If you hear about data, artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms in the news, it’s likely to be about discriminatory practices, threats to personal privacy or national security, or another crisis created by the advance of digital technology. Sometimes these problems can feel so entrenched that they are insurmountable. But there is reason to be optimistic. As it turns out, the challenges posed by these modern fields of data science and AI can be addressed by one of the oldest: ethics. 

Looking back to the 1940s, Alan Turing himself demonstrated that technological code and a code for ethics could be developed together – in fact, he had to develop them together. Were his machine to break the Enigma code be used to prevent every potential bombing of a ship, the German operators would know straightaway that the code was cracked, and the knowledge would no longer be useful. Turing’s ethical algorithm, designed to maximise the lives saved while sustaining the viability of the code became part of the project itself. More than seven decades on, both the sense of public duty that propelled Turing’s invention, and the ethical commitment which guided its use, underpin the work of the Institute named in his honour: ethics is an integral element of The Alan Turing Institute’s research in data science and AI.

We are excited and encouraged to see that other initiatives are bringing ethics and innovation together. This week, the UK government is moving forward with plans for its Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, as it closes its three-month long consultation. The new Ada Lovelace Institute is also getting underway, with the appointment of outgoing Turing CEO Sir Alan Wilson as its first Executive Chair and the launch of its search for an inaugural Director. This follows the launch of Digital Catapult’s Machine Intelligence Garage Ethics Committee in July. The Committee – led by the Chair of our own Data Ethics Group, Luciano Floridi – will work closely with UK start-ups to ensure that cutting-edge AI development moves in lockstep with ethical principles. 

What is required, and what each of these new initiatives represent, is a rethink from the ground up of how we approach the building of new technologies. Aligning ethics with innovation requires both major technical skills – “debiasing” a discriminatory image recognition system, for instance, is not a trivial problem – as well as the ability to address moral questions, which means a shift in how we organise our scientific communities. If the development of new technologies is to be sustainable, it must be interdisciplinary, and bring together ethicists, social scientists, data scientists and engineers.

At the Turing, we have high hopes for the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and the other initiatives in this space. There are several reasons for our optimism:

  1. Many (though not all) of the challenges posed by digital technologies require solutions grounded in policy and regulation. With the launch of the new Centre, the UK government has demonstrated its intention to play its part in this process.
  2. Research to ensure that digital technology is fair, transparent, and ethical is advancing spurred on by multidisciplinary institutes like the Turing as well as the new Ada Lovelace Institute.
  3. Major industry and FTSE100 companies are also focused on getting to grips with the social implications of their work, and are increasingly aware that ethics enhances, rather than obscures, innovation.

Ethics should not be an add-on after the fact, or a roadblock, but rather the foundation that enables innovation to flourish. For too long, ethics has been seen by many as separate from the day-to-day work of data science and AI research. As the pace of technological change increases, the stakes for society become higher. It is in this context that we welcome the efforts being undertaken by the UK government, as well as the other initiatives in this space. We look forward to continued engagement with the new Centre, ensuring that data science and AI continue to be infused with the spirit of both innovation and of ethics. It is only by adopting this approach that society will truly flourish in the digital age.

Editor’s note: The creation of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation was announced in late 2017. The Government launched its Consultation on the Centre in June 2018, seeking the views of interested groups from across society regarding how the Centre should operate, and which work it should prioritise. Read a summary and the full text of the Turing’s submission on our policy submissions page.

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