Scotland launches AI strategy with a focus on ethics and inclusion

By on 26/03/2021 | Updated on 26/03/2021
The Scottish government wants the country to become a centre of expertise in ethical AI. Credit: First Minister of Scotland/Flickr

The Scottish government has set out plans to focus on ethics and inclusion in its use of artificial intelligence (AI) within the public sector, publishing an AI strategy that maps out a set of new bodies and governance structures.

Scotland aims to become a centre of expertise in “trustworthy, ethical and inclusive AI”, the strategy says. It wants to influence global standards and regulation on AI, establishing new international partnerships to amplify Scotland’s voice.

It also predicts that the right environment for AI research, skills and delivery programmes will make Scotland attractive to investors.

At an online launch event, Albert King, chief data officer for the Scottish government, said that the strategy will adhere to the OECD’s Principles for AI. The five themes, adopted in May 2019, emphasise inclusivity, benefits for both people and the planet, transparency and security.

King said: “We will have a strong emphasis on being transparent, robust and secure – everyone should contribute to [the development of AI in Scotland] and benefit from it.”

The strategy involves several elements, including the Scottish AI Playbook, which King called “an open and practical guide to how we do AI” and the Scottish AI Alliance to drive implementation of the strategy.

The strategy forms a key strand in the delivery of Scotland’s Digital Strategy, which was first published in 2011; a “refreshed” version was published on 11 March this year.

Trust and transparency

Describing Scotland’s commitment to transparency, King said: “Decisions made in the public sector can affect a large number of people – that applies to processes as simple as AI-assisted form filling or tax code assignment which can potentially have a negative impact, if not carefully managed.

“It also applies to more complex and contentious issues. It is also important that the AI partners who work with us in this space are trusted, principled and transparent.”

At the launch of the AI strategy, Scotland’s finance secretary Kate Forbes said: “Ensuring everyone benefits from the data-driven revolution is about more than technological capability. If AI is to be truly inclusive and have a positive impact on all of us – regardless of age or background – we need to be clear on its role in our society and ensure trust is the ultimate marker of success.

“This strategy sets out that vision, the principles that will guide us and the actions we will take to further strengthen our AI ecosystem. By achieving this, AI will play its part in making Scotland fairer, greener, more prosperous and more successful in the global marketplace.”

Supporting AI to thrive

The overall strategy aims to create a financial, regulatory, skills and communications “ecosystem” in which AI can thrive in various sectors, including healthcare, fintech, automated vehicles and in supporting the response to the climate emergency.

The strategy also commits the Scottish government to unlocking value from data for the public good, and creating a “register of trusted algorithms used in the Scottish public sector”.  

It will also “improve the capacity of the public sector to adopt AI through innovative procurement, support of CivTech and technology pilots”.

CivTech Alliance is a Scottish government organisation that aims to bring together different skill sets and professionals across the world to solve public sector problems.

Collective leadership

Future projects will be steered by the yet-to-be-established Scottish AI Alliance, which will include representation from “businesses, economists, trade unions and our UK and international partners”. It is roughly comparable to the UK’s AI Council.

The Alliance will ensure the participation of civil society in the creation of objectives and priorities for AI, oversee sector-specific task forces and the use of funding and government procurement as levers to support the strategy.

It will also publish an annual “State of AI” report and will be guided by the “Scottish Approach to Service Design”, which – among other issues – foregrounds the need for diversity in service design, including the voice of children as young service users.

Gillian Docherty, chief executive of The Data Lab innovation centre – a publicly-funded body that facilitates partnerships between industry and academia – has been appointed as inaugural chair of the Scottish AI Alliance.

Docherty said: “Through the collective leadership of the Alliance, we hope to tap into Scotland’s AI ecosystem to encourage collaboration and innovation across sectors, to ultimately contribute to our economic, social and environmental outcomes.

“Our ‘Team Scotland’ approach puts people at the heart of driving the strategy, providing learning opportunities and creating strong connections that position our country as a global leader in AI development.”

The strategy will be backed by funding from Scotland’s Infrastructure Investment Plan.

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