Innovation and changeDigital TransformationCitizen engagement needed if public sector AI potential is to be maximised

Citizen engagement needed if public sector AI potential is to be maximised

A new report launched argues that the public needs to be engaged early and more deeply in the use of AI if it is to be ethical - and successful

A new report argues that the public needs to be engaged early and more deeply in the use of AI if it is to be ethical – and successful.

A poll conducted for the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) by YouGov revealed widespread concern that AI will create a ‘Computer Says No’ culture, in which crucial decisions are made automatically without consideration of individual circumstances. If the public feels ‘victimised or disempowered’ by intelligent machines, they may resist the introduction of new technologies, even if it holds back progress which could benefit them, the report warned.

Fear of inflexible and unfeeling automatic decision-making was a greater concern than robots taking human jobs among those taking part in a survey by pollsters YouGov for the RSA.

 

Public dialogue needed

As a result, the RSA’s Forum for Ethical AI is making the case for entering into a public dialogue with citizens about the conditions under which this technology is used. While human rights law serves to protect people from egregious violations, it suggests that the public sector needs to engage directly with people to address the wider problems of mistrust and disempowerment that can arise when only a few are making critical decisions on behalf of many.

The report goes on to say that there are many ethical issues that a public dialogue could address. For example, autonomous vehicles and weapons are currently capturing the public’s imagination. Both are being developed and attracting investment in research, although neither is commercially available yet. These systems raise questions about how much power should be ceded to AI over human life.

The dual-use nature of AI is also increasingly of concern as it has become apparent that technology designed with one purpose in mind can be exploited for different and, possibly, more malevolent aims.

Researchers have observed, “Surveillance tools can be used to catch terrorists or oppress ordinary citizens. Information content filters could be used to bury fake news or manipulate public opinion. Governments and powerful private actors will have access to many of these AI tools and could use them for public good or harm.”

This report’s suggestions follow on from a recent call by the AI Now Institute for public agencies to enable communities to review and comment on their use of automated decision systems, detailing the process as part of ‘Algorithmic Impact Assessments’.

 

Preventing a backlash

The RSA’s director of action and research, Anthony Painter, said: “The establishment appears to worry most about AI replacing jobs, but actually the public is more concerned with a world of constant surveillance, monitoring and ‘Computer Says No’. What we’re seeing is more akin to a creeping feeling of loss of influence and control, as we saw with the Brexit vote.

“To prevent a backlash against tech firms and government, we need new rights for workers and consumers, responsibilities for employers and corporations, and an active role for government: not just in nurturing innovative companies, but also in making AI part of a more civil society.”

The RSA’s Forum for Ethical AI is conducting a series of “citizens’ juries” to discuss the use of AI and automated decision-making with the public.

The RSA report can be downloaded in full here.

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