UK tech committee: It’s time to lay down the law on AI accountability

Questions need to be answered and decisions need to be made

A UK parliamentary committee has appealed the UK government to take action and begin seriously considering “a host of social, ethical and legal questions” that are increasingly pertinent thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence.

The science and technology committee started its inquiry in March 2016, visiting Google’s DeepMind office, gathering 67 written statements, and interviewing 12 witnesses in person in order to establish the most urgent issues.

In its newly published report, the committee has concluded that “while it is too soon to set down sector-wide regulations for this nascent field, it is vital that careful scrutiny of the ethical, legal and societal dimensions of artificially intelligent systems begins now.”

Plan ahead

The biggest reason for this is the need to ensure that the UK is building socially beneficial AI systems, and one of the best ways to make this happen is to start a wider public dialogue on the issue.

There are three main issues that the committee flags up as requiring “serious” consideration: minimizing bias being accidentally built into AI systems; ensuring that the decisions they make are transparent; and establishing ways to verify that AI systems are operating as intended and won’t behave unpredictably. 

In these early stages, the committee advises in its report that the government creates a standing Commission on Artificial Intelligence with a broad membership that is able to provide a wide range of expertise. 

The role of this commission would be to provide a coordinated approach to AI development. It would ensure that strict principles are applied and maintained in the development and application of AI, and would also advise the Government of any regulation required on limits to its progression.

Keeping progress progressive

As far as ethical and legal issues are concerned, the committee says there needs to be “a push towards developing meaningful transparency of the decision-making processes.”

At the moment, AI systems aren’t commonly built to show how they reach decisions and therefore, aren't really able to be held accountable. 

However, in 2018 the EU will enforce its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will give users the right to ask for “an explanation of an automated algorithmic decision that was made about them.” This highlights the urgent need to make it a legal requirement for developers to build transparent decision making processes into AI systems as soon as possible. If they don't, they're effectively denying EU citizens their rights.

At the moment, AI systems aren’t commonly built to show how they reach decisions and therefore, aren't really able to be held accountable. e here


The report also highlights challenges in the areas of privacy and consent, stating that where private data is being handled by AI systems we need ways to “make sure that it is ethically sourced and used under appropriate consent regimes.” This is highlighted as a particularly important part of making sure AI is working positively for society. 

A positive force

As far as our jobs are concerned, the committee says that whether you believe AI will take all of our jobs or you believe it'll simply create new and different ones, we can all agree “that gains in productivity and efficiency, new services and jobs, and improved support in existing roles are all on the horizon, alongside the potential loss of well-established occupations.”

Despite the gains, the report acknowledges that “such transitions will be difficult” and as a result more needs to be done in terms of improving the nation’s digital skills. 

It calls on the government “to ensure that our education and training systems are flexible” and criticizes its lack of leadership in the area at the moment: “It is disappointing that the Government has still not published its Digital Strategy and set out its plans for equipping the future workforce with the digital skills it needs to thrive.”

The committee’s report touches on the many important aspects of AI we need to consider, including continued uncertainty around the need for new legislation for autonomous vehicles. However, the overarching theme it appears to be calling for is strong leadership and decisive action from the Government sooner rather than later. Though the committee addresses its concerns to the UK government, they highlight global issues and now would be a good opportunity for the UK to set a precedent.

Though we’re still in the early stages of AI development, some forward thinking and considered action with regards to standards, regulations, funding, and skill-development could prevent rushed and poor decisions in the future.