UK standards watchdog to examine use of AI

By on 27/03/2019
Lord Evans, former head of the UK’s internal security service, will chair the committee’s probe into the use of AI in public service delivery

A UK watchdog has launched an inquiry into the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in public services, with the aim of examining “whether the existing frameworks and regulations are sufficient to ensure that high standards of conduct are upheld as technologically-assisted decision-making is adopted more widely”.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which advises the prime minister on ethical standards among office holders in the UK’s public sector, said earlier this week that it wants “to look at what the future holds for public services and help ensure that high standards of conduct continue to be ‘built in’ to new ways of making decisions on the public’s behalf.”

The committee noted that the use of data and AI “can potentially bring huge advantages in terms of pace and scale of service delivery”. But chair Lord Evans noted that “there are some major ethical and practical challenges about what this means for accountability, objectivity”, and the other principles policed by the committee: honesty, integrity, openness, leadership and selflessness.

Areas of concern

Evans’ focus on accountability and objectivity point to some of the committee’s likely concerns. In particular, it is not always clear how some AI technologies – known as ‘black box’ systems – make decisions, raising questions over ministers’ and officials’ accountability for their operation. At last year’s Global Government Summit, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Miguel Carrasco noted of some AI systems that “we can see the inputs and the outputs, but we can’t see what’s happening in the middle.”

At the same session, BCG associate director Grantly Mailes pointed out that AIs ‘learn’ how to perform a task using “training data” – raising the risk that they can develop an “inherent bias”. If training data is built on the outcomes of previous cases in which there was a discriminatory effect, for example, the AI will learn to itself discriminate in its decision-making. In 2016, Microsoft famously shut down its AI chatbot ‘Tay’ after it began using racist language picked up from the web.

The inquiry is also likely to hear concerns about how AIs make value judgements – when citizens’ rights conflict, for example – and privacy and the use of data. A report is expected next year.

High standards

The committee was established 25 years ago after UK PM John Major commissioned Lord Nolan to examine standards in public life, following a series of scandals involving MPs. Nolan set out the key principles guiding the committee’s work, and its remit was subsequently extended to review party funding; to cover all those holding public office, not just those appointed or elected; and to cover all public service delivery, even when managed by private or voluntary sector bodies.

Its current chair, Lord Evans of Weardale, took office last year. He is a former security official who led the UK’s internal Security Service – known as MI5 – from 2007 to 2013.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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