Today the UK government publishes ‘Using artificial intelligence in the public sector,’ an initiative led by the Office for Artificial Intelligence (OAI) and the Government Digital Service (GDS), with The Alan Turing Institute’s public policy programme contributing guidance on AI ethics and safety.  

The new guide states that several public sector organisations are already successfully using AI for tasks ranging from fraud detection to answering customer queries. It explains how the potential uses for AI in the public sector are significant, but must be balanced with ethical, fairness and safety considerations.

These ethical and safety issues are laid out in full in a section of the guide titled ‘Understanding artificial intelligence ethics and safety’ by Dr David Leslie, Ethics Fellow in the Turing’s public policy programme. This groundbreaking work is the most comprehensive guidance on the topic of AI ethics and safety in the public sector to date.

The guide identifies the potential harms caused by AI systems and proposes concrete, operationalisable measures to counteract them. It stresses that public sector organisations can anticipate and prevent these potential harms by stewarding a culture of responsible innovation and by putting in place governance processes that support the design and implementation of ethical, fair, and safe AI systems.

Commenting on the significance of the work, Dr David Leslie said:

“There is no better or more important part of society to lead the charge in the UK’s pacesetting role as a global leader in responsible AI innovation than the public sector. Our talented and dedicated Civil Service colleagues will be able to do a tremendous amount of social good if they approach the design and implementation of AI systems by making the realisation of ethical purpose and the pursuit of responsible practices of discovery a first priority.

This will require that they ask right questions such as: What shape should the data-driven society of tomorrow take? How will the values and motivations currently driving technological advancement in AI both influence our future ways of life and transform our identities?”

This guidance offers one way to move forward in answering these questions. It argues that we must prioritise the shared human purposes and values behind our technologies in order to steer the course of innovation and create a shared vision of what a better human future should look like.

The Turing’s public policy programme was set up a year ago. The programme’s aims are to improve public services and policy-making using data science and AI and to develop the ethical foundations for using these technologies in the public sector.

Commenting on the UK government’s new guidance, Professor Helen Margetts, Director of the Turing’s public policy programme, said:

“Policy makers have an enormous opportunity to use data science and AI to design more effective policies, to track policy impacts more accurately, and to improve the provision of public services. The publication of the UK government’s guide on ‘Using artificial intelligence in the public sector’ is an important step towards maximising the public benefits of these technologies. We are delighted to contribute the guidance on AI ethics and safety and set out our vision of how government can use AI ethically. By prioritising ethical considerations, policy makers will be able to innovate with confidence and reap the benefits of these technologies.”

The Turing’s public policy programme leads on various other ethics initiatives, including developing an ethical framework for explaining algorithmic decision-making alongside the ICO and exploring the ethical implications of using machine learning in criminal justice and child welfare. The Turing also has an active Data Ethics Group driving the Institute’s research agenda in data ethics, and providing advice and guidance on ethical best practice in data science and AI.

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