UK civil servants told to exercise caution around AI chatbot use

By on 27/02/2023 | Updated on 27/02/2023
ChatGPT interface

The UK Department for Science, Information and Technology (DSIT) has advised civil servants thinking about using artificial intelligence chatbots to automate tasks to weigh up the risks and benefits.

The i newspaper revealed last week that DSIT had been asked by multiple departments to clarify whether AI chatbots like ChatGPT could be used to automate tasks such as email and letter writing and repetitive work in policymaking.

It is understood that DSIT has not explicitly discouraged the use of chatbots by officials but has suggested that departments be aware both of their potential for making government work easier and the associated pitfalls.

The requests for clarification follow a steep rise in the popularity of services such as ChatGPT and others launched by tech firms including Google and Bing. Developed by Silicon Valley-based AI research and deployment firm OpenAI, ChatGPT was launched in November last year and has since drawn global media attention and controversy for its sophisticated responses to user demands and questions. It has gained 100 million users in just two months.

DSIT’s advice has been praised by Gavin Freeguard, an associate at London-based think tank the Institute for Government, who said that the department appeared to have struck a sensible balance between optimism and scepticism around the use of chatbots in state administration.

“Governments should always be thinking about how new technology can support their operations and ultimately benefit citizens, but it’s vital that they don’t get swept away by the hype – adopting new technologies in haste and repenting at leisure,” he said.

The government was approached by i but said they would not comment on leaks.

Read more: Biden sets out AI Bill of Rights to protect citizens from threats from automated systems

‘An epoch-defining development’

In the same week that DSIT’s advice came to light, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published a report entitled ‘A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain‘. In it, the former Labour leader and UK prime minister Tony Blair and his one-time rival for No.10 Downing Street, Conservative party politician William Hague wrote that AI was “finally living up to decades of ambition to collectively become an epoch-defining development”.

Blair and Hague pushed for what they described as “government-led development of sovereign general-purpose AI systems, enabled by the required supercomputing capabilities, to underpin broad swaths of public-service delivery”.

They also called for a number of changes to help government deliver in the “AI era”. These include a national health infrastructure that used “interoperable data platforms” to reduce costs and improve operational efficiencies, as well as secure, privacy-orientated digital ID for citizens to enjoy better interactions with government.

Governments around the world are increasingly using AI and machine learning tools in a variety of areas, from monitoring the large volumes of money that move through financial systems so as to keep tabs on fraud, sanctions and money laundering, to assessing national security risks and solar energy supply.

The Indian government announced in 2021 that it was seeking tech firms to build an AI-powered chatbot to help citizens access digital services, while The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, a government-run organisation, uses an AI virtual assistant known as ‘Ask Disha’ to field a wide variety of questions from users of its online railway ticketing system in Hindi and English.

In January this year, UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt revealed to parliament that he had used ChatGPT to compose the opening lines of a speech on the economy.

“From the way we communicate and collaborate, to the way we buy and sell goods and services, digital technology has transformed nearly every aspect of our economic lives,” Hunt said. “How do I know that? Because I… asked ChatGPT to craft the opening lines of this speech. Who needs politicians when you have AI?”

DSIT was established by prime minister Rishi Sunak earlier this month as part of a series of machinery of government changes.

Read more: AI in the public sector: an engine for innovation in government

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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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