The Government has today announced an investment partnership between New Zealand, the USA, Twitter, and Microsoft to develop software tools that will help facilitate more independent research on the impacts of user interactions with algorithmic systems.
Once developed, it’s hoped the tools could be used to overcome barriers to researching how algorithms drive individuals towards terrorist and violent content.
Announced under the banner of the Christchurch Call, the initiative will improve our understanding of the impacts of algorithms on people’s online experiences, said Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.
“Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms play a growing role in our everyday lives, including in how we organise information, and experience the internet,” the Prime Minister said.
“A majority of the content we encounter and view online is curated by algorithms in some form.
“Through the Christchurch Call to Action, we have committed to work together to better understand the impacts that algorithms and other processes may have on terrorist and violent extremist content. Leaders and the Call Community regard this algorithmic work as a top priority.
“In order to study those impacts, we have to overcome challenges around: how to protect user privacy and proprietary information; how to investigate impacts holistically across society; and how to achieve reproducibility, affordability, and scale for independent researchers.”
Working with an open-source non-profit organisation called OpenMined, the Algorithms Initiative will develop and test ground-breaking privacy-enhancing software infrastructure to address those challenges and help us move forward work under the Call, the Prime Minister said.
“While this initiative won’t tell us all we need to know about the outcomes algorithms are driving online, it will help us better access data so researchers can answer these very questions,” she said.
As the first project under the initiative, the partners will work together to build and test a set of privacy enhancing technologies. Once tested, replicated, and validated, these technologies could form the basis for an infrastructure to support independent study of impacts of algorithms and their interactions with users, including across multiple platforms and types of platforms, and could dramatically lower the barriers to doing this work.
If successful, these technologies will be made available to the whole Christchurch Call community and beyond it, the Prime Minister said. The technology, once tested and proven in the Call context, could open up a new field of algorithmic research with a much wider application, she said.
“Our community wants to understand the role of online activity as a factor in radicalisation, how terrorist and violent extremist content spreads across platforms. The privacy protective technology being developed through our initiative is one of the most promising ways to open those questions to independent research at a suitable scale. It could also help people working in a number of other fields.”
“We hope that this work will ultimately help the Christchurch Call Community to understand what online service providers, community organisations, and governments can do to make the online environment safer and more user-friendly.
“We simply won’t make the progress we need on these important issues, without better understanding how they are operating in the real world in the first place. Companies, governments, civil society, we will all benefit from this initiative. It will help us create the free, open and secure internet we are all driving for,” said Ms Ardern.
The current project plan envisages work taking place approximately over a 9-month timeframe with a total cost of approximately US$1.5m.
New Zealand is providing a financial contribution and assistance with establishing the initiative, and will also provide coordination between the Call Community and the project to ensure transparency, visibility, and that opportunities are maximised for Call supporters and partners to make use of the project’s output.
Brad Smith, of Microsoft, said the Christchurch Call was about bringing governments, tech companies, and civil society together to make meaningful progress to stop the spread and amplification of violent extremist content online.
“The responsible use of AI, including explaining how algorithms recommend content to people on social media platforms, is an important challenge we must address,” said Mr Smith.
Vijaya Gadde, of Twitter, said: “Our work with the New Zealand Government and Microsoft to support the development of innovative technology by OpenMined is a key building block to significantly expand the ability of researchers to understand the role of algorithms in content discovery and amplification while protecting the privacy of people’s data. There is significant potential to provide a far more robust evidence base for a policy debate of critical importance to the future of online services.”