How Brexit means we need to think about AI and data handling

Ivana Bartoletti

Data is often referred to as ‘the new oil’. However true this may be, one thing is certain: Brexit means we need to think about how we govern this resource for the common good. With China and the US leading on artificial intelligence – which is fuelled by data – radical ideas are needed if Britain wants to compete globally, and Labour must shape an agenda around this.

Data and the free flow of information across jurisdictions are as key to economic growth as security, science and innovation. Data underpins research in medicine and it fuels development in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, and big data analytics informs better policy decisions.

Scandals around data handling made 2018 a rather extraordinary year. In normal circumstances, the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal alone would have been enough to demonstrate how unchecked data exploitation can threaten democracy, weaponise political debate and undermine human rights. Sadly, this was just one of the many scary stories we heard in 2018. We’ve also seen autonomous vehicles killing pedestrians, predictive technologies discriminating against ethnic minorities and recruitment softwares selecting only male CVs.

It’s no surprise that public trust and digital ethics are now high up the political agenda; combining innovation with transparency and good governance is one of the big challenges we face right now. This is a debate Labour should lead. How we are going to govern the digital space in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation but roots it in fairness and equitable solutions for all?

Brexit is, of course, a serious matter on many fronts, and that applies to data too. First, data matters because the free flow of information underpins much of our economy today. Organisations trade globally and suppliers are often based overseas. Sharing information is also important for security purposes, to fight crime and analyse threats.

But this is only part of the problem. Whilst businesses can engineer solutions for data coming into the UK, the biggest risk I see is in relation to global competitiveness. We know data is essential to algorithms, and AI and machine learning are indeed shaping the way we live. AI is becoming yet another territory nations are competing on, and we are witnessing a real race in AI nationalism. Two countries are ahead in this race – the USA and China. Both are home to the very few global digital businesses shaping our infosphere and future digital life such as Badoo, Amazon and Google.

China is racing ahead with privacy-invasive AI-driven programmes, which mean constant scoring and monitoring of citizens. Europe, meanwhile, is working on what we call ‘ethical AI’, rooted in the belief that AI must be human-centred, augment human capabilities and further our humanity rather than undermine it. Britain is leading on this: the Centre for Data Ethics and the Information Commissioner’s Office are working alongside many organisations like Doteveryone, the Ada Lovelace Institute and Women Leading in AI to push for non-biased and fair algorithms that pursue the common good. European initiatives are multiplying, alongside investment and research.

But what is missing is a coherent plan for the economic, political and ethical direction of AI. AI is disruptive. No nation can stand alone to deal with the challenges of AI to maximise its benefits whilst minimising job losses, which are already fuelling right-wing politics. New sector-specific, cutting-edge regulation governing the digital arena is urgently needed, as is solid investment in ethical AI to compete against nations with a different approach from ours.

It is now time to talk about the digital in the very same way we talk about the environment. We know pollution is not a matter for one nation state alone, and we know the importance of European regulation and investment in the green economy. The digital space is no different – we need to care for it in the same way we must care for the environment. If we think of it that way, we will be better able to look after the opportunities and challenges of the infosphere – together with others rather than on our own.

Ivana Bartoletti is chair of the Fabian Society and will be a speaker at the FEPS-Fabian New Year Conference: Brexit and Beyond on 19th January 2019.

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