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Theresa May wants UK to be world leader in ‘ethical AI’

In her World Economic Forum speech, the prime minister highlights the need to harness tech, flies the flag for “responsible AI development” and calls on tech companies to step up and fight paedophiles and terrorists using online platforms

Prime minister Theresa May has set out her ambition for the UK to harness the power of technology, but warned of the dangers of unethical use of digital technologies and platforms. 

Speaking at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos today (25 January), May said the UK is already one of the best in the world when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) research and development, and that the country is prepared to “bring AI into government”.

“We are only at the beginning of what AI could achieve,” said May, adding that in the UK, a new AI startup is created every week.

She also reiterated plans announced in the government’s industrial strategy to create a national research centre for AI to foster and retain research talent, and announced that the UK will join the WEF council on AI. 

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, the government also intends to establish the world’s first national advisory body for AI – allocating £9m to a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which it hopes will “ensure safe, ethical and ground-breaking innovation in AI and data-driven technologies”. 

In her speech at Davos, May reiterated the commitment to the centre and said she understands people’s concerns about the impact the AI revolution could have in terms of job losses, calling it “the greatest test of leadership for our time”.

She went on: “But it is a test that I am confident we can meet. For right across the long sweep of history, from the invention of electricity to the advent of factory production, time and again initially disquieting innovations have delivered previously unthinkable advances and we have found the way to make those changes work for all our people.”

May said the key to harnessing technology the right way is to ensure people are equipped with the skills they need to use digital technologies, and ensure industry and government work together on this. “We can’t sit back and leave it to the labour market,” she said.

21st century Luddites

Also at Davos, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond said people should embrace new technology to avoid creating “a generation of 21st century Luddites who feel the only chance of survival is to resist change”.

“We are at the point where computers move from being dumb and fast to being smart and fast,” said Hammond. “The choice is simple: do we look inward or outward, look to the future or cleave to the past?”

Commenting on May’s speech, Julian David, CEO of trade body TechUK, said the government’s “clear backing for the sector” will help consolidate leadership around how to use AI and modern technology to make a positive impact.

“However, the rapid development of powerful new technologies also raises new ethical questions,” he said. “We are therefore pleased that the government is pushing forward on our recommendation to set up a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. 

“This will help to develop a new framework to guide ethical innovation and good governance, which are crucial for building public trust.”

May also called on tech companies to “go further in stepping up to their responsibilities for dealing with harmful and illegal online activity”.  

She criticised the social media giants for not doing enough to stop paedophiles and terrorists from using their platforms, adding that seven out of 10 people surveyed do not believe social media companies are doing enough to prevent the sharing of extreme content.

“These companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content,” said May, adding that no one wants to be “known as the first-choice app for paedophiles”.

“We need to go further, so that ultimately this content is removed automatically,” she said. “These companies have some of the best brains in the world. They must focus their brightest and best on meeting these fundamental social responsibilities.”

Industry must up its game

May said it is not just the big companies that need to up their game, but called on the industry as a whole to do so, warning that if they did not, they too could end up like the Russian SME that developed messaging app Telegram, which is reportedly used by Islamic State.

“Just as these big companies need to step up, so we also need cross-industry responses because smaller platforms can quickly become home to criminals and terrorists,” she said. “We have seen that happen with Telegram.”

This criticism is part of May’s re-commitment to government plans for a digital charter, aiming to ensure the UK is the safest place to be online. 

The charter will be underpinned by a regulatory framework, to which digital companies and social media platforms will be held accountable. This includes giving regulators the power to fine or prosecute those failing to observe the laws.

Also speaking today, at a session entitled “Reimagining policy making for the fourth industrial revolution”, digital, media, culture and sport secretary Matt Hancock described the charter as a “rolling programme of work to agree a consistent set of norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice”.

“In some cases, this will be through shifting our expectations of behaviour; in others, we may need new laws or regulations,” he said.

“The charter’s core purpose is to make the internet work for everyone – for citizens, businesses and society as a whole. It will move the philosophy we apply to the internet from libertarian to liberal values – to cherish freedom, but not the freedom to harm others.”

TechUK’s David said issues such as extremist content and the safety of children online are “of real concern to the sector”, pointing out that companies are “far from complacent about the work that needs to be done”.

He added: “Tech firms may not always agree with government on the means, but there is no disagreement on the objective to make online platforms hostile environments for illegal and inappropriate content. Much has already been achieved by working in partnership with government, and tech firms are committed to keep working to ensure the safety and security of their users.”

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