Avantik is a scholarship recipient of the ARC Centre for Automated Decision-Making and Society.

Each year the Centre offers a select number of PhD scholarships across our nodes to engage and prepare the next generation of researchers to make world-leading contributions in an increasingly engaged and transdisciplinary research environment.

Thesis Title
Freedom of Thought, Surveillance and the Law

Research Description
Avantik’s thesis aims to explore the possibility of how AI may tend to usurp the right to free thought under Article 18, ICCPR.

Unlike ‘forum externum’, the right to free thought concerns the ‘forum internum’ and cannot be restricted. This would only gain sincerity if we were sure of what constitutes ‘thought’ within the meaning of law.

While some scholars believe ‘thoughts’ should mean all kinds of cognitive outcomes, others contend that ‘thoughts’ must only include sophisticated manifestations of cognitive functioning such as the capacity to reason and the ability to decide. Additionally, there is also debate on whether ‘thoughts’ encompass ‘external thinking’ or the external record of one’s thoughts. Would a person’s digital footprint, in the nature of internet searches and smartphone captured surveillance data, constitute ‘expression’ or ‘thought’?

It is important to carefully undertake this categorization without erroneous conflation, because- to use ‘expression’ to mean ‘thought’, would unduly protect expression beyond the political consensus of its limited protection. Conversely, to use ‘thought’ to mean ‘expression’ would relegate the status of absolute protection offered to thoughts.

The first part of Avantik’s study would, therefore, focus on identifying the key constituents of ‘thought’ for the purposes of human rights law. It would investigate the possibility of including external thinking within the realm of thought protection. The second part will be dedicated to try ascertaining manners in which freedom of thought is breached.

The contours of an enabling atmosphere for thought cultivation also warrants some investigation. Recommendation software, for instance, customizes content for consumption, and is justified on the basis of making it convenient for consumers to focus attention on ‘interesting’ content. However, this filtration works on identifying similarities in watching patterns, and continually recommends content similar to previously consumed information.

If the idea of a right to free thought also guarantees an enabling atmosphere, the use of recommendation software may be problematic because it runs antithetical to the idea of plurality of information—which is a sine qua non to the nurturing of new ideas and thoughts.

With emerging technology ushering in innovative ways to influence free, independent thinking, it is useful to re-assess what the right means and how it might be able to effectively guard against effects of contemporary technologies, communication and commerce.

Avantik’s study would therefore, be dedicated to assess the key requirements of what constitutes thought, what constitutes vitiation of the right to free thought, and what exactly is the ‘enabling atmosphere’ which the literature and international bodies frequently mention. Attention would be focused on ways to secure individuality against the threat of biased ‘automation’ of thoughts, facilitated through the algorithmic deployment of neurotech, by State and private corporations.

Prof Andrew Kenyon, University of Melbourne
Dr Jake Goldenfein, University of Melbourne