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Survey reveals little trust in algorithms in public services


Mark Say Managing Editor

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The majority of people do not trust computer algorithms to make decisions about them, according to the results of a new survey.

Carried out by YouGov for BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, it revealed that 53% of 2,000 respondents said they have no faith in any organisations to use algorithms.

The survey was conducted in the wake of the controversy over the use of algorithms in revising A level exam grades in England, with the figures showing low levels of trust for their use in any public services.

Just 17% of respondents trusted the trust of use of algorithms in the education sector, making it joint lowest with social services and the armed forces. There was also a difference in attitudes between age groups for the education sector: 16% of 18-24 year-olds trusted their use while the figure was just 5% for over 55s.

The figure was highest for the NHS at 7%, followed by financial services with 16% and intelligence agencies with 12%. Police and big tech companies were level with 11%.

Little understanding

Dr Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, said: “People don’t trust algorithms to do the right thing by them – but there is little understanding of how deeply they are embedded in our everyday life. 

“People get that Netflix and the like use algorithms to offer up film choices, but they might not realise that more and more algorithms decide whether we’ll be offered a job interview, or by our employers to decide whether we’re working hard enough, or even whether we might be a suspicious person needing to be monitored by security services. 

"The problem government and business face are balancing people’s expectations of instant decisions, on something like credit for a sofa, with fairness and accounting for the individual, when it comes to life changing moments like receiving exam grades.

“That’s why we need a professionalised data science industry, independent impact assessments wherever algorithms are used in making high stakes judgements about people’s lives, and a better understanding of AI and algorithms by the policymakers who give them sign-off.”

Earlier this month BCS published a report calling for strict standards for the use of algorithms in public service issues, aimed at increasing public confidence in their ethics and competence. It recommended that the Government endorse the professionalisation of data science, in line with a plan it has already developed with the Royal Statistical Society, the Royal Society and others.

Image from purplejavatroll, CC BY-SA 2.0

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