Home / News / Replay: Humans, Data, AI and Ethics

Replay: Humans, Data, AI and Ethics


Data is transforming the way we live, work and play. From transportation, to health, education and entertainment, data-driven technologies could help us solve critical global challenges and build more efficient, sustainable societies.

As computational capacities expand, the potential to radically improve human productivity and efficiency is exciting to many. At the same time, there’s a growing need to interrogate the ways in which we generate, analyse and utilise data, to ensure societies don’t lose their “human touch”.

The Connected Intelligence Centre (CIC) assembled a stellar line up of UTS academics and students, industry and government speakers to discuss the world of humans, data, AI and ethics. View the program for the whole day’s events, some of which you can now relive, and the twitter explosion that saw us trending with #UTSdataEthics

How the day unfolded…

Prof Glenn Wightwick (Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research) welcomed UTS academics, professional staff and students to the day, emphasising how important it is that UTS integrates data ethics into its data science strategy.

Opening Keynote

Assoc. Professor Theresa Anderson then delivered a sparkling keynote address laying out some of the challenges and opportunities in this space if we take a transdisciplinary approach — highly recommended viewing!

Perspectives Panel

This was followed by a panel discussion to air a range perspectives across diverse sectors:

Dr Abby Bloom – Sydney Water
Prof Mike Briers – Food Agility UTS
Katie Payten – ASIC
Simon Pereira – Datalicious
Mike J Willet – EYC3

UTS Lightning Talks

Next up, a series of lighting talks from UTS researchers:

Prof Michael Blumenstein – FEIT
Passiona Cottee – MDSI/ NSWDAC
Dr Rebecca Cunningham – ISF
Prof Peter Fray – FASS
Dr Kirsty Kitto – CIC
Prof Joanne Travaglia – Health

The Great Debate

The evening saw us open up the debate to members of the public. Two teams made up of UTS academics, industry, and government leaders went head-to-head to debate the provocative proposition that:

“Humans have blown it: It’s time to turn the planet over to the machines”

Adjudicator and Time Keeper: Perrin Stephenson

For the motion — Team Machine:
1st speaker:Prof Glenn Wightwick
2nd speaker: A/Prof Theresa Anderson
3rd speaker: Christian Bartens

Against the motion — Team Human:
1st speaker: Prof Carl Rhodes
2nd speaker: Verity Firth
3rd speaker: Ellen Broad

The Affirmative (AKA ‘The Machines’)

‘The Machines’ – comprising  UTS Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research Glenn Wightwick, UTS Associate Professor Theresa Anderson and Datalicious founder Christian Bartens (opens external link) – argued that humans have indeed “blown it”.  Degraded ecosystems, anthropogenic climate change, deepening wealth inequality and the resurgence of populist nationalism are all signs of profound global dysfunction.

“16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been since 2000, and yet we still argue at the political level about global climate change,” remarked first speaker Glenn Wightwick, “And current projections suggest that by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish.”

“Our political systems are failing us. Corporations are hiding their profits in tax havens around the world and not paying their fair share. It feels like all the worst aspects of humanity are coming together and smacking us in the head.”

“And yet, we’re on the cusp of technology that can be deployed to help address our failings.”

The Affirmative team argued that a productive relationship between humans and intelligent machines is inevitable, and already emerging.  Finely tuned machines have the potential to help humanity build more efficient, sustainable societies and potentially more robust democracies, where expertise and evidence inform policy-making. Blockchain technology, for example, could help to address some of the more difficult challenges in human governance.

“Blockchain technology is beginning to provide us with some of the answers here, as the base infrastructure for completely new models of distributed governance that are more open, transparent, robust, scalable and fairer,” added Wightwick.

“People are already perceiving new ways we could govern ourselves based on this technology. For example, decentralised autonomous organisations and new forms of democracy that are more stable, less erratic and make better use of expertise.”

Wightwick was backed up by second speaker Associate Professor Theresa Anderson, who – in the spirit of debate – diverted from her usual position as an advocate for human-centred data science.

“If humanity wants to make a go of it on planet Earth, we really need to start doing something different,” remarked Anderson, suggesting that machines will increasingly perform difficult, repetitive work, freeing up time for humans to “do what they do best – create, innovate, design, discover, play, emote, empathise, build communities and make art.”

For third speaker Christian Bartens, the rise of our robotic overlords is seemingly inevitable.

”Computing power is growing exponentially year on year. As machines develop the ability to access all information and compute data in real-time, they become increasingly powerful. Eventually, they will begin to self-innovate.  They will be faster, more reliable and more intelligent. It’s up to humans as to how they choose to negotiate their position in this new world.”

The Negative (AKA ‘The Humans’)

The Negative team’s Professor Carl Rhodes (from the Centre for Business and Social Innovation at UTS), Verity Firth (Executive Director of Social Justice at UTS) and data policy expert Ellen Broad (a.k.a ‘Team Human’) countered the Affirmative’s enthusiastic support for the rise of the machines.  

They questioned claims that the AI-enabled machines of the future will be “neutral” or perfectly ethical.

“AI is fed by existing data created by humans, and data is never neutral. So how do we prevent existing prejudices and biases being built into machines?” asked Firth.

“All of current and historic faults, biases, inequalities and injustices form part of the data that informs AI” said Firth, citing reports about how “predictive policing” technologies recently adopted by NSW Police are disproportionately targeting Aboriginal children.

As long as robots are made in our own self-image, they won’t solve anything,” added Professor Rhodes.

The history of humanity and its vaunted progress is a history of selfishness – a belief that we are at the centre of the Universe. Machines are only amplifying this.  They might make things faster, stronger, deadlier, more efficient and cheaper, but actually solving our problems will require creative, imaginative human thought and collective action”.

Ultimately, the Negative argued that it is up to humans to address their own foibles and failings, and that human emotion, empathy and compassion must remain at the core of our social arrangements.

“Can AI learn to defend social justice? The rights of workers or minorities? Can a machine initiate a civil rights movement? Can a bot love and nurture a child?” asked Ellen Broad.

“If we want to retain hope that we can get out of our current global predicament, we need political creativity, and that is the one thing no machine can offer. Machines can see patterns, they can pretend to argue and appear to debate, but they cannot have an original thought,” argued Professor Rhodes.

And the planet goes to…

The Humans!

Ultimately, ‘The Humans’ (the Negative) were judged the winners on the night (by volume of applause), much to the relief of ethicists, humanists and Orwellian precautionists alike. Humanity prevails…for now.

Hungry to learn more?

  • Women in Data Science, Wednesday 7 March explores this diversity angle — how can Data Science and AI claim to represent society’s best interests when there is systematic gender bias in the field?
  • Browse the videos from the Great Debate and the UTS Conversation
  • The Master of Data Science and Innovation is a ground-breaking program of study and the first transdisciplinary data science degree offered in Australia where creativity and innovation are integral components.