The UK has a Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL). It advises the Prime Minister on ethical standards across the whole of public life in England (yes, only England — ethics must be a devolved matter).

A picture of some people by L S Lowry (via Flickr)

The committee is currently investigating Artificial Intelligence and whether the existing frameworks and regulations are sufficient to ensure that high standards of conduct are upheld as technologically assisted decision-making is adopted more widely across the public sector.

Big topic. After all AI is a range of techniques that uses people, mathematics, software and data to make guesses at the answer to things. It can help, and hinder, with lots of the huge array of things that the public sector does.

I represented the Open Data Institute (ODI) on a roundtable for this investigation. A couple of people have asked me what the roundtable was like and what I said. Here’s a quick blogpost.

Preparing for a roundtable

The ODI team get invited to lots of roundtables and events. We decide which ones to do and who does them based on a range of criteria. The invitation for this one went to our CEO, Jeni Tennison, she passed it to me to do. My goal was to help the committee, learn from what other attendees were saying, and test some of our ideas in front of this audience.

We did our usual preparation by sharing the questions around the team in the office and telling our network that we were going along to hear what advice they gave us. That technique provides a lot of input. It also helps me represent the ODI and the ODI’s network, rather than simply myself and my own views.

I summarised it down to a few key points to try and make, and then tried not to over-prepare. Over-preparation is the worst sin: it makes me sound even duller than normal.

Rounding a table

The roundtable itself was at Imperial College in London.

The setup was more informal and the committee was more friendly and asked more insightful questions than most similar things I’ve done. That was good. My background is technical and private sector — I previously spent 20 years working with telecoms operators building products, systems and networks — so I always worry that I’ll misunderstand or miscommunicate particular words or phrases. That would damage both me and the organisation I represent.

Anyway, I managed to get over versions of some of things that we’d prepared and/or that we regularly discuss in the office and that were relevant to how the roundtable took shape:

  • that there is little transparency over use of AI in the public sector and of how the UK government’s Data Ethics Framework is being used. I know that there is good and bad work being done, but mostly because I know some of the people doing it. How are the general public meant to know?
  • that we need to focus more on the people who design, build and buy AI services. Exploring what responsibility and accountability they should have and how we give them the space, time and money to design those services so that they support democracy, openness, transparency and accountability as well as being efficient and easy to use
  • that the current focus on ethical principles and AI principles do not seem to be having a useful effect. That instead we need to couple those top-down interventions with more bottom-up practical tools (like the framework or ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas) and more research into how the people designing, building or buying AI systems make decisions and what will influence them to comply with the law and think about the ethical implications of their actions
  • that control, distribution of benefits and harms, rights and responsibilities about AI models would be a useful area to explore
  • that eliminating bias is the wrong goal. Bias exists in our society, some of that bias becomes encoded in data and technology. AI relies on the past to predict the future, but the past might not reflect the present let alone the world we want. We should build systems that take us towards the future we want, and that can adapt as things change
  • that in a world which is increasingly online-first and where we risk the state disappearing behind a smartphone screen and automated decisions, that the principles of public life should be updated to put the need for humanity front and centre

I also learnt a lot from other attendees with some interesting things for myself and the team back in the office to chew over.

After the roundtable

A couple of weeks after the roundtable I was sent the transcript to review. The committee will publish that transcript openly — which is good and healthy. Attendees get to see the transcript first so they can suggest corrections to simple grammatical errors or transcription problems. That’s why I’m not commenting on or sharing what other people said.

It is important to review the transcript. There are sometimes errors. For example, in this transcript I was recorded as saying that my boss, Jeni, was “whiter than me” rather than “wiser than me”. I have no idea how I’d measure the former but I certainly know that she’s the latter. Some of the words and thoughts in this blogpost come from Jeni and others in the team like Olivier, Miranda, Renate, Jack &c &c &c.

Reading the transcript also helps me understand the difference between the clarity of my speech and the clarity of my writing. I’ve left most of my spoken errors in place. Just like the state we can’t only communicate in words and pictures that are sent through a computer. Most of us need to get better at speaking with humans.