AI in the UK: No room for complacency

The Bishop of Oxford spoke in the debate on the Scrutiny Committee Report in the House of Lords on 25 Mary 2022. Read his full speech below.

My Lords,

It’s been a privilege to engage with the questions around Artificial Intelligence over the last five years through the original AI Select Committee, so ably chaired by Lord Clement Jones, in the Scrutiny Committee, and as a founding Board member for three years of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. I thank Lord Clement Jones today for his masterly introduction and other noble Lords for their contributions.

There has been a great deal of investment in the ethics of Artificial Intelligence over this period in government, through CDEI, the NHS and elsewhere; in universities with several new centres emerging, including in the Universities of Oxford and Oxford Brookes, and by the Church and faith communities. Special mention should be made of the Rome Call for AI Ethics, signed by Pope Francis, Microsoft, IBM and others at the Vatican in February 2020, and its six principles of transparency, inclusion, accountability, impartiality, reliability and security. The Archbishop of Canterbury has led the formation of a new Anglican Communion Science Commission drawing together senior scientists and church leaders across the globe to explore, among other things, the impact of new technologies. It’s my great honour to be co-chair.

Despite all of this endeavour, there is in this part of the AI landscape no room for complacency.

The technology is developing rapidly, its use for the most part is ahead of public understanding, AI creates imbalances of power with inherent risks, the moral and ethical dilemmas are complex.

We do not need to invent new ethics, but we do need to develop and apply our common ethical frameworks to rapidly developing technologies.

The original AI report suggested five overarching principles for an AI Code. They are not perfect, in hindsight, but they are worth revisiting five years on as a frame for our debate.

1. Artificial intelligence should be developed for the common good and benefit of humanity.

This is not self evident and needs to be restated. AI does bring enormous benefits in medicine, research, productivity, and many other areas.

The role of government must be to ensure that these benefits are to the common good, to the many not the few. Government, not big tech, must lead.

There must be a fair distribution of the wealth which is generated, a fair sharing of power through good governance, a fair access to information. This will not happen without national and global regulation and investment.

2. Artificial intelligence should operate on principles of intelligibility and fairness

This is of course easier to say than to put into practice. AI is now being deployed – or could be deployed – in deeply sensitive areas of our lives: decisions about probation, employment, personal loans, social care, predictive policing, the outcomes of examinations, the distribution of resources. The algorithms deployed in the private and public sphere need to be tested against criteria of bias and transparency. The governance needs to be robust. A vertical approach within each field is, I am sure, the right way forward, but government has a key co-ordinating role. We do not yet have that robust co-ordinating body.

3. Artificial intelligence should not be used to diminish the data rights or privacy of individuals, families or communities

As a society we are careless of our data. Professor Shoshanna Zuboff has exposed the risks of surveillance capitalism. Frances Haugen, formerly of Meta, has exposed the way personal data is open to exploitation by big tech. Evidence was presented to the online safety scrutiny committee of the effects on children and adolescents of 24/7 exposure to social media. The online safety bill is very welcome and a major step forward, but the need for new regulation and continual vigilance will be essential.

4. All citizens have the right to be educated to enable them to flourish mentally, emotionally and economically alongside artificial intelligence

It seems to me that the government has been weakest here. A much greater investment is needed by the Department of Education and across government to educate society on the nature and deployment of AI, its benefits and risks. Parents need help to support children growing up in a digital world. Workers need to know their rights in terms of the digital economy and fresh legislation will be needed to promote good work. There needs to be better access to new skills and training. We need to strive as a society for ever greater inclusion. How does the government propose to offer fresh leadership in this field?

5. The autonomous power to hurt, destroy or deceive human beings should never be vested in artificial intelligence

This final point highlights a major piece of unfinished business in the report: engagement with the challenging and difficult questions of lethal autonomous weapons systems. The technology and capability to deploy AI in warfare is developing all the time. The time has come for a United Nations Treaty to limit the deployment of killer robots of all kinds. This government and this Parliament urgently need to engage with this area and, I hope, take a leading role in limiting research and deployment. I hope very much that your Lordship’s House will agree to a new Select Committee enquiry in this area.

My Lords, AI can bring and has brought many benefits as well as many risks. There is great openness and willingness on the part of many working in the field to engage with the humanities, with philosophers, with the faith communities. There is a common understanding that the knowledge brought to us by science needs to be deployed with wisdom and with humility for the common good. AI will continue to raise sharp questions about what it means to be human and what it means to build a society and a world where all can flourish.

As many have pointed out, even the best examples of AI as yet come nowhere near the complexity and the wonder of the human mind.

We have been given immense power to create, but we are ourselves, in the words of the psalmist, fearfully and wonderfully made.

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