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Creating an environment for ethical innovation to thrive

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Are you feeling optimistic?

Or more specifically: how optimistic are you that data and artificial intelligence (AI) will change society for the better? 

That your experience of the world - yours, specifically - will improve as a result?

Do you think algorithms will make unbiased decisions about your eligibility for insurance? That when you apply for your next job, the computer which screens your application (and perhaps your face) will judge you more fairly than a human counterpart? That facial recognition technology will accurately recognise you, regardless of your skin colour ? That illnesses will be diagnosed more quickly and accurately?

Super confident? Quietly optimistic? Sceptical? Worried?

Each person reading this will feel varying levels of optimism. It might depend on whether you work with data, and have some level of technical knowledge. Whether you watched The Capture on the BBC last year. Whether you trust Big Tech, or your government.

Your optimism may also depend on your gender, your ethnicity, your sexual identity or your age. If you’ve experienced bias and discrimination from humans, can you realistically expect more objectivity, more fairness, from machines?

Innovation alone is not enough 

The CDEI was set up by the government in 2018, and with a unique remit: to help the UK navigate the ethical challenges presented by data-driven technology and AI. Our role is to ensure that everyone in society can feel confident in how technology is transforming the world, in the knowledge that it will be making people’s lives better.  

Advances in technical innovation should be something that everyone can look forward to. Or, at a minimum, not be something that causes active worry.  Whilst innovation is to be encouraged, innovation alone is not good enough. It needs to be ethical innovation, or none at all.

What does the CDEI mean by ‘ethical innovation’?

It's worth reflecting on the relationship between ethics and innovation. For some, these two words are uncomfortable bedfellows at best. At worst, a contradiction in terms. Surely to work ethically, innovation will have to be curbed?

This is reductive and unambitious thinking. Done properly, making ethical considerations a priority may curb some innovation, but will act as a spur for the kind of positive innovation we want. This is only achieved through society-wide conversation and input into the direction data-driven technology is taking us.

Ethical innovation will require particular conditions

Ethical innovation doesn’t ‘just happen’. Humans and the societies they build are fallible, and a cursory glance back at history shows how easily we have baked bias into pre-digital society. If we continue innovating without a proper system of checks and balances, we are at risk of embedding unfairness and discrimination into our digital infrastructure. 

The CDEI exists to help create the conditions in which ethical innovation can thrive. That might be through improved regulation, developing an industry-wide code of practice, or working with public sector bodies to deliver specific projects. The particular conditions needed will depend on the issue at hand: the potential for bias in algorithmic decision-making, data-sharing policies, the use of facial recognition technology, or something else entirely. There isn’t a one size fits all approach.

How does the CDEI create these conditions?

The CDEI works in 2 unique ways, which enable it to identify and develop the right approaches to tackle each issue.

Firstly, we work with and through civil society, academia, industry, regulators, the public and government departments. By bringing a diversity of voices and expertise to the table, we aim to ensure our recommendations are as robust and representative as possible.

Secondly, the CDEI works as an independent expert committee. Whilst we work with the government as one stakeholder among many to inform our recommendations, we work separately and impartially. This means that our recommendations may support but also, at times, challenge the government’s policy. 

And that is exactly where the CDEI’s value lies. The government did not establish us to be a passive cheerleader, but as a constructively critical and trusted advisor. That is the only way for the government to deliver on the UK’s mission, which was set out by the Prime Minister in a speech to last Autumn’s UN General Assembly:

...the mission of the United Kingdom and all who share our values must be to ensure that emerging technologies are designed from the outset for freedom, openness and pluralism.

We need to find the right balance between freedom and control; between innovation and regulation; between private enterprise and government oversight.

We must insist that the ethical judgements inherent in the design of new technology are transparent to all.

And we must make our voices heard more loudly in the standards bodies that write the rules.

The UK must set the bar high, and lead

During that same speech, the Prime Minister spoke of the UK’s role as a “global leader in ethical and responsible technology”. By establishing the CDEI, the UK has marked itself out as one of the few nation states to make ethical innovation a government priority. 

With its robust legal and regulatory systems, a thriving technology industry, and leading academic institutions, the UK is ideally placed to lead by example and set the standard globally on ethical innovation.

What can you expect from the CDEI this year?

Early this year we will be publishing the results of 2 year-long reviews. The first into online targeting (published last week), and the second into the potential for bias in algorithmic decision-making. Both these reviews include recommendations to government, and focus on how the CDEI can support organisations in the public and private sector to implement ethical innovation using data-driven technology.

Following the publication of 3 Snapshot reports in September last year, we will also be releasing further thematic papers, including one on facial recognition technology and data-sharing very soon. We’ll use this blog to update you on our work, and share our latest thinking.

If you have questions about the CDEI’s work programme - please get in touch by leaving a comment or sending us an email on

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