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Machine decision-making in B.C. government must be fair and transparent, conference hears

BC Ombudsperson staff highlight fairness principles and fairness challenges to consider when developing artificial intelligence systems.
Generally, people may recognize AI from their use of chatbots in dealing with utilities or other services. | Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

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.

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. 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.

Macmillan said the word ‘artificial’ in AI implies that the technology has a human originator.

It can be used to make decisions based on data inputs, speech recognition and language translation.

She 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 in some permitting systems.

Generally, people may recognize AI from their use of chatbots in dealing with utilities or other services.

Macmillan stressed fairness must be built into the systems, and that governments must ensure their standards are part of any systems they choose. Ensuring bias is not built into systems where predetermined outcomes are found is imperative, she said.

“Lack of transparency in automated systems makes it harder to appeal a decision in a transparent manner,” Macmillan said.

Byrne stressed the need to keep in mind fairness principles when moving into the AI realm for local government services. She cited the office‘s Fairness by Design report released in December 2022.

She said discretion should be fully incorporated into AI with the ability for human judgment to be incorporated. Many AI systems come from private companies and governments should be involved in whatever is created to help citizens access services, she said.

“You need to be in there right from the start,” Byrne said.

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

“Ensuring balance in AI delivery can prevent risks and harms to the public and government,” Byrne said.

The annual Union of BC Municipalities conference kicked off Sept. 18 and runs through Sept. 22. Delegates attend from across the province for policy sessions and discussions as well as for meetings with provincial government ministers and officials.

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