incompatible with government information control? A quarter-century later” paper, Note: Links have been removed,

The case for improving fisheries-science advice in Canada has never been stronger. DFO’s standard of fisheries-science advice now lags behind international best practice (Hutchings et al. 2012b; Winter and Hutchings 2020) as well as Canada’s own science advisory bodies, such as COSEWIC and the NACI, which strive to offer advice unfiltered and unaffected by political or bureaucratic influences. Yet DFO continues to allow industry lobbying and other non-science influences to interfere with advice processes (see Impartial section) while publicly claiming that the resulting advice is based on science (Supplementary data, pp. 10–15). …

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Is scientific inquiry still incompatible with government information control? A quarter-century later by Sean C. Godwin, Andrew W. Bateman, Gideon Mordecai, Sean Jones, and Jeffrey A. Hutchings. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfas-2022-0286 Published: 31 July 2023

This paper is open access and because I don’t ever before recall seeing an ‘Acknowledgements’ section that is sad, humorous, and touching, here it is,

Acknowledgements

We dedicate this paper to Jeffrey Hutchings, who tragically passed away halfway through the writing process. Jeff was a giant of the field who had an immense, positive influence on his friends and colleagues, and on fisheries science and policy in Canada and beyond. JH contributed to the conception and outline of the paper, wrote the first draft of the Introduction, edited as far as the “Background” subsection of the “Salmon Aquaculture Case Study,” discussed the case study examples, and penned a portion of the “Conclusions and Recommendations.” SG, AB, and GM all contributed equally to the manuscript (and reserve the right to list themselves as first author on their CVs). Published order of the co-first authors was determined via haphazard out-of-a-hat selection by AB’s 18-month-old son, Linden; whether this process bears all four hallmarks of robust science advice was not assessed. We are very grateful to 14 colleagues who provided valuable feedback during preparation and review.

*February 8, 2024: ‘the’ changed to ‘that’.

Machine decision-making (artificial intelligence) in British Columbia’s government (Canada)

Jeremy Hainsworth’s September 19, 2023 article on the Vancouver is Awesome website was like a dash of cold water. I had no idea that plans for using AI (artificial intelligence) in municipal administration were so far advanced (although I did cover this AI development, “Predictive policing in Vancouver—the first jurisdiction in Canada to employ a machine learning system for property theft reduction” in a November 23, 2017 posting). From Hainsworth’s September 19, 2023 article, Note: A link has been removed,

Human discretion and the ability to follow decision-making must remain top of mind employing artificial intelligence (AI) to providing public services, Union of BC Municipalities conference delegates heard Sept. 19 [2023].

And, delegates heard from Office of the Ombudsperson of B.C. representatives, decisions made by machines must be fair and transparent.

“This is the way of the future — using AI systems for delivering municipal services,” Zoë Macmillan, office manager of investigations, health and local services.

The risk in getting it wrong on fairness and privacy issues, said Wendy Byrne, office consultation and training officer, is a loss of trust in government.

It’s an issue the office has addressed itself, due to the impacts automated decision-making could have on British Columbians, in terms of the fairness they receive around public services. The issue has been covered in a June 2021 report, Getting Ahead of the Curve [emphasis mine]. The work was done jointly with B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

And, said office representatives, there also needs to be AI decision-making trails that can be audited when it comes to transparency in decision-making and for people appealing decisions made by machines.

She [Zoë Macmillan] said many B.C. communities are on the verge of implementing AI for providing citizens with services. In Vancouver and Kelowna, AI is already being used [emphasis mine] in some permitting systems.

The public, meanwhile, needs to be aware when an automated decision-making system is assisting them with an issue, she [Wendy Byrne] noted.

It’s not clear from Hainsworth’s article excerpts seen here but the report, “Getting Ahead of the Curve” was a joint Yukon and British Columbia (BC) effort. Here’s a link to the report (PDF) and an excerpt, Note: I’d call this an executive summary,

Message from the Officers

With the proliferation of instantaneous and personalized services increasingly being delivered to people in many areas in the private sector, the public is increasingly expecting the same approach when receiving government services. Artificial intelligence (AI) is touted as an effective, efficient and cost-saving solution to these growing expectations. However, ethical and legal concerns are being raised as governments in Canada and abroad are experimenting with AI technologies in
decision-making under inadequate regulation and, at times, in a less than transparent manner.

As public service oversight officials upholding the privacy and fairness rights of citizens, it is our responsibility to be closely acquainted with emerging issues that threaten those rights. There is no timelier an issue that intersects with our
respective mandates as privacy commissioners and ombudsman, than the increasing use of artificial intelligence by the governments and public bodies we oversee.

