Technology and the common good

Why innovation must be guided by social responsibility.

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When we look back on this remarkable era of technological change, we will not judge the progress we have made by the numbers on balance sheets. We will judge it by the impact it has had on humanity as a whole, and whether it has made us safer, happier and more fulfilled Governments have an important role in supporting the mission-driven organisations that want to use technology for the greater good, especially in fields such as artificial intelligence and automation.

The United Kingdom is committed to being open and optimistic about the world beyond us and the opportunities provided by new technologies. A recent report from Tech Nation named the UK as a “critical hub in the global tech ecosystem”, with a £2.3bn valuation of UK-based “tech for good” organisations.

From financial inclusion to sanitation, healthcare to housing, technology has the power to enable and improve a wide range of sectors. Earlier this year, I announced the UK government will invest £1m to drive social tech innovation in civil society, to help develop solutions to tackle social isolation and bring communities together. Successful participants will be rewarded with a cash incentive and ongoing business support.

And we have also backed the UK’s leading dedicated supporter in social tech ventures – the Social Tech Trust – to set up a new investment fund. This fund will provide ventures with the access to capital that they need at the right time. The aim is to raise up to £30m for this investment fund, to help ventures focused in three key areas of social transformation: health, wealth and communities.

To continue this momentum, Microsoft is also working in partnership with the Social Tech Trust to deliver an immersive accelerator programme, focused on “AI for good”. Ventures have access to resources to help them scale solutions in the areas of AI for accessibility and AI for environmental sustainability. The UK represents a natural home for tech pioneers such as these, who have big ideas and big ambitions to make the world a much better place.

Part of this is about having an immigration system that welcomes the world’s top tech talent, which is why we have also doubled the number of Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas. And we have opened two new visa routes for tech specialists. The startup route for those starting a business for the first time and the innovator route for more experienced business people with funds to invest in their firm. We are open to those with the skills and the determination to join this tech for good movement. But the other way we can show our commitment to this agenda is by playing our part in the big debates surrounding the development of new technologies.

Over the past few months we have seen a number of major questions coming to the fore about the development of new technologies. Issues such as content moderation, online disinformation and data ethics are now the subject of mainstream debate, as digital technology plays an increasingly important part in our everyday life. It is vital we work with industry to provide coherent answers and solutions to these issues to foster a level of optimism and enthusiasm towards the digital revolution.

I believe we find ourselves at a crossroads here, particularly around online harms. The tragic events in New Zealand in March showed just how quickly illegal terrorist and extremist content can spread. We are also seeing increasing numbers of people closing their social media accounts after unacceptable online abuse. We cannot allow this behaviour to undermine the very real benefits that the digital revolution can bring.

The government is setting out, therefore, how to create a new duty of care, establishing that tech companies have a responsibility for the safety of their users, and must take reasonable steps to tackle harmful content and activity. Compliance will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator, with significant penalties available to it.

But government and regulators cannot solve these problems on their own. Technology itself has a crucial role to play. I have seen some groundbreaking work already, including AI-enabled software that identifies terrorist content and apps to help young people monitor the time they spend online.

To encourage this, the new regulator will also have broader responsibilities to promote the development and adoption of technology to tackle online harms. The government will also work with industry and civil society to develop a framework for safety by design – setting out clear principles on how to include online safety features in new applications.

From online shopping and suggesting songs for our playlists to diagnosing illnesses, algorithms and artificial intelligence are playing a greater role in our everyday lives. It is important the use of AI and data is fair and accurate. To help address this, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation – a world-leading advisory body designed to make sure data-driven technology delivers the best possible outcomes for society – launched a call for evidence to support its reviews into online targeting of content, products and services to different individuals and bias in algorithmic decision making.

And I know a number of countries have already been in touch with the centre to find out more about their approach. The centre will be looking internationally to work with partners from around the world, and to learn from best practice wherever it can be found. With this in mind, I am also pleased to have appointed leading experts to our new AI Council, chaired by Tabitha Goldstaub. This is an independent committee bringing together experts from a range of sectors to promote growth in the artificial intelligence sector and encourage its responsible adoption across the economy.

The aim is to realise the full potential of AI to the economy in a way that works for everyone, to help us put in place the right skills, data and ethics so we can all make the most of AI technologies. We remain committed to boosting the UK’s global position as a leader in these technologies, and I am looking forward to meeting leaders from across the sector during London Tech Week to continue this important conversation.

Jeremy Wright is the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.