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OPINION | Indigenous societies have lived sustainably for thousands of years, so can our sciences provide a more accurate and ethical algorithm that informs Artificial Intelligence?
Luke Briscoe

9 Oct 2018 - 2:44 PM  UPDATED 9 Oct 2018 - 3:51 PM

A landmark UN report by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) has delivered a dramatic and extraordinarily serious warning: We have little more than a decade to get global warming under control or the world is at risk.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report tells us that our carbon emissions targets will need to fall 45 per cent from 2010 levels— or 58 per cent from 2015 totals —by 2030 if we are to reverse the impact of climate change. In light of the damning report, the Australia's mining industry and the Morrison government rejected the report that calls on nations to phase out all coal-fired power.

Some scientist suggest that the environmental damage is so bad, that only we can fix it is through developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) abut through an ethical lens. Ethics in AI relates to the ethics of technology specific to robots and other artificially intelligent beings. Roboethics, as it's commonly known, concerns the moral behaviour of humans as they design, construct, use and treat artificially intelligent beings and machine ethics.

That being said, would it not make sense to develop ethical AI from the First Nations sciences and technologies that are inherently sustainable?

I strongly believe that First Nations science can provide solutions to major issues like climate change. Indigenous businesses that are inherently sustainable could also fast track a reduction in carbon emissions.

I strongly believe that First Nations science can provide solutions to major issues like climate change. Indigenous businesses that are inherently sustainable could also fast track a reduction in carbon emissions. However, corporates and governments need to work with us in order to make this happen.

For starters, First Nations peoples are the first scientists, inventors and ecologists, and it was our deep understanding of how humans can co-exist with nature that enables us to lead discussions and debates about global sustainability. Despite this knowledge, Indigenous peoples are still rarely considered when it comes to discussing and shaping policy around AI and sustainability.

Of course this inclusion comes with concerns about the level of cultural safety to ensuring Scared Traditional Knowledge, which has been held with family groups for hundreds of generations, will not be exploited. Traditional Knowledge has had great economic advancement for First Nation Peoples in industries that range from tourism, agricultural, artsclean energy, and through to the biotechnology industry. 

There are many examples of First Nations successes, but one that stand out for me right now is All Grid Energy. Ray Pratt is an proud Arrernte man who is the CEO of All Grid Energy, a multi-million dollar clean energy company, providing affordable solutions to clean energy in both urban and remote areas.

First Nations people can achieve a lot in the innovation and science sectors and it seems like the perfect fit to our long experience with science dating back over 80,000. But with the lack of First Nations voices in science, technology and the environmentalism space, you have to ask yourself; why aren't we seeing more businesses like All Grid and where does the disconnect stem from?


History of Racism in the science and technology sector

In 2016, my company INDIGI LAB collaborated with the Museum of Applied Art and Science  hold an Indigenous Science Symposium over the Science Week weekend. This gathering brought together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, theorists, researchers, designers, engineers, educators and students from across the community, and provided an important opportunity to shape future research and investigations that are focused on exploring and sharing the sophistication, richness, and leadership of Australia’s First Peoples within the scientific domain. The findings from the round table discussions about racism in the sector was alarming and provided a snapshot of the level of racism that exists in the STEM sector and also the road ahead to change.

The first contact between European scientists and Indigenous peoples was shameful and morbid, to say the very least.

Many science institutions had deeply racist processes of researching and cataloguing First Nations Peoples and their cultures, with many scientists considering Flora and Fauna of greater value than First Nations Peoples. In fact, some of this racist cataloguing can still be found, concealed in basements of museums and galleries today, yet repatriations of First Nations remain. Artefacts in institutions are allowing for a much-needed change to the archives as they continue to remind us that very dark times occurred in this country’s history.

Artefacts in institutions are allowing for a much-needed change to the archives as they continue to remind us that very dark times occurred in this country’s history.

In the 19th Century Darwinism was a popular science theory that reinforced a notion that Caucasian people were a superior race, thus First Nations science by First Nations people couldn’t provide any useful information and was excluded from any science enquiries.

But even though social Darwinism theory had a devastating impact on First Nations Peoples, it was ultimately James Cook’s decision to declare Terra Nullius and that would lay down the foundational lie of the country that would also add to the treatment of First Nations peoples.

The result of Darwinism and Terra Nullius would result in the racist policies and stereotypes which stated that First Nations were not treated as citizens of Australia, it would take almost forty years for Australia to make the change in the constitution and even today, First Nations Australians are still fighting to be formally recognised in the constitution.

In the early 1900s, Ngarrindjeri man and inventor, David Unaipon would start to change people’s perceptions of First Nations Peoples. His remarkable inventions, which included the centrifugal motor and mechanical propulsion device, compelled Australians to accept and legitimise Aboriginal intelligence, and also forced them to consider the scientific knowledge of the world’s oldest culture. 

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It has also been reported that Unaipon contributed to the design of the helicopter, having designed its rotors pre-World War I, based on the principle of the boomerang and his fascination with perpetual motion. Unaipon's legacy continues to pave the way for younger First Nations people to unearth the First Nations science Australia has buried beneath a ton of denial. However, despite David’s successful contributions to science and technology in this country, he died a poor man.

