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Judge sounds ‘serf’ warning on digital public services


Michael Cross Correspondent

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One of the UK’s top tier judges has made an extraordinary public warning about the potential dangers of automating decision-making in public services.

In a public lecture this month, Supreme Court Justice Lord Sales (Philip Sales QC) asserted that while, while digital government offers the potential of huge savings, it also has the potential to undermine human dignity and human rights.

“Access to public services is being depersonalised,” he said. “The individual seems powerless in the face of machine systems and loses all dignity in being subjected to their control.

“The movement here threatens to be from citizen to consumer and then on to serf.”

In his lecture for the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, Sales added his voice to a growing campaign for independent regulation of machine learning algorithms. Decisions made by AI could embed human prejudices in inflexible code without a “capacity for mercy”, he said.

Need for legal structure

“AI may get to the stage where it will understand the rules of (the legal principle of) equity and how to recognise hard cases, but we are not there yet.” In the meantime “we need to build a structure of legal obligations on those who design and build algorithms”.  

To impose a legal order on the digital world, Lord Sales proposed setting up an expert algorithms commission to enforce human rights principles. Staffed by technical experts assisted by lawyers and ethicists, the commission would provide “a valuable social resource” to restore agency to computer based decisions.

One model could be the independent regulators of utilities, he said. “You could also think of it as an arm of a constitutional court,” policing principles of human rights. 

While such a body would not be cheap, the likely cost would be “proportionate to the risks” society faces.

Lord Sales also acknowledged that the commission would be open to criticism as “one expert elite monitoring another expert elite”, but said this could be mitigated by making its proceedings as transparent as possible. 

Treasury Devil

Sales took up his Supreme Court post only this year but has wide experience of the public service reform agenda under recent governments. As a barrister he served as First Junior Treasury Counsel – ‘Treasury Devil’ in legal slang – representing the Government in the civil courts.

 It is highly unusual for a serving judge to speak out on public policy during a general election campaign; his decision presumably reflects confidence that the digitisation of public services will not emerge as a party political issue.

Image from the Supreme Court, Open Government Licence


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