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Katherine Mayes

Programme mananger, techUK

How do we ensure the digital ethics debate leads to action?

We are living in an increasingly data-driven world that has implications for individuals and society as a whole. In an age where digitally-enabled technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), are underpinning more and more of what we do, there are profound social, legal and ethical questions that need to be explored.

We must, for example, understand the implications of a world where humans live and work alongside intelligent machines, ensuring decisions made by machines can be challenged and understood by humans. We must also determine how we can put the interests of humans first as AI technologies develop.

The good news is that, over the last 12 months, we have seen a significant increase in the amount of activity relating to digital ethics. This includes the creation of new bodies and institutions such as the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation; landmark publications including the House of Lords’ “AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?” report and a considerable number of organisations developing their own set of ethical principles.

Such a hive of activity presents an exciting opportunity for the UK to establish a long-term competitive advantage when it comes to driving responsible technology innovation, while also striving to maximise the benefits of digitally-enabled technologies for society.

While a lot of progress has been made, now is not the time for complacency. In fact, in 2019, as highlighted in techUK’s recently-launched Digital Ethics in 2019 paper, there is an imperative need to move digital ethics from debate to action. With a growing scepticism, from some, as to whether digital ethics is really the solution, there has never been a more important time for getting this right. TechUK has therefore identified eight actions that need to be addressed in 2019 to move the digital ethics debate forward.

First and foremost, if we are going to build greater public trust and confidence in technological innovations, we must get better at demonstrating how digital ethics is relevant and valuable to the real lives people lead. To achieve this, we must apply ethical thinking to real world situations and scenarios.

Public engagement will be instrumental to supporting people from all walks of life to understand how digital ethics is relevant to the way they live their lives and engage in this debate. There is, of course, no silver bullet for public engagement that will work for every group of society, but further effort is needed to ensure a more geographical and demographically diverse debate.

Crucially, digital ethics, mustn’t just centre around AI. To date, there has been far less discussion on the possible ethical implications and issues raised by existing and future advanced digital technologies such as blockchain, biometrics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and quantum computing.

We must also ensure that regulators have the capability and capacity needed to consider ethics. Clearly the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), as the regulator for data protection and privacy, has a key role to play in the digital ethics debate. However, given the reach and scope of advanced digital technologies, other regulators must also be engaged.

Building greater public trust in digitally-enabled technologies and making digital ethics relevant to the lives people lead is not something industry can tackle alone. There are activities already underway in this area and techUK aims to facilitate a more joined-up approach to this work. On 11 December 2019, during techUK’s third annual Digital Ethics Summit, we will assess the progress made by the digital ethics community.

This is the year industry, government, academia and other key stakeholders must move ethics out of the conference rooms and into boardrooms and community halls across the country.

Katherine Mayes is a programme manager for cloud, data, analytics and AI at techUK