It wasn’t until the late 20th Century that science focused a lot more on environmental sustainability and began looking to First Nations people for solutions. While there is now a widely accepted view in the science community about the role First Nations People can play in environmental science research, the extraction of First Nation Knowledge systems is yet to provide significant benefits to the Knowledge Holders themselves.

Looking back, it's no wonder why there are still issues where Indigenous values aren't respected in both the science and sustainable sectors. The science sector is inherently racist and even though bridging the science divide seems an obvious solution, changing the minds of people to value Indigenous science and sustainable Knowledge seems to be very difficult.


First Nations peoples and AI

There’s no denying that technology and AI is playing a vital role in our everyday lives; from robots in factories, to voice activated hand held devices to digital automation on public transport. AI is becoming more and more integrated into our every day.

But even though robots and AI might seem new and innovative, the truth is we have been developing and testing AI for thousands of years. Some 2000 years ago, Greek mathematician Archytas, one of the most notable inventors, created a steam-powered flying pigeon. It was built of wood, and was one of the first studies into how birds fly.

But long before the Greeks, First Nations Australians had developed technologies using AI from thousands of years of studying the earth and understanding how they fit within the earth. Even today we see First Nations technology like the Boomerang used in modern technology like the Mars drone, to the propeller of ships. In fact, Indigenous knowledge led the way for the maritime and aviation industries and put Australia ahead in science and innovation, yet there was no consideration of how that Knowledge would or should be used. 

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So even at the very beginning, you can see the importance placed on nature and our connection to her.

For some sections of society, AI can be very divisive. In 2016 Microsoft axed the Twitter Bot only a couple of hours in launching the project as it started repeating internet racism and sexism. Recently, the Dubai government passed laws that allow robots the same civil rights as humans. This had human’s rights groups up in arms, as this would mean that robots have more rights than women in the country. Given how First Nations Peoples all across the globe are still fighting for basic rights themselves, you have to wonder how the future might look for mob if robots end up with more rights than us? For example, rather than addressing the barriers which contribute to widespread unemployment for Indigenous people, will more jobs just start going to robots? 

With examples of AI being misused for peoples own agendas or ideologies, the need for diverse Knowledge's regarding this topic is clear. With a lack of gender and culture diversity in science and technology, could decolonising this sector provide a solution to creating AI that will sustain our world? 

In the last decade there have been calls to “decolonise science”, and some scientists are even calling on a new foundational name for the industry as the term 'science' has been tarnished with racism and sexism throughout its history. 

First Nations people, perspectives, and Knowledge have contributed substantially to the development of science and technology and hopefully this will continue into the future, shaping protocols and ethics in AI.


So what needs to happen?

Here are a couple of ideas to achieving cultural changes in the way Western people value Indigenous Knowledge in the science and sustainability sectors;

  • Governments and corporates need to fund Indigenous science institutes that are separate independently run, as per article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;the need to have their own science institutes which is funded by government.
  • There needs to be Indigenous ethical guidelines for the use of Indigenous Knowledge in STEM and AI. Government and corporates needs to adopt the Indigenous ethical guidelines to develop stronger relationships and trust in the STEM sector.

The guidelines needs to consider the following;

      • Ensure the guidelines are developed through Indigenous culture protocols that considers Indigenous arts, science, music, lore/law and culture;
      • Ensure Indigenous peoples guide the process and establish and independent reporting process;
      • Account for an future acts in relation to Indigenous rights and culture; and   
      • Ensure that there legislations that support the breach of the guidelines;
      • Develop a clear process in ensuring changes in social norms are adopted.
  • The government, backed by corporates, should support a summit that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous STEM and sustainable thought leaders to discuss ways forward in working together to combat climate change.
  • At an educational level, there needs to be stronger links with Indigenous ethics, sustainability and STEM taught at schools which also needs to be mandatory; and I suggest to start in places like Sydney where there is an high population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.
  • Access to cultural stories need to be coordinated through the new proposed National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority.
  • There needs to be stronger laws that ensure healthy environments for all Australians, and in particular the city areas; and this needs to be supported by a Municipal Declaration that local, state and federal are accountable.
  • The Indigenous procurement policies supply changes need to ensure links with corporates and government agencies are green. Supply Nation could lead by example and develop a Green Tick approval for supply chains that are ethically and environmentally friendly. Very much like the Fair Trade approval and this will enable the Indigenous business sector to develop best business practice models for all Australians.
  • Lastly, we all need to take responsibility for our own actions and educate ourselves and kids about mitigate our action to combat climate change.


On the 24th October INDIGI LAB, CSIRO, The City of Sydney, Clean Air and Urban Landscapes, The Suzuki Foundation and Twitter will partner to host the 2018 STREAMS Connect Summit at the NCIE in Redfern, Sydney.

This STREAMS Connect Summit is a gathering where inspirational First Nations practitioners, sustainable thought leaders, scientist and educators discuss ways to combat climate change in the business and education sector.


Luke Briscoe is a proud Kuku-Yalanji man, Digital Producer at NITV and the CEO of INDIGI LAB, an Indigenous owned and operated STEM organisation which creates innovative projects for social and environmental change through digital culture. Follow Luke @LukeBriscoe79