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Spotlight Leader: The lesson to learn from exams failure

Is the A-level results fiasco a glimpse into our automated future?

By Spotlight

Anyone who doesn’t think that AI and automation affect their daily lives was proved mistaken last month with the publication of this year’s A-level results. A “mutant algorithm”, as Boris Johnson has since termed it, used by the exam regulator Ofqual downgraded nearly 40 per cent of teacher-assessed grades. The ensuing debacle – complete with systemic bias, untold
stress for students and government U-turns – was a shocking end to a long coronavirus summer.

It was also a sign of the world to come. AI and automation are already changing how we live and work. As Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne predicted in their widely touted 2013 study (see page 10), as many as 47 per cent of US jobs, and 35 per cent of UK jobs, may be automated by the 2030s.  

This government has been keen on automation in the public sector. Under Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for instance, NHSX has been pushing its use in the health service. The body is running a survey to gauge how much robotic process automation is being used to automate GP referrals and to cancel appointments.

But the exam fiasco raised a red flag about the ethics of applying tech and ensuring transparency in its use. Last month it was reported that a number of councils across the UK are stopping their use of algorithms to make decisions on welfare matters and benefit claims, because in some cases systems made mistakes and led to delays.

Research by PEW from 2017 found that 72 per cent of Americans were anxious about “a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs”. Three years is a lifetime in tech. But what hasn’t changed is the need to ensure it is used in the right way. The review into algorithmic bias by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) is, of course, welcome. But if the government is serious about ethics, it will quickly establish the CDEI’s independence on a statutory basis. This would help restore its reputation in light of its chair’s involvement in the A-level scandal; Roger Taylor is also the chair of Ofqual.

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The students who finished school this summer will enter a workforce transformed by automation. Their experience will hopefully shape their generation’s, and the government’s, use of tech for the better.

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on The Future of Work: AI and Automation