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AI, Ethics and Data: A Watershed Moment?

Author: techUK’s Sue Daley

Recent events have led to much debate about the ethical impact of the use of data-driven technology in democratic societies. We are all now much more aware of what can happen to the information we share online. The tech sector must not shy away from the complex ethical debate around data usage and work with policy makers and academia to ensure every citizen and business knows they are in control of their data. If we don’t, we put at risk the innovation we need to support a thriving society and economy across the UK.

This is probably watershed moment for the tech sector. We are now likely to see much deeper skepticism around data-driven technologies from the media, policy makers and the public. And this increased public debate is a vital step to ensure the UK feels the full economic and social benefits of innovation. There are ethical questions that need to be identified, understood, discussed and answered. In tandem, we must ensure that the public debate remains balanced and constructive. The discussion should not unintentionally stifle positive change or prevent organizations across the public and private sectors from embracing technologies that will support digital transformation and improve lives.

We must recognise and promote the positive stories about the role that data-driven technologies, like machine learning and AI, are playing in people’s lives and delivering things that people really want. These include stories such as how predictive analytics is used to provide flood alerts to vulnerable communities and how machine learning is helping more people to access finance when it is most needed and machine learning and AI helping doctors to spend less on administration and more on providing care. The use of machine learning and AI is also helping us discover new drugs and detect ailments, like cancer tumours, quicker than ever before. Looking ahead, intelligent autonomous AI-driven systems and tools, powered by data, could hold the answers to tackling some of the biggest issues facing society, such as increasing economic productivity, managing an ageing population and child poverty.

All of this would simply not be possible without data science and the use of advanced data-driven technologies. The response to recent developments must be proportionate and should support the industry’s ability to innovate for good. Otherwise, future generations may ask why we didn’t use the tools available to answer growing societal issues earlier. We have a responsibility to not only address the ethical concerns that are raised by AI, but also to develop and deploy advanced tools that can support greater human flourishing.

The good news is we are not starting that discussion from scratch. Over the last few years, there has been intense debate among academics and industry – and real progress has been made on the ethics of tech. There is a deep discussion happening right now, led by individuals in the sector who want to drive change from the inside.

Last year, techUK organised a Data Ethics Summit, bringing together businesses, government and regulators, such as the ICO, to discuss how practical tools can be developed to support ethical decision-making around digital innovation. And we were pleased to see the Government announce the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation – a development we have long called for.

The recent creation by the Nuffield Foundation of the Ada Lovelace Institute also sends a very clear message that the UK is taking a leadership position in moving on from talking about ethics to taking practical action. techUK has welcomed the Institute which will be key to creating the right environment for industry, academia and policy to come together, develop and operationalise ethical decision-making through the promotion of diversity.

The very existence of an active debate on ethics in the UK is an example of how the tech industry has the capacity and the creativity to listen, learn, correct and move forward. More than that, it puts the UK in prime position to be the world leader in AI through data ethics.

Tech has never stood still and now is the time for the industry to move fast and fix things. If we respond to recent developments in the right way, tech firms will be able to deepen their trustworthiness and the UK will be a leader in responsible innovation, adoption, deployment and use of data-driven technologies. It is our job is to continue to build the culture of data trust and confidence needed to ensure technology remains a force for good.

To read more from techUK AI Week, visit our landing page.

Sue Daley is head of programs for cloud, data, analytics and AI at techUK. Read more techUK blogs here.

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