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AI review recommends public sector programme



Government report on artificial intelligence identifies need to prepare public sector for its use – and points to challenges to promote industry development

A programme to support the public sector’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) should be one of the key steps in promoting the development of the technology in the UK, according to a newly published review commissioned by the Government.

The recommendation is included in Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK – published today by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and written by Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Jerome Pesenti. It outlines steps to foster the growth of the industry, both in encouraging its development and ensuring that other sectors are poised to exploit the technology.

It recognises that public services are among the areas in which AI has great potential, and says the Government should develop a programme of actions to prepare the public sector for its use and spread best practice. This would involve drawing on the expertise in the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Data Science Partnership and data experts in other departments.

The setting of public challenges could also stimulate innovation in the field. Sources such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund already provide money to promote research and innovation in specific fields, and this can be used for challenges in areas such as social care. In this case AI could help to make care more efficient by mapping capacity, logistics and demand.

A similar approach could be taken to improving the resilience of the UK against cyber attacks.

Existing uses

The review points to the existing, if limited, use of AI in some government agencies. These include the use of machine learning to automate and process user comments from surveys on GOV.UK, work by GDS and the Pensions Regulator to improve efficiency by using predictive algorithms for future pension scheme behaviour, and the prioritisation of responses in HM Revenue & Customs’ call centres.

It says there are likely to be many more uses in the processing of applications and submissions, including for tax, benefits, visas, passports, and other government licences.

Low risk applications can be processed automatically, leaving caseworkers to focus on the more difficult applications; and a common machine learning algorithm could be used to triage the risk associated with different applications.

Examples in other countries show other areas of potential for public services, such as the use of chatbots in Singapore and Australia, and pattern detection in law enforcement in the US.

In addition to the programme of actions, the review says the provision of more open data – in which the public sector is leading the way in the UK – will provide more scope for AI to improve services. The data could be used to train machine learning models and test the performance of AI systems, but it would have to be machine-readable in standard formats, with clear rights information when necessary.

Data sensitivities

The review acknowledges that things will get more difficult when sensitive data is required, particularly for healthcare. It is an area in which AI can do a lot of good, but legal and other reasons make it difficult to get access to large datasets.

It comes back to a familiar factor for the public sector – that there will be a need to build public trust and confidence in the use of sensitive data.

Among the recommended measures to increase the national skills pool for AI are an industry funded Masters programme, the provision of an extra 200 PhD places at UK universities, credit bearing online courses leading to MScs, and an international fellowship programme.

The review also says the Alan Turing Institute should become the national institute for AI and data science, and that universities should promote a standardised approach to the transfer of intellectual property. This would be accompanied by the setting up of an AI Council to promote growth and support for export and inward investment.

Lead the way

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said: “I want the UK to lead the way in artificial intelligence. It has the potential to improve our everyday lives - from healthcare to robots that perform dangerous tasks. 

“We already have some of the best minds in the world working on AI, and the challenge now is to build a strong partnership with industry and academia to cement our position as the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business."

IT industry association techUK referred to the public service potential in welcoming the report. Its head of AI, Sue Daley, commented: “AI can fundamentally increase productivity, improve the delivery of public services and change consumers’ everyday experiences. The independent review is an important step in identifying where the UK must strengthen its technical, academic and research leadership to make it the best nation in the world for AI companies to thrive.

“If the UK is to realise the full economic and social benefits of AI, the Government must foster greater demand for and adoption within both the public and private sectors, and across industries.”

Legality and ethics

But she added that there are complex social, legal and ethical issues to face in the technology’s development.

“(They are) going beyond merely the use and protection of personal data,” she said. “There are complex questions to be answered, such as what it means to be human in an AI-driven world; how to ensure AI systems are safe and acting in the interest of humans; and whether decisions made by AI are challengeable and understandable by humans.

“The goal for policy-makers and industry alike must be to ensure citizens are also brought along with the Government and industry on the UK’s AI journey, and feel the profound benefits this innovation can afford.”

How can AI and machine learning be harnessed for the public good? Following our successful conference on the issue in June, UKAuthority is revisiting the subject with a new event, Return of the Bots, to take place in London on Tuesday 14 November. You can find more information and registration details here.

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