From our earliest beginnings, technological innovation has profoundly changed society, our environment and even our biology. And all of these innovations have brought both life-changing benefits, unforeseen risks and even the ability to wage war more efficiently.

By gaining the ability to harness fire, early humans were able to extract energy and nutrients from a far wider range of foods. This gave us a huge evolutionary advantage and was the start of our migration to all parts of the globe. But we also had to radically change the way we lived, for example by constructing buildings differently to prevent them from burning down. We also gained a potent new weapon of war. And so it has been through the bronze and iron ages, with the invention of the wheel, glass lenses, steam power, and right up to the modern day exemplified by the invention of the car and personal computers.

Picture of an inferno

For most of our history, the impact of these technological advances has played out with limited forethought or attempts by government to try to maximise the benefits to society and mitigate the worst of the risks.

Over the past few decades, there has been a concerted effort to try to change this. The announcement by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) of the establishment of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation shows that the government is serious about getting onto the front foot and engaging directly with the tensions and trade-offs between the benefits government, business and society might gain from data science and artificial intelligence (AI) and the risks inherent in the power that these advances hand us. The Centre’s formation is a strong indicator that the efforts to focus government’s attention proactively on these questions are beginning to pay off.

The recent consultation document from DCMS sketches out a role for the Centre which focuses it firmly on the governance of the technology to guide the ethical and social impact of the technologies. From Involve’s perspective, the fact that the consultation recognises the importance of the public in shaping the work of the Centre is particularly welcome

As we begin to develop our response to the specific consultation question about how the Centre can effectively engage the public, we will be reaching back into the last twenty years of experience and expertise, both here in the UK and internationally to try to draw out key lessons and examples. We’ll also highlight the most recent work in this area by number of organisations (including our own on data sharing and public benefit) to begin to engage with the social and moral issues raised by data science and AI.

Just as controlling fire has improved the lives of every person since data and AI will bring benefits way beyond our imaginings. But fire also changed the way we live, required new safety protocols and building standards. It also has malign uses. Data science and AI are no different. Ensuring the new Centre can properly grip the governance questions and provide robust advice to government which is rooted in public perspectives will be critical if the UK is, in the opening words of DCMS’s consultation, “to be at the forefront of global efforts to harness data and artificial intelligence as a force for good.”