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Innovation underpinned by trustworthy governance, says CDEI

Public support for greater use of digital technologies such as AI depends on how much trust people have in its governance, says report

Trustworthy governance of new digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) is needed to ensure public support for their adoption, the UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) has warned.

To evaluate the public’s opinion of how digital technology has been deployed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDEI – a UK government advisory body on the responsible use of AI and data technology – commissioned a survey from Deltapole which questioned just over 12,000 people between June and December 2020.

Although the results suggest significant public support for the use of data-driven technology, with almost three-quarters (72%) saying such technology could be used in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many felt its potential was not being fully realised.

For example, less than half (42%) of respondents said digital technology was making the Covid-19 situation in the UK better, and 39% cited concerns about whether organisations would be able to use it properly, rather than concerns with the tech itself.

“Some respondents also expressed misgivings about the governance of data-driven interventions,” said the CDEI in its report. “Whilst 43% of the public said existing rules and regulations were sufficient to ensure the technology is used responsibly, still close to a quarter (24%) disagreed.

“These findings are underscored by a statistical analysis of the results. When controlling for all other variables, we found that trust in the rules and regulations governing technology is the single biggest predictor of whether someone believes that digital technology has a role to play in the Covid-19 response.”

Digging into the data, the CDEI also found a difference in trust levels between older and younger respondents. For example, when asked whether they would know where to raise their concerns if they felt the governance around digital technologies was failing, only 39% of people aged 18 to 35 said they would know. For respondents aged over 55, this number dropped to 14%, showing that a significant majority across the board would currently struggle to seek recourse.

Overall, the CDEI found “there is relatively low knowledge about where to raise complaints in cases where data-driven technologies have caused harm”, with 45% of all respondents not knowing where to go.

Among younger people, 40% also agreed with the statement “I feel well informed about how digital technology has been used during the crisis”, but only 22% of older respondents said the same. Again, this leaves a significant portion of both groups in disagreement.

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To build trustworthy governance that earns the confidence of citizens in the long term, the CDEI is urging organisations to adopt the principles outlined in its Trust Matrix framework, which are: accountability – the public must understand the decision-making process and who holds responsibility within it; transparency – organisations that build or use the tech need to be clear about how it is deployed and the trade-offs; and value – the tech should be used to benefit individuals or society in a way that is measured and evidenced.

“Data-driven technologies including AI have great potential for our economy and society,” said Edwina Dunn, deputy chair of the CDEI. “We need to ensure that the right governance regime is in place if we are to unlock the opportunities that these technologies present.

“The CDEI will be playing its part to ensure that the UK is developing governance approaches that the public can have confidence in.”

The report also highlighted trends and patterns relating to the use of AI and other data-driven technologies during the pandemic, finding that apart from advancing vaccine research, AI has not played as big a role in the relief effort as many people thought it would.

“Instead, it has been conventional data analysis, underpinned by new data-sharing agreements, that appear to have made the biggest difference to the work of health services and public authorities,” said the report.

“In contrast, AI and machine learning take-up was minimal. While the [CDEI’s Covid-19] repository did capture some use cases where AI was being deployed, we did not see evidence of widespread adoption and use cases were mostly clustered in the healthcare setting.”

John Whittingdale, minister of state for media and data, said that the government, which had been forced to share data quickly, efficiently and responsibly for the public good, was determined to capitalise on everything it has learnt from the pandemic.

“This research confirms that public trust in how we govern data is essential,” he said. “Through our national data strategy, we have committed to unlocking the huge potential of data to tackle some of society’s greatest challenges, while maintaining our high standards of data protection and governance.” 

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