/Element AI tapped to study human rights implications of Sidewalk Labs plan

Element AI tapped to study human rights implications of Sidewalk Labs plan

Waterfront Toronto confirmed Thursday that Montreal-based artificial intelligence startup Element AI is leading a human rights impact assessment of the proposed Sidewalk Labs smart city development in Toronto.

Element AI is the lead in a consortium for a $200,000 contract that also includes human rights experts with ITN Solicitors, the Thinking Forward Network and Fair/Square Research.

Waterfront Toronto, a federal-provincial-municipal agency tasked with revitalizing the city’s lakeshore, is reviewing various aspects of the proposal for an innovative development by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., which is also the parent company to Google.

A model of Sidewalk Labs community planned for Toronto’s harbour.

Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Element AI was founded in 2016, and includes rockstar artificial intelligence professor Yoshua Bengio as a member of the founding team. Bengio was one of the key academics responsible for developing deep learning using neural networks, a programming technique that leverages massive amounts of data to allow computers to engage in more sophisticated decision-making.

The company has raised $340 million in venture capital funding to date, and reportedly employs more than 100 people with PhDs developing various artificial intelligence applications.

But the AI products listed on the company’s website are heavily focused on financial services and administrative functions, and apart from a 2018 research project in partnership with Amnesty International using AI to study online abuse, it’s not clear what expertise the company has when it comes to human rights issues.

In an emailed statement Element AI confirmed their role but declined to comment further.

“As a part of this consortium of human rights, data governance, and privacy experts awarded by Waterfront Toronto, we will begin working to identify and understand potential human rights implications associated with the urban innovations proposed by Sidewalk Labs,” the company said.

“Until the project gets fully underway, we can not share any more information at this time.”

Kristina Verner, a vice-president with Waterfront Toronto, emphasized that Element AI brings a level of technical expertise to the evaluation, along with the other firms that have more expertise in human rights issues.

“I don’t expect Element to have 100 per cent of the skills, and I don’t expect Fair/Square to have 100 per cent of the more technically oriented skills. It’s that combination that made them so compelling,” Verner said.

“I would say Element AI, although they’re the lead on this, they were actually the value-add to the team, for us.”

Waterfront Toronto received two bids in response to its request for proposals for the human rights impact assessment issued late last year.

The preliminary assessment is expected in February, which will be made public to inform a round of consultations before the Waterfront Toronto board of directors votes on whether to approve the project by the end of March. Andrew MacLeod, the chief executive of Postmedia Network Inc., which owns the Financial Post, is a member of the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto.

At various public consultation sessions throughout the past two years, Toronto residents have voiced concerns about the association with Google, and the potential for intensive data collection.

Earlier this week at a public event, Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff downplayed the data-collection elements of the project, saying the development “never really was about data.”

Verner said the human rights impact assessment was meant to address those data concerns directly, and that tapping Element AI means they can rely on serious expertise when it comes to data issues.

“It would be naive to say the project isn’t going to have a significant technological innovation element to it, and that is the highest area of concern that has consistently been raised by the government,” she said.

“There was enough repetition in terms of the types of questions I thought it was incumbent upon us to do some responsible due diligence on it.”

Thorben Wieditz, who speaks for the Block Sidewalk group that has been a vocal critic of the project, doubted that Element AI would bring an appropriate level of skepticism to evaluating the use of data collection and artificial intelligence in the project proposal.

“It seems that they’re in the business of selling organizations around the world on the value of utilizing AI to make them more profitable and more efficient,” Wieditz said.

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