Brave new world: technology & human rights
Summary of the impact
From facial recognition to genetic engineering, neural network computing to black-box algorithms, the potential for emerging technologies to change the structure of our society and our relationships to one another—for good or ill—is profound.
But the law isn’t keeping up.
In 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) published an issues paper outlining 10 key questions and calling for submissions from stakeholders to address some of these issues.
To develop UTS’s response, the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion provided space for academics to come together to collaborate, ensuring every UTS faculty contributed to a truly transdisciplinary submission that integrated multiple perspectives rather than relying on specialised expertise from any single discipline.
As education partner on the AHRC’s three-year technology and human rights project, UTS is actively contributing to the conversation around human rights as technology and society evolves—ultimately helping to ensure that technology serves human beings rather than the other way round.
In the 21st century universities need to maintain a relationship of trust with the public, partnering with community, industry and government to solve the wicked problems of the age.
According to the Executive Director, Social Justice at UTS, Verity Firth, who heads up the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion, there has been a strong shift towards research which engages with issues faced by industry, the Australian community, and all levels of government—a change reflected by funding bodies, which increasingly require researchers to demonstrate how their work engages with and has impact in the community.
This is backed by Nicole Vincent, UTS Technology and Human Rights submission co-lead, and senior lecturer at the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation. “Once the word ‘applied’, as in ‘applied computer science’ or ‘applied philosophy’, was used as a slur—it was derogatory. ‘But now ‘applied’ is positive, it describes something relevant.”
Another flow-on effect has been a pivot to transdisciplinary thinking.
“The world has problems that cross [disciplinary] borders”, Vincent says, “and this needs to be reflected both in teaching and in research”.
Dealing with issues that arise in complex systems can be a bit like whack-a-mole. If you hammer a problem without looking at the larger context, it tends to come back, or pops up as a new problem for someone else.
“Think about antibiotic resistance,” says Vincent. “By targeting the medical aspects without looking at social factors, people ended up changing the nature of the problem itself, and the original medical solution risks becoming obsolete.”
Yet, the way universities tend to structure work can make collaboration difficult. “There are disincentives to publish outside your discipline. You get punished if you don’t publish in the ‘right’ journals.”
Even the physical layout of campuses can conspire to keep academics apart.
“We work in different corridors and different buildings. Physically, we’re set out in a way to encourage mono-disciplinarity, which builds walls around disciplines, and further discourages collaboration.”
A game changer—the Technology & Human Rights project
In 2018, UTS signed a formal agreement with the AHRC to be the education partner on its three-year Technology & Human Rights project.
As part of that partnership, the whole university worked together to prepare a single comprehensive response to the AHRC’s Technology & Human Rights issues paper. Bringing the working group together was an invaluable opportunity to test approaches to new ways of working at UTS.
“It’s a classic case of a complex challenge with significant multi-dimensionality—it requires different sorts of thinking and different skill sets,” explains Firth’s colleague, Technology & Human Rights project coordinator and executive manager at the Centre, Mitra Gusheh.
The Centre sent out an Expression of Interest (EoI) to check for interest in the project across the entire university. From there, it purposefully identified key stakeholders.
The number of academics involved in the workshops—there were more than 30 in each session—was in itself a challenge according to Firth. However, the fact that there were 10 questions posed by a high-profile body like the AHRC was key for setting parameters and defining the problem.
“It really helped that it was an external partner posing the questions, there was a sense of status in that partner. People could see the public benefit to their work, that there was a path to impact.”
Facilitated by the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation and including representatives from the AHRC, the initial whole-day project workshop was used to tease out preliminary responses to the questions. Project leads were assigned for each question, who then worked to collate individual responses in smaller working groups outside of the big group sessions.
From there, project leads with broad ranging expertise—Vincent, Law Professor David Lindsay and Director Strategic Projects at UTS, Monique Potts—were appointed to draw out themes and ensure that the submission wasn’t just a series of discrete responses to individual questions but a truly whole-of-university response—the only truly transdisciplinary response received by the AHRC.
From the beginning, the coordination of the partnership sat with the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion, avoiding one source of potential conflict.
“We’re not a faculty, so are not competing for external research funding. Our job is to help attract funding to faculties, and create the collaborative space internally for academics to come together to solve public problems. We also act as a gateway to the university for outside partners,” says Firth.
Dedicated staff were assigned from the Centre to coordinate the workshops and the EoI, but one of the real challenges for the project was recognising the time pressures the academics involved were under.
“Academics are pulled in so many different directions and are incredibly time poor. For them to make the time on top of a busy schedule of teaching and research is testament to the quality of the project, and that we had such a huge buy-in,” says Gusheh.
While the centre worked hard to negotiate with faculty deans to give staff the time to be involved—Monique Potts was released to Centre for one day a week—Gusheh believes more could possibly be done on future projects, especially for those without the kudos that a high-status body like the AHRC provides.
She recalls emailing back and forth with Vincent at 2am. “We really should be buying out people’s time to step out from their routine everyday tasks,” she says. “Especially when it requires this level of commitment.”
The working groups developed as part of the Technology & Human Rights partnership have given academics opportunities develop capacity in collaborative contexts.
“UTS is like a city, one brand but many neighbourhoods. Part of the richness is the different faculties, the different lenses, the different ways of thinking. Consciously engaging with this gives people the opportunity to network and to connect across faculties,” explains Gusheh.
On a practical level, the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion is currently working with Professor Fang Chen from the Faculty of Engineering and IT, the UTS Business School’s Futures Academy and the AHRC to deliver short courses and potentially micro-credentials in AI and government decision making.
As part of the next phase of the project, the AHRC indicated it would like to make recommendations to government around new areas for research funding in relation to human rights and technology. The UTS Academic Working Group helped inform the AHRC in this process, providing feedback and advice on the framing of questions and the existing status of research. This again provided an opportunity for UTS academics to collaborate across disciplines to frame the questions, and hopefully influence the AHRC’s recommendations to government on the topic of future research funding.
“In a world where trust in public institutions is decaying, universities are significant in that they are still, broadly, a trusted institution. They therefore have the ability to bring people together and facilitate discussion of ideas in an open way,” says Gusheh.
This is particularly important for the complex problem of how emerging technologies could impact society and our relationships with one another.
As Vincent puts it, “No technology exists in isolation from other technologies, or from the political, economic, social, legal and environmental context.” As such, decisions made now about emerging technologies will have far-reaching ripple effects in the real-world that impact how future Australians will live their lives.
Through its partnership with the AHRC, UTS is contributing to the development of frameworks that will help promote human rights as technology and society evolve, working across disciplines to ensure values are integrated into technology design, and giving the community a strong voice in decision-making.
Importantly, it has also involved those at the university who will be impacted by these decisions most profoundly through the course of their lives—its students.
“Not only is it exciting for me, personally, to develop these networks and talk with people across the disciplines,” explains Vincent “but it also had a bonus for my students. I mean how many students ever get the opportunity to talk with the AHRC commissioner, Ed Santow, who came to speak with my class earlier this year?”