Press OK for AI: are governments ready to automate?

By on 12/02/2023 | Updated on 12/02/2023
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Automation and artificial intelligence could transform public services for the better, but the potential pitfalls are many. An international panel of experts discussed the issues and how to overcome them

Governments around the world are waking up to the potential of automation and AI. Together, they promise to reduce errors, slash costs, and speed up the delivery of almost every imaginable public service. The upsides are hard to ignore, but there are daunting downsides too – not least the risk of further damaging ailing public trust in government.

During a webinar entitled ‘How governments can work with automation’, public sector specialists from the governments of Canada, Israel, and Scotland, and from the Ada Lovelace Institute, discussed the advantages and disadvantages of automation and AI, and examples of successful implementation.

Here we present the best bits of the conversation, with accompanying clips:

Though many governments are already using automation and AI, civil servants don’t always understand exactly how it works or where it can be deployed easily. Jeremy Darot, the Scottish Government’s head of artificial intelligence, spoke about the moment his own organisation realised it needed to spread best practice internally before it could communicate effectively with the public.

The potential benefits of using automation and AI are compelling, but as Harry Farmer, researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute, highlighted, there are real risks that have to be acknowledged and addressed.

Elaborating further, Farmer pointed to the risk of algorithm bias, whereby unchecked biases in data sources result in AI systems making decisions that disadvantage people based on their race, gender or sexuality, for example. Improving data is not enough, he said – there also needs to be real transparency and scrutiny over the value judgments and decisions that are being hard wired into the processes.

Trust is key to effective deployment of AI, but Christos Sarakinos, director, Data Science Division at Statistics Canada, said that governments have yet to have frank conversations with citizens about the potential ramifications. Governments, he said, must do a better job of “candidly discussing the trade-offs” of AI with the public.

Tom Dan, deputy director general of Israel’s Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology, offered multiple counter arguments to fear of AI among the public. He warned that dystopic stories in the media suppress a more productive conversation about how AI and automation can and must make life in the 21st century easier for citizens.

Harry Farmer said that scare-mongering messages around AI, particularly in the media, do needless harm to public trust in these technologies. However, he stressed that communication from pro-AI organisations, including governments, could be better. Rather than “configure public moral sensibilities” to suit the technology, he said, organisations should emphasise the social challenges that AI and automation are meant to solve.

AI and automation can help to make governments more efficient and effective but they aren’t necessarily suitable for use in all policy areas and the panellists didn’t believe that they would ultimately replace the need for officials – indeed, such technologies could free civil and public servants up to focus on tasks that require in-depth human consideration.

To learn all this and more, you can watch the full How governments can work with automation and AI webinar on our dedicated events page. The webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum, was held on 24 January 2023.

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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