The digital era has brought swift and significant change to the delivery of public services. The benefits of providing the public with increasingly convenient and timely service has spurred a range of computer-based platforms, from digital assistants to automated systems of approval for a range of services – building permits, inmate releases, social assistance applications, and car insurance premiums [emphasis mine] to name a few. While this kind of machine-based service delivery was once narrowly applied in the public sector, the use of artificial intelligence by the public sector is gaining a stronger foothold in countries around the world, including here in Canada. As public bodies become larger and more complex, the perceived benefits of efficiency, accessibility and accuracy of algorithms to make decisions once made by humans, can be initially challenging to refute.

Fairness and privacy issues resulting from the use of AI are well documented, with many commercial facial recognition systems and assessment tools demonstrating bias and augmenting the ability to use personal information in ways that infringe
privacy interests. Similar privacy and fairness issues are raised by the use of AI in government. People often have no choice but to interact with government and the decisions of government can have serious, long-lasting impacts on our lives. A failure to consider how AI technologies create tension with the fairness and privacy obligations of democratic institutions poses risks for the public and undermines trust in government.

In examining examples of how these algorithms have been used in practice, this report demonstrates that there are serious legal and ethical concerns for public sector administrators. Key privacy concerns relate to the lack of transparency of closed proprietary systems that prove challenging to review, test and monitor. Current privacy laws do not contemplate the use of AI and as such lack obligations for key
imperatives around the collection and use of personal information in machine-based
systems. From a fairness perspective, the use of AI in the public sector challenges key pillars of administrative fairness. For example, how algorithmic decisions are made, explained, reviewed or appealed, and how bias is prevented all present challenging questions.

As the application of AI in public administration continues to gain momentum, the intent of this report is to provide both important context regarding the challenges AI presents in public sector decision-making, as well as practical recommendations that aim to set consistent parameters for transparency, accountability, legality and procedural fairness for AI’s use by public bodies. The critically important values of
privacy protection and administrative fairness cannot be left behind as the field of AI continues to evolve and these principles must be more expressly articulated in legislation, policy and applicable procedural applications moving forward.

This joint report urges governments to respect and fulfill fairness and privacy principles in their adoption of AI technologies. It builds on extensive literature on public sector AI by providing concrete, technology-sensitive, implementable guidance on building fairness and privacy into public sector AI. The report also recommends capacity-building, co-operation and public engagement initiatives government should undertake to promote the public’s trust and buy-in of AI.

This report pinpoints the persistent challenges with AI that merit attention from a fairness and privacy perspective; identifies where existing regulatory measures and instruments for administrative fairness and privacy protection in the age of AI fall short and where they need to be enhanced; and sets out detailed, implementable guidance on incorporating administrative fairness and privacy principles across the various stages of the AI lifecycle, from inception and design, to testing, implementation and mainstreaming.

The final chapter contains our recommendations for the development of a framework to facilitate the responsible use of AI systems by governments. Our recommendations include:

– The need for public authorities to make a public commitment to guiding principles for the use of AI that incorporate transparency, accountability, legality, procedural fairness and the protection of privacy. These principles should apply to all existing and new programs or activities, be included in any tendering documents by public authorities for third-party contracts or AI systems delivered by service providers, and be used to assess legacy projects so they are brought into compliance within a reasonable timeframe.

– The need for public authorities to notify an individual when an AI system is used to make a decision about them and describe to the individual in a way that is understandable how that system operates.

– Government promote capacity building, co-operation, and public engagement on AI.
This should be carried out through public education initiatives, building subject-matter knowledge and expertise on AI across government ministries, developing capacity to support knowledge sharing and expertise between government and AI developers and vendors, and establishing or growing the capacity to develop open-source, high-quality data sets for training and testing Automated Decision Systems (ADS).

– Requiring all public authorities to complete and submit an Artificial Intelligence Fairness and Privacy Impact Assessment (AIFPIA) for all existing and future AI programs for review by the relevant oversight body.

– Special rules or restrictions for the use of highly sensitive information by AI.

… [pp. 1-3]

These are the contributors to the report: Alexander Agnello: Policy Analyst, B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson; Ethan Plato: Policy Analyst, B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner; and Sebastian Paauwe: Investigator and Compliance Review Officer, Office of the Yukon Ombudsman and Information and Privacy Commissioner.

A bit startling to see how pervasive ” … automated systems of approval for a range of services – building permits, inmate releases, social assistance applications, and car insurance premiums …” are already. Not sure I’d call this 60 pp. report “Getting Ahead of the Curve” (PDF). It seems more like it was catching up—even in 2021.

Finally, there’s my October 27, 2023 post about the 2023 Canadian Science Policy Conference highlighting a few of the sessions. Scroll down to the second session, “901 – The new challenges of information in parliaments“, where you’ll find this,

… This panel proposes an overview … including a discussion on emerging issues impacting them, such as the integration of artificial intelligence and the risks of digital interference in democratic processes.

Interesting, eh?