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  • Jonathan Ebsworth

Engaging the public in the Digital Ethics debate


This is the third in a series of blogs built around techUK’s recent Digital Ethics paper. techUK identifies eight priority action points. In this blog we look at the second one: Engage with the public across the UK

Previously ….

we set the scene around the current technology revolution. The current debate has failed to engage the public. We need better language to support this debate. Long-term multi-disciplinary campaigns are required to connect with the public. In this blog we explore how this might be started.

How might we engage with the public across the UK?

We need a sustained national engagement strategy around the technology revolution and its likely impact. Today there is a vacuum where that debate should be. Special interest groups fill that space when it suits them. The politico-business exchanges are too abstract and academic: engaging only the cognoscenti.

Sustained Campaign for Public Engagement

Bridges must be built from the remote political, business and academic strongholds to the rest of us, whose lives are being irreversibly changed by technology. We must start building now – and expect to be building for generations. We have to become far more relevant and practical if we want to begin a national conversation.

Who could take this on?

The Office for AI(@OfficeforAI)and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI - @CDEIUK) have some responsibility to facilitate public understanding around the tech revolution. They are well placed to define and drive an effective long-term national engagement strategy. This must address all levels of society; work across all channels and demands significant relevant content. Business, education and social communities must be mobilised. There is massive work to be done in schools around attitudes to technology and with the curriculum – but that is for another blog.

Last week, we described the need for inclusive and meaningful language to offer a solid foundation for this debate. Perhaps organisations like the Ada Lovelace Institute (@AdaLovelaceInst), techUK (@techUK) and/or Doteveryone (@doteveryone) might step up to initiate this work.

A giant government information campaign won’t solve anything. Concerted action is required, across society – all of it; business, academia, schools, trades unions, community groups and politicians. We all have a material stake in this journey. This needs to be a significant topic for nationwide conversation for years to come.

We must start answering the key questions around the future of work, the future of society and the future of life in an increasingly techno-centric world. Those in positions of responsibility across society need to listen to what people feel about these changes, explain where understanding is weak and take action where required.

An intriguing forerunner – the HFEA

There is one shining example of great practice tackling complex ethical issues. Born out of the 1982 Warnock Committee; the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act led to the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

In a massively emotive area, the HFEA has addressed some of the hardest ethical issues with balance and care – retaining both government and public trust. Perhaps the toughest Digital Ethics challenges could one day be addressed similarly by CDEI. Unfortunately, CDEI was not conceived with that in mind. To perform that role well, it needs to be configured to that purpose and established a level of authority.

In Conclusion

We need a national engagement strategy addressing Digital Ethics. The CDEI and Office for AI have some obligation to drive that strategy. Until they do, we are at risk of special interests manipulating the debate to benefit the few, not Society as a whole.

We think the organisations like Ada Lovelace Institute, techUK and Doteveryone could help develop the kind of inclusive, accessible language required to underpin this discussion. Businesses, Politicians, Education and Community Leaders all have responsibility to engage, and help others understand the changes that are coming. This is a long-term process that needs consistency and integrity to engage the public across the UK.

@OfficeforAI @CDEIUK @AdaLovelaceInst @techUK @doteveryone

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