Technology transformation for Public Good – Role of AI/Automation to address societal challenges

Our final CIMR Debate in Public Policy of the Autumn term brought together experts from industry and the government to explore the positive role technology has to play in transforming society.

Technology and artificial intelligence (AI) have the power to transform our lives. ‘Disruptive uses of technology, from AI enhancing MRI scans and being able to predict protein shapes are already changing the society we live in, and, while there is enormous potential for technology to change the way we work for the better, at the moment adoption of new technologies is sub-optimal. So says Riccardo Zecchinelli, Senior Economist at the Cabinet Office and chair of this debate, who argues that the million pound question for the government in relation to AI and automation adoption is what can be done or what mechanisms could be put in place to ensure that new technologies can be used for good?

Starting small

First to try and answer this question was Harry Rhys Davies, AI Programme Lead at TechNation, a government-backed programme to support AI/Machine Learning scaleups through peer-to-peer learning and hearing from later-stage founders.

Rhys Davies argued that, while so much of the debate and discussion on AI focuses on big tech, much of the adoption of AI comes from start-up companies. TechNation was founded to support and champion entrepreneurs who are using technology at the heart of what they do and to date has worked with 2000 companies, including Monzo and Deliveroo, with a mission to unlock the growth potential of 1000 scaling tech leadership teams across the UK by 2022.

Applying AI to solve societal problems

A key factor for Rhys Davies is a focus on best practice and the building blocks of a successful company that has AI at its core. One such company is that of Mark Hodgson, Chief Business Officer at Cervest, a climate intelligence platform that uses AI and machine learning to help organisations understand, measure and predict physical climate risk on their assets.

Hodgson argues that, if the government is to deliver on its responsibility to enable and promote economic and social protection in relation to climate change, then it will require new tools that can be provided by pioneering technology. Cervest uses planetary maths, climate science and cutting-edge technology to enable the measurement and monitoring of climate change risk, which allows steps towards mitigation to take place. The company is launching EarthScan, a tool for organisations to interrogate their own climate risk, in the new year.

The role of the Government Automation Taskforce

Finally, Julia Beresford, Deputy Director of the Government Automation Taskforce and Lara Hayes, Senior Implementation Advisor gave insight into how the government is embracing AI. The Government Automation Taskforce was created in recognition of the fact that services and processes have become inefficient over time as technology has become outdated and that there are opportunities for new technology to transform these services and improve productivity.

The Automation Taskforce promotes the consistent use of automation across government through sharing and leveraging common solutions and providing advice and guidance on automation within the government. The creation of standards on ethics, transparency and accountability are a key part in the early stages of implementing new technologies, as is engaging with government departments to understand their automation ambition and priority areas. While the main focus so far has been on robotic process automation, the Automation Taskforce hope to move towards AI as part of their three-year plan.

The presentations were followed by a lively Q&A, with audience members interested to know more about the timescale for automation and the barriers that might prevent AI implementation.

Our final debate of the Autumn term ended on the optimistic note that, with the right support in place from industry and from within the government, we can harness the benefits of technology to solve some of society’s greatest problems.

Link to workshop recording