My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on securing today’s debate and thank him for his work as Chairman of the Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. The committee’s report makes an important contribution to the wider debate about how the United Kingdom can position itself to be a world leader. Along with the Government’s response, it raises a number of important questions that I want to explore today.
Like the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord St John of Bletso, and others, I want to focus on our handling of the data that will drive new advances in artificial intelligence and, related to that, its potential to deliver better healthcare outcomes. I am pleased that the committee’s report looks in depth at healthcare and at how the Government might support the development of leading-edge policies to complement advances in AI. Several recommendations caught my eye, including those concerned with ensuring that we maintain public trust in the safe and secure use of personal data, and others which explore how we might harness the value of healthcare data.
The Government’s response gives the House a clear indication of their thinking and makes it plain that they will continue to evolve a regulatory framework that protects patients’ data. They also confirm that work is under way better to understand how to obtain value, in the broadest possible sense of the term, from granting access to patient data for research and innovation.
I presume that an important facet of the latter is the Government’s recently published code of conduct for data-driven health and care technology, which includes mention of the commercial approaches that individual NHS trusts might adopt in discussion with third parties making use of big data to advance machine learning and evolve AI. At present, it is a voluntary code, because I understand that Ministers want to encourage organisations to sign up and feed back on the initial draft.
However, I hope that the Government will think seriously about making the next version mandatory so that the provisions for safeguarding patient data, while extracting optimum value, are placed on a more robust footing in the near future, in particular given last week’s news, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and others, concerning the absorption of DeepMind’s Streams team into Google.
As I have said previously in the House, realising the potential value of healthcare data represents a time-limited opportunity in a globally competitive market. There is currently no clearly agreed strategy which sets out how the NHS and UK plc intend to benefit from providing access to and usage of the broad-ranging data assets that the NHS controls. I was pleased that the Treasury published Getting Smart about Intellectual Property and Other Intangibles in the Public Sector, which was integral to the Budget.
For those noble Lords who are unfamiliar with it, the document recommends the establishment of a central repository detailing government knowledge asset holdings and their value; guidance to design and implement best-practice protocols; protection and commercialisation of public sector knowledge assets; and registering intellectual property assets with the most commercial potential so that their value to the United Kingdom is maximised. These recommended next steps are to be welcomed, and I know that my noble friend Lord Mitchell is in agreement since they echo the thrust of the amendments that he introduced during the passage of the Data Protection Bill earlier this year. However, I would like to understand who will be leading this work and how they propose to interface with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as well as the Department for Health and Social Care. I also note that the recommended next steps are not currently attached to a clearly defined timetable against which progress might be measured.
Once again, we are left wondering—to quote the subtitle of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on the life science industrial strategy—who is driving the bus and whether it will be on time. Might the Minister clarify as much in his response? If government policy and guidance are misaligned and do not act as an appropriate check before the proverbial horse bolts, there is a risk that public trust will be eroded, which could in turn act as a brake on the innovation on which I am sure many of us agree improvements to patient outcomes now hinge.
Allied to this, the committee’s report recommends that the Information Commissioner’s Office work closely with the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation on the establishment of “data trusts”. This is also to be welcomed. However, if data trusts are to work, it is appropriate that data subjects have a clearly defined stake and say in such initiatives before the outset. Of course, further discussion is needed before we alight on the right balance between individual involvement in, control of and, potentially, reward from healthcare data sharing versus what could otherwise be leveraged by the state for public benefit were healthcare data, in particular, to be approached as a “sovereign asset”. In the interim, can the Minister confirm how the Government intend to facilitate this?
As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and others, the big technology giants possess a unique concentration of power. The Government will need to demonstrate leadership and take urgent action to protect patient data while ensuring that a prime opportunity to enable leading-edge innovation in health and care is not missed, as happened in the past with care.data. There is currently no regulation or strong enough framework to manage what seems to be a wild west-style data gold rush on the part of the private sector. While the hiatus continues, commercial organisations are taking advantage.
If patients are to benefit from the introduction of artificial intelligence, Ministers must be proactive. A great deal has been said about the need for ethics frameworks today, which I agree must be developed in parallel. However, to quote Professor Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information and director of the Digital Ethics Lab at Oxford University:
“We’re told we can’t regulate technology because regulation can’t keep up, while at the same time, we shouldn’t regulate because it will destroy its innovative potential—logically, it can’t be both.”
I urge the Government to make it plain who will be accountable to the public on this subject and by when they plan to introduce suitably robust provisions.