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Digital Transformation 2019

Ethical AI is about people, not just technology


Theo Knott

Policy Programmes Manager, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

Ethical AI is not just a technical issue. Equally important is empowering people, so that the benefits of AI can be felt far and wide.

AI is already having a massive impact on the lives we lead, whether that’s in the workplace, how we interact with each other or even within our health services. The decisions that are taken about how we harness the benefits of this new technology, while mitigating against its unintended consequences, should be carefully thought through.

AI is powerful – it affects our daily lives and it makes decisions that are beyond our comprehension. This means careful thought about how and where it should be used, within an ethical framework is one of the preeminent challenges of our time.

A poor understanding of ethical impacts of AI

What is concerning is that our record of understanding the ethical and societal implications of new technology has frequently been poor. Whether it be the Industrial Revolution, which at the time caused significant unemployment, or, these days, data-fuelled social media resulting in misused personal data, we generally only appreciate that we could have done things better in retrospect.

As human beings, we naturally crave technological progress, so, just because new technology may mean new challenges, we shouldn’t avoid change. We must build an understanding of what progress in AI comes at the expense of, and introduce AI with a considered approach. We need to take time to implement it in a way that allows its myriad benefits to be distributed far and wide and its negative aspects mitigated as best they can be.

What is being done?

When it comes to AI, ethical implementation means, broadly, two things: getting the regulation right; and ensuring that it is a technology that has people at its very core. While these are, in some way, interdependent goals, we can end up compounding issues by relying on yet more technology to solve problems that may arise when educating and empowering the people using it.

AI must have people at its core

Putting people at the heart of AI means developing AI that benefits mankind and giving people the tools to harness it. It also means putting appropriate steps in place to protect and offer redress to those who will almost inevitably be impacted as AI becomes ubiquitous, whether that be through job displacement, being the victim of an inaccurate algorithm or something we have yet to consider entirely.

We’re evolving more responsible tech

There are tentative signs that we have learnt some of the lessons regarding AI. Organisations in the UK such as Doteveryone have produced outstanding work on Responsible Technology. Furthermore, the European Commission’s expert AI group, consisting of globally renowned AI academics, has recently finished consulting on its draft ethical guidelines for AI.

It lays out the guidelines around building human trust in AI, and builds cross-border frameworks that regulation needs if it is to be effective in a world of multinational tech companies.

While there are genuine concerns about the negative aspects of AI it should not be forgotten that there are potential benefits that could revolutionise the way we live – for the better. If we implement AI into everyday life, in an ethical and robust way, it is no exaggeration to say that it could be an incredibly liberating force for the world, giving people better health, more wealth and time to do the things they enjoy. But with something this important, it is incumbent on governments and those working in technology to get it right the first time.

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