Artificial intelligence, data ethics and trust have risen up the tech thought-leadership agenda in recent months. TechUK’s excellent Digital Ethics summit on 13 December brought together a veritable who’s who of influencers and leaders from industry, academia, government and policy institutions for a day of lively and engaging debate. #AIethics was even trending on Twitter as the summit progressed, to the bemusement of athletics fans clicking on what they thought was a misspelt hashtag.
It’s not all just talk: not one, but two bodies focusing on data ethics and innovation have been announced in recent months. The Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation was announced in the Autumn Budget , while the Nuffield Foundation has brought a number of partners together to establish a Convention on Data Ethics and Artificial Intelligence, set out in detail by Nuffield’s Tim Gardam in his speech at the techUK summit. How they will work together, and avoid duplication and blurred boundaries, will be a challenge in an already crowded institutional landscape. Maybe, as Antony Walker, deputy Chief Executive of techUK, suggested in his closing remarks, the Government body might deal with the here-and-now political imperatives, while the Nuffield Convention might focus on horizon-scanning, creating space for deeper consideration of longer-term issues before they materialise. Sensible in theory, but a potential leadership and accountability muddle in practice.
Throughout the summit, speaker after speaker emphasised the importance of building trust, engaging the public, and of bridging the gap between innovators and customers, between industry and civic society. It’s a theme that also ran through the discussions at the Royal Society and British Academy’s seminar in October on “Data management and use: governance in the 21st century”. Their report and the associated papers, including a contribution from Maeve Walsh, Ci’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, was also published to coincide with the techUK summit. So, it was reassuring to hear from Tim Gardam that public engagement was a priority for the Nuffield Convention – though his conclusion that it was “one critical area where we have to further define our thinking” also suggests it might take a while.
Ci has long believed that the citizen must be at the heart of all decisions about the kind of digital future we want to build. This was a resounding conclusion from our Thought Leadership programme this year. The pace of technological change and the speed of innovation means that many profound changes to the way we live are already underway. Some of these may be hugely beneficial for individuals and communities, and socially or ethically neutral; others may have disturbing unintended consequences or create unequal socio-economic impacts. Some may be both, at the same time. What is certain is that Governments, regulators and policymakers are currently playing catch-up, whether it’s trying to mitigate the impact of the bad stuff, or create the conditions to amplify and spread the benefits of the good.
But speed of change is no excuse for not starting a dialogue with the public now. There isn’t going to be a natural break in the pace of technological transformation anytime soon, no pause in progress where we can take a deep breath and take stock. This is no longer a debate about the kind of digital society we want to see in the future, but what kind of society. Shaping this future, as Matt Hancock acknowledged at the techUK summit, is not something Government can do alone. Nor, we would argue, can the impressive range of organisations – however broad and diverse – at the techUK summit, or any number of other such events every week. This debate has to break out of the tech-conference circuit and speak directly to the public in terms that are meaningful to them.
That is why a few weeks ago we hosted a roundtable with groups from across civic society and the charitable sector to discuss the current common themes and concerns in relation to digital engagement and technological progress. Our starting point was that the dialogue between Government and the tech industry on the kind of future we want to see has to be informed, urgently, by the citizen’s perspective. In short: if the Government’s Digital Charter was truly citizen-centric, what would it look like?
At our roundtable, we heard from groups representing older people, young people, disadvantaged groups and those with disabilities, as well as representatives from industry, those working in the field of digital inclusion and engagement, and researchers. As we’d hoped, there was an overwhelming consensus that greater collaboration and partnership on common priorities across these interest groups was vital, that we need to bring the citizen into the conversation, and that we must ensure that we protect and support the most vulnerable in society to make choices about how technology will affect them.
We’ll be continuing this dialogue and collaboration with urgency and enthusiasm in the New Year. Watch this space and get in touch if you’d like to be involved.