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Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence could discriminate and companies would get away with it – experts explain why Hong Kong laws need to catch up

If AI prevented recruitment of pregnant woman, company could claim they were not liable 'because robots are not covered by sex discrimination ordinance’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 3:22pm

Hong Kong is lagging behind in adopting artificial intelligence (AI) systems and needs to update laws and regulations to protect people when AI is used, according to industry and legal experts.

Rowan McKenzie, employment legal expert at multinational law firm Baker McKenzie, warned that the rapid emergence of AI technology would require regulatory and legal frameworks to deal with issues that may arise from the increased use of AI.

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McKenzie used the example of an AI system operated by an employer to recruit people that discriminated against a candidate. There is currently no law or regulation that determines who would be responsible for its actions.

“In Hong Kong, if an employer shows that it took all reasonable steps to prevent all discrimination occurring, that is a defence,” McKenzie said.

“But if a defence by the employer is, ‘I bought state-of-the-art AI system ... I’ve done everything I’ve had to do, why should I be responsible?’ ... in Hong Kong these are some of the question we have to look at.”

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If an AI system discriminated against a pregnant woman because she would not be optimal for the workforce because of her requiring maternity leave, an employer could claim they were not “vicariously liable because that was done by a robot and robots are not covered by the sex discrimination ordinance”, Susan Kendall, Baker McKenzie dispute resolution lawyer, said.

“At the moment, the law is lagging behind the technology,” and government will need to set standards, Kendall added.

The use of AI to recruit people is already in use in other countries. In the United States, banking giant Citigroup is using AI to select new university graduates to hire as investment bankers.

But AI adoption in Hong Kong is lagging behind.

“Companies in Hong Kong need to take the step for adoption of AI,” AI Society of Hong Kong co-chairman Eric Thain said.

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One of Hong Kong’s most public use of AI is chatboxes for customer service. Start-ups in Hong Kong are also developing ways to use AI but “it is very slow”, unlike across the border in Shenzhen where it is being “picked up at a much more rapid pace”, according to Thain.

Thain said “legacy” technology was also barrier for AI adoption, since AI software was expensive, it would be difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises to purchase such systems.

Thain believes that for AI adoption to receive a kick-start, the government needs to set policies early “that sets the playing field, rules and boundaries” for AI development and usage.

According to a poll by IT consulting company Infosys, the pharmaceutical industry had the highest level of maturity in AI implementation worldwide at 58 per cent.

Usage of AI is more famous for its use in the aerospace and automotive industry, such as in the development of driverless vehicles, but had the second-highest level of maturity at 54 per cent.