Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Keeping big tech in check

We need new institutions to deal with democracy and ethics in an age of technological change, writes Carys Roberts

Artificial intelligence and associated technologies will raise profound ethical issues for society. As technology takes on tasks that humans previously performed, new questions of responsibility, accountability and transparency will be raised. Revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s attempts to influence elections using Facebook have recently demonstrated the need for institutions to protect the public as technologies evolve.

If we consent to the sharing of our data without reading the small print of a social media platform, does the company really have a right to use that data to influence the democratic process? How should robots choose between competing bads, as in the case of a driverless car facing two options that would both result in accident and likely injury? If AI eventually overtakes human intelligence, what regulations need to be in place to protect humanity from consequences we may struggle to predict?

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Without action, the ethical and social norms determining the answers to these questions will be decided by technology companies. There are serious problems with an approach that leaves norm-setting to technology developers. It risks granting excessive and undemocratic influence and power to a small number of private companies. It also risks stifling innovation, as market leaders shape the regulatory environment to best support their business models.

IPPR’s paper, Managing Automation, argues that as well as accelerating the adoption of productivity-boosting technologies, we must create new public institutions to make sure they act in our interests. We propose an Authority for the Ethical Use of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, to proactively develop the legal, ethical, and behavioural framework for the use and governance of these technologies. Such a public institution must have a broad remit, and the status to effect change within government. Its members should have a mix of scientific and technical expertise, philosophical, legal and ethical backgrounds. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates the creation and use of human embryos, provides a useful framework.

The new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, announced in the Autumn 2017 budget, could fulfil this role. Yet to define its scope, there are many areas where the centre could offer guidance. How should liability be framed? What updates are needed to workplace laws to protect workers and improve health and safety, given the increasing use of autonomous technologies in the workplace? The centre could investigate and suggest improvements when algorithms fail.

The future is not technologically determined. We can and must choose how it shapes our economy, society and lives. The reaction to Cambridge Analytica, and the fall in Facebook’s share price, shows that while we have unwittingly handed huge power to technology companies, society is no longer willing to accept the status quo.

Our public institutions should accelerate and shape technological change in a way that is beneficial to society and, ultimately, beneficial to our democracy.


Carys Roberts is a senior economist at IPPR, and co-author of Managing automation: Employment, inequality and ethics in the digital age


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Carys Roberts

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