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The UK must play a leading role in global collaboration on digital policy and ethics

All countries must work together to ensure digital technologies such as AI are ethical and trustworthy – and the UK has an opportunity to be a global leader

The UK has always prided itself on being a world leader in technology. The same is true when it comes to digital policy. The UK helped create the digital single market initiative within the EU, and shaped the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that is increasingly the global standard for governing data.

The UK has also been at the forefront of setting standards on everything from technical specifications of hardware, to the structures around the regulation of fintech. 

But as the UK approaches leaving the EU, it is more important than ever that we are engaged in the global conversation about how to tackle regulatory challenges. We must work in partnership if we are to make it easier for businesses across the world to trade, collaborate and grow, while protecting citizens and each country’s autonomy.

That is why I was so pleased to join the UK minister for digital and creative industries, Margot James, and senior representatives of government and industry from the US, Europe and Japan, for a roundtable in advance of the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Trade and Digital Economy in Japan that took place on 8 June 2019.

Digital policy

With digital policy at the top of the G20 agenda, we discussed issues ranging from the interoperability of mechanisms allowing the free flow of data, to how countries are achieving their goal of “Society 5.0” by addressing concerns such as reducing CO2 emissions; improving inclusivity and reducing gender and social biases; and fostering personalised healthcare.

At the heart or our conversations were the potential impact of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) to significantly enhance global growth and benefit citizens worldwide. Globally, McKinsey & Company estimates that AI techniques have the potential to create between $3.5tn and $5.8tn in value annually across nine business functions in 19 industries.

In the UK alone, PWC calculates that the benefits of AI can lead to an additional £232bn to UK GDP by 2030 – the equivalent of a 10% uplift.

However, as technology permeates all parts of the economy and society, ensuring ethics by design will be important to ensure continued citizens’ consent; protect against bad actors who would use data to do things such as create addictive algorithms; and guard against unintended outcomes, such as racial or social bias being perpetuated by algorithmic decisions based on too small a set of data.

Global cooperation

Global cooperation must be at the centre of the UK’s AI strategy and for data ethics to have meaning we must have a united approach. For example, areas such as how the ethics around autonomous vehicles operate has to be agreed internationally if we are to continue to have seamless cross-border travel.

Discussions such as the one that took place at the roundtable, are crucial for building consensus on these issues. Governments and multilateral bodies around the world are looking at these.

In the UK we have seen the creation of new bodies and institutions such as the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and the Ada Lovelace Institute. In Japan, they have created Social Principles of Human Centric AI.

At an EU level we have seen the creation of the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group’s Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, and at the OECD we have seen the recent release of AI principles. Global alignment across these areas is vital to ensure that the true global benefit of technologies such as AI is achieved for the benefit of all.

Although both the complexities of the technology and the global cooperation required remain a significant challenge, the opportunity and importance of getting digital policy right are too big to ignore.

I was inspired to see that all the other nations involved in the roundtable recognised this. The UK tech sector and our colleagues in government need to ensure that we are developing strategies that support and grow our digital businesses, so that they are effective in improving the lives of our citizens and also have a significant impact on our economy.

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