Algorithms: Public Sector Decision-making - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:10 pm on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 7:10 pm, 12th February 2020

My Lords, as we have six minutes, let me also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on having introduced this debate so ably and say what an excellent and, if I might say so, affable chairman he was of the AI committee.

AI and machine learning are on the front line of our lives wherever we look. The centre for disease control in Zhejiang province in China is deploying AI to analyse the genetic composition of the coronavirus. It has shortened a process that used to take many days to 30 minutes. Yet we—human beings—do not know how exactly that outcome was achieved. The same is true of AlphaGo Zero, which famously trained itself to beat the world champion at Go, with no direct human input whatever. That borders on what the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, said. Demis Hassabis, who created the system, said that AlphaGo Zero was so powerful because it was

“no longer constrained by the limits of human knowledge.”

That is a pretty awesome statement.

How, therefore, do we achieve accountability, as the Commons report on algorithms puts it, for systems whose reasoning is opaque to us but that are now massively entwined in our lives? This is a huge dilemma of our times, which goes a long way beyond correcting a few faulty or biased algorithms.

I welcome the Government’s document on AI and the public sector, which recognises the impact of deep learning and the huge issues it raises. California led the world into the digital revolution and looks to be doing the same with regulatory responses. One proposal is for the setting up of public data banks—data utilities—which would set standards for public data and, interestingly, integrate private data accumulated by the digital corporations with public data and create incentives for private companies to transfer private data to public uses. There is an interesting parallel experiment going on in Toronto, with Google’s direct involvement. How far are the Government tracking and seeking to learn from such innovations in different parts of the world? This is a global, ongoing revolution.

Will the Government pay active and detailed attention to the regulation of facial recognition technology and, again, look to what is happening elsewhere? The EU, for example—with which I believe we used to have some connection—is looking with some urgency at ways of imposing clear limits on such technology to protect the privacy of citizens. There is a variety of cases about this where the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has expressed deep concern.

On a more parochial level, noble Lords will probably know about the furore around the use of facial recognition at the King’s Cross development. The cameras installed by the developer at the site incorporated facial recognition technology. Although limited in nature, it had apparently been in use for some while.

The surveillance camera code of practice states:

“There must be as much transparency in the use of a surveillance camera system as possible”.

That is not the world’s most earth-shattering statement, but it is important. The code continues by saying that clear justification must be offered. What procedures are in place across the country for that? I suspect that they are pretty minimal, but this is an awesome new technology. If you look across the world, you can see that authoritarian states have an enormous amount of day-to-day data on everybody. We do not want that situation reproduced here.

The new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation appears to have a pivotal role in the Government’s thinking. However, there seems to be rather little detail about it so far. What is the timetable? How long will the consultation period last? Will it have regulatory powers? That is pretty important. After all, the digital world moves at a massively fast pace. How will we keep up?

Quite a range of bodies are now concerned with the impact of the digital revolution. I congratulate the Government on that, because it is an achievement. The Turing Institute seems well out in front in terms of coherence and international reputation. What is the Minister’s view of its achievements so far and how do the Government see it meshing with this diversity of other bodies that—quite rightly—have been established?