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Staying abreast of technological developments during COVID-19

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Artificial intelligence, Covid-19, Ethical innovation

The CDEI’s mission is paramount at a time when rapid technological advances are being deployed to help control the spread and minimise the effects of COVID-19. In order to realise our mission, and create an environment in which ethical innovation can thrive, it is imperative that we stay abreast of technological developments. This is the role of the CDEI AI Monitoring (AIM) team, whose purpose is to monitor and make sense of such developments, so as to help policymakers, the CDEI, and others to understand which issues to prioritise, and where to direct their often limited resources and attention. 

As the pandemic has developed, bringing with it an increasingly novel technological landscape, so too has the AIM team, pivoting its work to focus on these new emerging use-cases. The array of uses that we have encountered so far have ranged from slight variations on existing technologies - e.g. smart speakers disseminating health advice - to brand new topical uses, such as automating social distance control in the workplace through wearable technology.

As we enter phase two of the Government’s recovery strategy, there are myriad technologies that can contribute to the smarter controls required to make contact safer, manage social distancing, and prevent hotspots from developing. All of the uses we are surfacing could have substantial positive effects on efforts to contain the virus and build resilience after the pandemic, so long as we apply them ethically. On account of this, we are launching three new workstreams, to support innovation within the public and private sectors, whilst also helping the public to understand the impact that these technologies will have on them as individuals. 

Surveying the landscape

The foundation of the AIM team’s work is the COVID-19 repository, which is a database of applications and use-cases specifically developed to address the impacts of COVID-19. Our definition of impact here is broad, and includes not just the public health challenges created by COVID-19, but also the consequences of lockdown measures, the need to support economic recovery, and the ability to improve future resilience. 

The repository aims to highlight innovations that are yet to be fully explored, encouraging researchers, the media and policymakers to widen the scope of their analysis and pay attention to lesser known use cases. We hope that this is a useful resource not just for the CDEI, but also for others to identify trends, spot innovation globally, and build connections across sectors and nations. The first draft of the repository will be published shortly and we will release further iterations of it on a monthly basis.

Cutting through the noise

Due to the fast-moving pace of these developments, we’re conscious that, in some instances, there may be relatively limited information available on these new technologies. To counter this, we will be launching a regular series of use-case specific COVID-19 introductory blogs that will introduce the fundamentals of the most pertinent, unique, and compelling examples of how AI and data are being used to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. These will inform readers about how the technology is developed, where it has so far been deployed (if at all), what we know about its impact, and what we might learn about similar interventions made overseas. We hope that these will provide a vital source of clarity, shedding some light on potential implications for policy and governance. 

Recognising that different implementations will carry different benefits and risks, we have created an analytical framework - loosely based on the OECD Principles for Responsible AI - through which we will scrutinise each of these use-cases. This analytical lens will allow us to highlight outstanding questions that need to be addressed, especially those that should be at the forefront of public debate. Encouraging safe and ethical innovation remains a central tenet of our mission, and ensuring that we continue to highlight any potential uncertainties or trade-offs will be a reflection of this.

Stimulating discussion

Alongside the introductory blogs, we will run a series of COVID-19 forums to explore how governance models may need to evolve in order to maximise the benefit of the emerging use cases. These forums will create a space for evidence-led debate, allowing civil society groups and experts to identify trade-offs, potential safeguards and gaps in evidence, and agree which issues merit the most attention going forward. In facilitating these discussions, we aim to shape the agendas of researchers, technology vendors and policymakers, as they further develop tech-led responses to COVID-19.  

Although much about COVID-19 remains unpredictable, what we do know is that many of the emerging use-cases will have lasting effects, long after the end of the pandemic. These issues will fold into the wider ethical questions that we have been considering since our foundation, as well as generating some of their own. We look forward to creating the spaces required to tackle them in the coming months.

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