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Can the UK lead the way on AI ethics?

The UK’s House of Lords has just issued its long-awaited report on Artificial Intelligence entitled AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? And it leads with ethics as the core idea.

As the Select Committee for Artificial Intelligence said on its release:

“The UK is in a strong position to be a world leader in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). This position, coupled with the wider adoption of AI, could deliver a major boost to the economy for years to come. The best way to do this is to put ethics at the centre of AI’s development and use …”

Thrusting ethics centre-stage is an admirable move – and a timely one, as the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandals refuse to go away. Though some will be surprised by the (wonderful) idea that ethics is the key to making money.

At the heart of the report lies the proposal for an AI Code with a suggested five principles guiding it, to be established nationally and internationally:

  1. Artificial intelligence should be developed for the common good and benefit of humanity.
  2. Artificial intelligence should operate on principles of intelligibility and fairness.
  3. Artificial intelligence should not be used to diminish the data rights or privacy of individuals, families or communities.
  4. All citizens should have the right to be educated to enable them to flourish mentally, emotionally and economically alongside artificial intelligence.
  5. The autonomous power to hurt, destroy or deceive human beings should never be vested in artificial intelligence.

What I learned from a speed-read:

  • There’s no need to worry about the “AI apocalypse” that Elon Musk warned us about.
  • There’s no interest in framing the discussion in terms of international human rights law. The term “human rights” comes up only once, and in passing, in 183 pages.
  • The five principles of the Code have an airy-fairy flavour – who could be against? We’re all for Mom and apple pie. Yet the UK and US have opposed the UN move to prohibit AI weapons systems and governments all over the world have permitted the growth of vast information monopolies and sloppy cybersecurity.

But Lord Clement-Jones and his colleagues are to be congratulated for setting the ball rolling. Data – our data – is the new oil, AI is manipulating it. So the companies writing the AI, and the governments who regulate them, will be more important for each of us every passing day.