A Māori lens on AI: how indigenous cultures can help keep us grounded

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sara Stratton, Ngāti Kahu, Ngati Hine, Māori Lab


  • The notion of diversity and inclusion needs to be more than just a feel-good factor of fairness, or a cultural box to tick.
  • Māori values, thinking and processes have been navigating uncharted waters of change for centuries and were present in the country’s COVID-19 strategy.
  • Māori are ready for the digital challenges of the future and keen to embed diversity within.

The notion of diversity and inclusion is slowly becoming an obligation – but also an opportunity. It sits ready to help us shape entire systems and worldviews in ways that can benefit a wide range of stakeholders.

So, what if AI could be embedded with the values of diversity, inclusion, dignity – its purpose to protect and ensure the sustained wellbeing of people and planet? What if there was no sense in which AI could be bought and sold to the highest bidder, but was managed for the good of many?

Today’s great changes are all about navigating uncharted waters; COVID-19, social and environmental crises and disruptive technologies are demanding new ways of thinking, fresh values, and ways forward like none other taken before.

In Maori culture, when harms or imbalances are detected, corrective measures for the whole are decided and acted upon, rather than focusing on the spot treatment of symptoms.—Sara Stratton

Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa in New Zealand, have important contributions to make in this regard. Our values, vision, thinking and methods are not just beneficial to us, or even Aotearoa; they can benefit the world, as we all face new horizons.

What’s a Māori lens?

One of our elders once said, “The greatest ethic of all is the maintaining and flourishing of whānaungatanga, or relationships.” At the heart of a Māori lens is being connected; having relationships with people, the planet and with purpose.

Māori look to ensure and sustain the individual and collective wellbeing of everyone, on a spiritual, physical, mental and emotional level. The Māori lens recognises that the past gives the individual an immediate right of belonging, which in turn sets up a responsibility in the present to maintain and pass on to the collective whole, thereby investing in a bright future for all.

When harms or imbalances are detected, corrective measures for the whole are decided and acted upon, rather than focusing on the spot treatment of symptoms.

Wellbeing was introduced as part of the Maori economy, adding to the western model of profit for the shareholder as the bottom line. —Sara Stratton

These holistic, collective principles can be seen, for instance, when Māori land is returned; it is not immediately turned into private land with a “keep out” sign put on the door, even if it is prime real estate. Instead, local tribes continue to co-govern with the local government for the inclusive benefit of everybody. It is a successful business model.

Wellbeing was introduced as part of our economy, adding to the western model of profit for the shareholder as the bottom line. A river was given legal personhood, recognising our intimate relationship with our environment. Contrast this with the mindset that sees everything as a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

Recently, our Team New Zealand COVID-19 strategy, which was so successful, adopted our Mātou/Tātou, Rangatiratanga/Kotahitanga concept.

Mātou and Tātoua are our two words for “we” or “all of us”. Māori are so intent not to leave anyone out that we use both; Mātou is the normal “we”, and Tātou means “all of us”, including the environment and anything we might have inadvertently left out.

Rangatiratanga is the fundamental respect for an individual, a skill, or a place in society. Kotahitangi, meanwhile, denotes the unity that harnesses our differences together for a purpose bigger than our individual selves.

Our COVID-19 policy stressed the need to unite in our diversity of skill, experience and place, and work together as a team for a primary purpose.

An individual and collective responsibility for the planet: the new AI?

The essence of Māori values and expectations do not change when change comes; the change is in how we adapt and how and why we decide what to adopt what we do.

If we were to look at AI through a Māori lens, individual and collective responsibility for the care and sustainability of people and planet, with profit and to drive purpose, would be the standard. Every very decision about AI’s purpose, creation, use and those involved, would be made with constant recourse to it.

AI’s benefits range from the mundane (improving traffic control and GPS routes), to entertainment (suggesting a love-match), to saving lives, as epitomised by the real-time response to COVID-19 when tracking outbreaks.

We are becoming increasingly aware of both the potential and real harm of algorithmic bias in the AI lifecycle, at the same time. It is now widely accepted that built into these algorithms are the perspectives and values of the creators and developers.

If the original data is biased, newly vcreated algorithms that are taught to other machines will grow the error exponentially. And when the tool is used to deliver ‘fake news’, or predict over people’s lives, managing their mortgages, healthcare or even matters of justice, the potential for harm is clear.

Ka mua, ka muri or Look before you leap: a Māori approach to all things new

Māori face the future by looking at the lessons to be learned from the past. Māori, along with other indigenous nations, have already been the recipients of the analogue version of algorithmic bias: colonisation.

This was the tool whereby the beliefs, faith, values, systems and goals of British and European, privileged men were laid over whole societies via the law; the analogue version of algorithms.

Whole new systems were created and embedded with this new data to build societies from that protected and reflected them. But the original data was incomplete. It excluded all others and did not recognise pluralistic values, worldviews, genders or ethnicities.

If Silicon Valley, which created historic, harmful consequences by excluding other cultures, genders, worldviews and values in the analogue world, has the power to embed their biases in AI, the consequences will be harmful.—Sara Stratton

The individual shareholder was king and had the right to own anything, anyone and any place, extending to the environment. Return on investment, growth and profit at all cost drove the whole exercise.

The consequences of this analogue bias are writ large in Aotearoa’s past. Present-day statistics, on the other hand, measure just how well our society and the environment is doing.

Signposts for successfully achieving change with regard to Māori wellbeing or outcomes Image: Deloitte ‘State of the State New Zealand’ report

Differences in worldview have routinely displaced the Māori people from positions of power, and relegated them to the poorest, saddest, most imprisoned, uneducated and unwell populations in Aotearoa.

Our 100% clean, green image is actually a distant memory from when Māori had control over the environment.

It’s not too late: lessons from the past, for a future living with AI

If Silicon Valley, which created historic, harmful consequences by excluding other cultures, genders, worldviews and values in the analogue world, has the power to embed their biases in AI, the consequences will be harmful.

Examples already abound with biases in tools used for health, the distribution of resources and justice. These are made more terrifying by the thought of tools using facial recognition, for example.

Māori are excited about creating and using AI and indeed many new technologies. We have historically welcomed change and been fast adapters and adopters. But if things don’t shift at a fundamental level, the outcomes won’t be exactly the same as they are now; they will be much worse for the same people and our planet.

AI is already affecting white collar jobs, making understanding the best approach to it in the interests of many. A Māori lens on AI will benefit not only Māori, but add real value to any organisation or nation motivated to adopt our principles.

This is a mātou-tātou, or “Team World” opportunity.

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