£5m Ada Lovelace Institute launched to look into data ethics

Nuffield Foundation announces institute to examine ethical and social issues arising from the use of data, algorithms and artificial intelligence

The Nuffield Foundation is to set up a £5m “data ethics” institute, named after Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Byron and widely seen as a pioneer of computer science.

The foundation said the institute will “convene diverse voices to build a shared understanding of the ethical questions raised by the application of data, algorithms and artificial intelligence [AI]”. It will also initiate research and promote ethical practices.

The foundation added: “The recent public debate sparked by Cambridge Analytica’s alleged use of Facebook data illustrates the importance of anticipating the ethical questions raised by emerging technologies and their application, which will be a core part of the new institute’s remit.”

The Nuffield Foundation, a charitable trust established by William Morris in 1943, has earmarked £5m over five years to establish the Ada Lovelace Institute. It said the chair of the institute will be appointed in the next few months, with the aim of fully establishing the organisation by the end of 2018.

Ahead of the institute’s launch, the Nuffield Foundation has consulted what it calls “contributing partners”, including its own Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Alan Turing Institute, the Royal Statistical Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, the British Academy, TechUK and the Omidyar Network’s Governance & Citizen Engagement Initiative.

Colette Bowe, trustee of the Nuffield Foundation and chair of the Banking Standards Board, said: “Technology offers great potential to improve individual and social wellbeing, for example in the early diagnosis of cancer or improving the lives of people with disabilities. However, this month we have seen the first pedestrian fatality in a self-driving car crash, leading to calls for testing programmes on public roads to be suspended. And revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged use of Facebook data have heightened public concern about how data is used, with serious implications for trust in digital technologies and industry.

“These examples show that in many cases, public scrutiny of the use of data and automated technologies only occurs when something ‘goes wrong’. Valid questions are being asked about data rights, as well as about consent, public interest and what constitutes an ethical approach. The Ada Lovelace Institute will work with its partners to ensure we have these conversations before a critical incident, with the aim of developing codes of behaviour for the application of innovations of data and AI that are deserving of public trust.”

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Alan Wilson, chief executive of the Alan Turing Institute, said: “As the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, we at the Alan Turing Institute are committed to ensuring that the social and ethical implications of these transformative technologies are fully understood, and that the benefits they accrue can be shared across society. This will require ethical frameworks that keep pace with rapid innovations in the use of data and artificial intelligence, and we are delighted to support the Ada Lovelace Institute in this urgent and important work.” 

And Antony Walker, deputy chief executive of TechUK, a membership association for technology companies, said: “The creation of the Ada Lovelace Institute sends a very clear message that the UK is taking a leadership position in moving on from talking about ethics to taking practical action. The institute will build the capability and capacity we need to understand the ethical implications of new technology and provide practical tools to support good decision-making.”

The Ada Lovelace Institute will “complement the work of regulators and the government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation”, said the Nuffield Foundation. “The research it funds will provide the intellectual underpinning and longer-term perspective necessary to frame matters of immediate public concern, and anticipate ethical issues.

“It will offer practical solutions informed by public deliberation. It will explore how to develop ethical thinking within industry to ensure technologies that have the power to shape society go beyond regulatory compliance to consider social impact.”

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