Monday, 22 August 2022 06:51

The unduly narrow scope for "harm" and "biased output" under the AIDA

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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This is the third in my series of posts on the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA) found in Bill C-27, which is part of a longer series on Bill C-27 generally. Earlier posts on the AIDA have considered its purpose and application, and regulated activities. This post looks at the harms that the AIDA is designed to address.

The proposed Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), which is the third part of Bill C-27, sets out to regulate ‘high-impact’ AI systems. The concept of ‘harm’ is clearly important to this framework. Section 4(b) of the AIDA states that a purpose of the legislation is “to prohibit certain conduct in relation to artificial intelligence systems that may result in serious harm to individuals or harm to their interests”.

Under the AIDA, persons responsible for high-impact AI systems have an obligation to identify, assess, and mitigate risks of harm or biased output (s. 8). Those persons must also notify the Minister “as soon as feasible” if a system for which they are responsible “results or is likely to result in material harm”. There are also a number of oversight and enforcement functions that are triggered by harm or a risk of harm. For example, if the Minister has reasonable grounds to believe that a system may result in harm or biased output, he can demand the production of certain records (s. 14). If there is a serious risk of imminent harm, the Minister may order a person responsible to cease using a high impact system (s. 17). The Minister is also empowered to make public certain information about a system where he believes that there is a serious risk of imminent harm and the publication of the information is essential to preventing it (s. 28). Elevated levels of harm are also a trigger for the offence in s. 39, which involves “knowing or being reckless as to whether the use of an artificial intelligence system is likely to cause serious physical or psychological harm to an individual or substantial damage to an individual’s property”.

‘Harm’ is defined in s. 5(1) to mean:

(a) physical or psychological harm to an individual;

(b) damage to an individual’s property; or

(c) economic loss to an individual.

I have emphasized the term “individual” in this definition because it places an important limit on the scope of the AIDA. First, it is unlikely that the term ‘individual’ includes a corporation. Typically, the word ‘person’ is considered to include corporations, and the word ‘person’ is used in this sense in the AIDA. This suggests that “individual” is meant to have a different meaning. The federal Interpretation Act is silent on the issue. It is a fair interpretation of the definition of ‘harm’ that “individual” is not the same as “person”, and means an individual (human) person. The French version uses the term “individu”, and not “personne”. The harms contemplated by this legislation are therefore to individuals and not to corporations.

Defining harm in terms of individuals has other ramifications. The AIDA defines high-risk AI systems in terms of their impacts on individuals. Importantly, this excludes groups and communities. It also very significantly focuses on what are typically considered quantifiable harms, and uses language that suggests quantifiability (economic loss, damage to property, physical or psychological harm). Some important harms may be difficult to establish or to quantify. For example, class action lawsuits relating to significant data breaches have begun to wash up on the beach of lost causes due to the impossibility of proving material loss either because, although thousands may have been impacted, the individual losses are impossible to quantify, or because it is impossible to prove a causal link between very real identity theft and that particular data breach. Consider an AI system that manipulates public opinion through an algorithm that drives content to individuals based on its shock value rather than its truth. Say this happens during a pandemic and it convinces people that they should not get vaccinated or take other recommended public health measures. Say some people die because they were misled in this way. Say other people die because they were exposed to infected people who were misled in this way. How does one prove the causal link between the physical harm of injury or death of an individual and the algorithm? What if there is an algorithm that manipulates voter sentiment in a way that changes the outcome of an election? What is the quantifiable economic loss or psychological harm to any individual? How could causation be demonstrated? The harm, once again, is collective.

The EU AI Act has also been criticized for focusing on individual harm, but the wording of that law is still broader than that in the AIDA. The EU AI Act refers to high-risk systems in terms of “harm to the health and safety or a risk of adverse impact on fundamental rights of persons”. This at least introduces a more collective dimension, and it avoids the emphasis on quantifiability.

The federal government’s own Directive on Automated Decision-Making (DADM) which is meant to guide the development of AI used in public sector automated decision systems (ADS) also takes a broader approach to impact. In assessing the potential impact of an ADS, the DADM takes into account: “the rights of individuals or communities”, “the health or well-being of individuals or communities”, “the economic interests of individuals, entities, or communities”, and “the ongoing sustainability of an ecosystem”.

With its excessive focus on individuals, the AIDA is simply tone deaf to the growing global understanding of collective harm caused by the use of human-derived data in AI systems.

One response of the government might be to point out that the AIDA is also meant to apply to “biased output”. Biased output is defined in the AIDA as:

content that is generated, or a decision, recommendation or prediction that is made, by an artificial intelligence system and that adversely differentiates, directly or indirectly and without justification, in relation to an individual on one or more of the prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in section 3 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, or on a combination of such prohibited grounds. It does not include content, or a decision, recommendation or prediction, the purpose and effect of which are to prevent disadvantages that are likely to be suffered by, or to eliminate or reduce disadvantages that are suffered by, any group of individuals when those disadvantages would be based on or related to the prohibited grounds. (s. 5(1)) [my emphasis]

The argument here will be that the AIDA will also capture discriminatory biases in AI. However, I have underlined the part of this definition that once again returns the focus to individuals, rather than groups. It can be very hard for an individual to demonstrate that a particular decision discriminated against them (especially if the algorithm is obscure). In any event, biased AI will tend to replicate systemic discrimination. Although it will affect individuals, it is the collective impact that is most significant – and this should be recognized in the law. The somewhat obsessive focus on individual harm in the AIDA may unwittingly help perpetuate denials of systemic discrimination.

It is also important to note that the definition of “harm” does not include “biased output”, and while the terms are used in conjunction in some cases (for example, in s. 8’s requirement to “identify, assess and mitigate the risks of harm or biased output”), other obligations relate only to “harm”. Since the two are used conjunctively in some parts of the statute, but not others, a judge interpreting the statute might presume that when only one of the terms is used, then it is only that term that is intended. Section 17 of the AIDA allows the Minister to order a person responsible for a high-impact system to cease using it or making it available if there is a “serious risk of imminent harm”. Section 28 permits the Minister to order the publication of information related to an AI system where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the use of the system gives rise to “a serious risk of imminent harm”. In both cases, the defined term ‘harm’ is used, but not ‘biased output’.

The goals of the AIDA to protect against harmful AI are both necessary and important, but in articulating the harm that it is meant to address, the Bill underperforms.

Teresa Scassa

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