The future of public services will be built on engagement with AI

RSA AI reportA new report from the RSA, Democratising Decisions About Technology, considers how citizens can have agency over new technologies, such as AI, which are entering their workplaces, homes and lives. This report reveals  the desire and capability of ordinary citizens to engage with sometimes complex technology-related questions, and presents a toolkit for organisations looking to engage ordinary people on AI. The NHS, criminal justice system and employers will face a backlash against ‘tech creep’ unless they commit to ensure a role for citizens in designing and deploying tech, the report warns. 

The report highlights recommendations developed through a series of jury events. Each ‘citizens’ jury’ used ‘immersive scenarios’ to help participants understand the ethical issues raised by the application of AI under different circumstances, and foster a deliberative dialogue about how companies, organisations, and public institutions should respond.

Having developed a model for engaging the public, the RSA ran citizens’ juries dealing with different contexts:

  • In criminal justice, particularly in stop-and-search decisions, participants wanted a system of accountability for decisions made using AI. The public felt they needed a ‘human in the loop’ – AI decisions should only take place with some level of human oversight.
  • For decisions in healthcare, a key issue was empathy. The citizens’ jury felt that AI systems would lack the emotional depth to deal with patients in a holistic way.
  • For the use of AI in recruitment, the public were worried this might lead to a lack of explainability in the hiring process. They felt that an external auditing body was needed to set and enforce guidelines for employers.

The report also comes with data from a survey carried out by YouGov in 2018:

  • Just 32 percent of individuals were aware that AI is being used for decision-making in general, dropping to 14 percent and 9 percent respectively when it comes to awareness of the use of Automated Decision Systems (ADS) in the workplace, and the criminal justice system.
  • 60 percent oppose the use of ADS in recruitment and criminal justice.


An engaged public is key

The RSA concludes that a programme of public engagement could improve these numbers significantly. Deliberative methods are increasingly being used to reconnect ‘experts’ and the public, especially on difficult or ethical issues – for instance, they helped pave the way for Ireland’s referendum on legalising abortion. By involving citizens before final decisions on tech are made, public backlash might be prevented, the report concludes. The Forum for Ethical AI was organised and facilitated by the RSA, and funded by DeepMind.

Asheem Singh, director of economics and head of tech and society at the RSA, said: New technologies are being adopted at a rapid pace, and regulators and the public are struggling to keep up. An increasing amount of decision making – in our public services, the job market and healthcare – is taking place via ever-more opaque processes. As our research suggests, this is a source of anxiety for the general public but they don’t even know the half of it. AI must not be introduced solely as a means to cut costs or garner headlines.

“We need an open conversation about AI and other forms of decision making, driven by the principles of transparency and accountability. Citizens understand the ethical implications of AI in our public services; their voice needs to be part of the conversation. Or a future may emerge where regulators lose control of these systems without a smidgeon of public consent.”