Who's going to keep an eye on AI?

The explosion in artificial intelligence is wildly exciting for products like Blink - but there is always a persistent grey cloud in the wide blue sky. What if the bright, brave new world doesn't work out so great for everyone? Who's got the back of the little guy against the tech giants busy creating the future?

It's something that is exercising many very capable minds.

TechUK this week hosted a panel debate called 'Driving the data ethics and governance debate forward' to look at where the buck should stop as our "data-driven economy and society evolve".

Artificial intelligence dominated the discussion. Not just because AI consumes vast amounts of data but because of the technology's societal impact. Algorithms will play a bigger part in decision making that affects us in the real world. Automation will bring huge changes to the way we work, with the potential to displace people from the labour market.

Opening the debate, Sue Daley, techUK's lead on cloud, data, analytics and AI, said: "The technology sector is being looked to for answers to data governance questions. We need to start considering how to respond."

Hope versus fear

The mainstream media always needs a dramatic angle and so it's easy to see why, for example, the findings of an academic study on the potential impact of robotics might be presented as an impending employment apocalypse.

Panellist Hetan Shah, Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society, warned of a potential parallel with the backlash against genetically modified crops. The science had been compelling, he said, but there wasn't the public buy-in for a 'licence to operate' and wide-scale use of GM technology stalled. The perception was of corporate profit - in this case by the big biotech firms - over pubic benefit. Any sense of such benefit was downed out by headlines about the threat of 'Frankenstein foods'.

It's easy to see how something similar could happen as AI goes increasingly mainstream.

Claire Craig, Director of Science Policy at the Royal Society, said the societal benefits of data were clear, helping with everything from food supply to education and healthcare. Set against that, though, was genuine fear of robots taking jobs and people being 'left behind'. When it comes to autonomous decision making, she pointed out that algorithms such as those used by Netflix and Amazon had far less serious implication than those used for something like providing healthcare.

The WannaCry ransomware attack sparked chaosThe power of AI will also mean "software vulnerability will be amplified", according to Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University. Just days after the WannaCry malware attack, Prof Floridi said: "What you see in the NHS hack today is going to be tens of thousands of driverless cars tomorrow." Data ethics, he said, "has to include artificial intelligence and machine learning".

Real danger is NOT innovating

The flip side to all the concern over algorithms guzzling so much of our data is this - what happens if they don't? The panel was unanimous in making the case for innovation. In fact, techUK's Walker went as far as to say there was "an ethical imperative to innovate."

He cited the NHS as an example of where data could tackle inefficiencies and save huge amounts of money: "It's our ethical responsibility to future generations if we want them to have a health service that is affordable."

The use of data and technology such as artificial intelligence, the panel agreed, offered ways to augment what humans do rather than wholesale replace us. This is a case Man + Machine has made before:

Automation is not the enemy

Recent headlines would have us believe that artificially intelligent automation is soon going to lay waste to huge…blog.joinblink.com Creating technology that does that will make the case and help dispel some of the fear. And the technology created by companies like Blink will continue to make that idea a reality.

A body such as an ethics council might help innovators maintain perspective, and hold to account the tech giants who the panel said represented a 'data monopoly'. But while the techUK panel agreed that an AI future was hurtling towards us, there is little sign of such a body forming any time soon. In the meantime, it is in the interest of the technology sector to take the public with it into the future by doing the right thing when it comes to using data and algorithms.

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