AI ethics
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Vernon Hunte, Associate Director of Public Affairs at April Six, discusses how COVID-19 will change up out attitude towards artificial intelligence (AI) ethics

COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the varying capacity and willingness of worldwide governments to use analytics on often highly personal data to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. At the same time, businesses responding to the challenging economic environment are looking with renewed interest at AI solutions to form part of their response.

In short, coronavirus has supercharged the already fast-moving debate on ethical frameworks for artificial intelligence. As part of April Six’s ongoing Industry Leaders series, we spoke to three senior executives for their views on this shifting landscape: Caroline Gorski, Group Director at Rolls Royce’s R² Data Labs; Simon Dennis, Director for Future Government and Head of Public Affairs at analytics leader SAS and James Loft, Chief Operation Officer at intelligent automation firm Rainbird. The full interviews are available as a free download, but here are a few key points:

Navigating the unprecedented

One of the central questions in recent years centres around the need to ensure that decisions made by AIs can be explained to ensure transparency and fairness, and to give legitimacy to the technology and the organisations which deploy them. Simon Dennis raised the question of whether it would be possible for governments to create an ongoing permissibility where systems continually monitor for signs of potential crisis, but in which “its conclusions are totally hidden unless certain criteria are met” such as the “identification of a clear and present danger”.

Whilst attention has often focused on the protection of consumer data, Caroline Gorski points out that full transparency is “profoundly difficult to do if you are dealing with true machine learning or artificial intelligence”. This is central to R² Data Labs’ work in safety critical industries in which emergent properties – things that have never happened before – need to be detected and could also be applied to help aid economic recovery post-pandemic. For this reason, is there a need for separate regulation to cover industries and applications that aren’t analysing the data of private citizens?

Industry collaborations forged during the pandemic emergency hold great potential

Whether independently or in response to calls by Government, COVID-19 has revealed the great capacity of the tech industry to innovate. Rainbird, for example, has provided an intelligently automated online tool to limit unnecessary self-isolation by NHS staff by, in the words of James Loft, “offering clarity at scale – clarity humans couldn’t have done in an environment which is changing daily”. Simon Dennis comments that “one of the interesting things we’ve seen is a new spirit of collaboration between erstwhile competitors”, and Caroline Gorski points out that in the wake of COVID-19 “Rolls Royce has established the Emergent Alliance alongside a significant group of other partners to apply our data science expertise and framework to the economy”.

The Crown Commercial Service has received over 8,800 offers of support from companies in response to the pandemic. At the same time, Government has faced criticism for delays in rolling out the contact-tracing mobile phone app. It will be interesting to see the longevity and value of these partnerships beyond the immediate.

Responses to the pandemic have highlighted the value of AI augmentation of human teams

The economic outlook is grim and uncertain, and there is a fear that in a drive to cut costs a further wave of redundancies will take place as roles are further automated. However, James Loft argues that the care that businesses have shown for their human talent during the crisis means “organisations will look to automation as a tool to safeguard against future threats. It will be to support and augment their people, rather than replace them”.

Those businesses that are on a journey towards a reduced headcount were likely to do so even without the pandemic. And at this precarious moment company reputation and human relationships are important factors in successfully navigating the storm ahead.

Public trust and political leadership are essential ingredients

Within a generation public attitude towards the application of their personal data shifted dramatically from general ignorance, to enthusiasm, to a default suspicion. COVID-19 provides a watershed moment, particularly for Western democracies, to set balances between data collection and analysis for pandemic prevention and response and the rights of the citizen.

All governments will have learnt lessons from this unprecedented crisis. However, it will be those which have best retained public trust that will be able to best lead the debate on ethical borderlines and champion the systems which can help prepare for the next crisis. It’s worth noting that, according to YouGov, the percentage of people who think the UK Government has handled the coronavirus “very” or “somewhat” well has seen the most consistent decline compared to other Western governments.

In the last few years, UK Government has set up numerous bodies concerned with data innovation and regulation, and also considered how the public sector can lead best practice. The big question – with looming record unemployment and economic uncertainty – is how expertise and understanding can be cascaded through the key departments of state in Whitehall.


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