Rhodri Davies: Our voices must be heard in the artificial intelligence debate

The head of policy at CAF say AI brings huge opportunities for charities, but the government must make the sector part of its broader vision

Rhodri Davies
Rhodri Davies

The House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence released a major report this week outlining the potential of the UK to become a world leader in the development of AI.

The report is wide-ranging and highlights opportunities and challenges across a broad swathe of industries. But one message that comes through clearly is that the development of AI must be ethical, and that to achieve this it is vital to engage a broad range of people and organisations across society.

The Charities Aid Foundation has been calling for civil society to be involved in this debate for some time. We were hugely encouraged to see that the Lords report directly references a number of our key points about the value of engaging civil society.

Some in the charity sector might feel that the AI ethics debate is a niche topic and not something they need to worry about. But in fact it isn’t niche any more. Algorithmic processes now affect many aspects of our lives, whether we know it or not, and AI has become a key issue in political and cultural debate. However, despite the growing prominence of the issue, one voice that has been notably absent in the debate so far is that of charities. And I believe that this is a big problem.

AI brings huge opportunities for charities to improve the lives of the people and communities they serve. For example, Parkinson’s UK is exploring whether machine learning could be applied to develop better early warning indicators for Parkinson’s disease. The Lindbergh Foundation in the US, meanwhile, is applying AI to video from drone surveillance in game reserves, developing algorithms that can predict poacher behaviour and thus enable more effective interventions.

If charities are not part of the government’s positive vision for becoming a world leader in AI, this a huge missed opportunity.

But there is also growing awareness that AI poses significant risks. The current controversy over the relationship between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica highlights the dangers of algorithms being used to target misinformation and propaganda in order to influence public opinion and elections.

So far, however, charities do not have a seat at the table when these issues are being discussed. We have been exploring them for some time at CAF, so we know that many charities are interested in understanding the impact of new technologies, but struggle to engage with the debate.

We need to address this. Charities represent many of the most marginalised people and communities in our society; and since these groups are likely to be hit soonest and hardest by the negative impacts of AI, it is vital that the organisations representing them are in a position to speak out on their behalf.

Charities will need support from government and the tech industry. They have a responsibility to ensure that civil society is able to engage, so that the broadest possible range of voices can be brought into the debate.

If our sector does not rise to meet this challenge, then not only do we risk becoming less relevant in the future, but we will also have missed the chance to help shape the development of AI so that it delivers the widest possible benefits for society.

Rhodri Davies is head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation

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