The government got into hot water this summer for its attempts to introduce more tech-based policy and decision making. There was the furore and subsequent U-turn on the use of an algorithm to decide A-level results. While it hasn’t quite dominated headlines in the same way, debate then ignited around the introduction of an algorithm to determine housing targets in England as part of a revolutionary new planning system.
We live in a digital age and it’s right to explore the power of new tools to improve ways of working, whether in the public sector or private. But have we reached a ceiling on tech innovation, at least in terms of public perception?
Certainly algorithms are not a silver bullet solution and it would be wrong to position them as such. That’s not to say we should all become Luddites, but it does mean we need to develop a more nuanced, intelligent, and yes, at times, healthily sceptical relationship with technology – especially much vaunted terms like big data and machine learning.
Partly the challenge lies in education. Do we have the tools and knowledge to critically assess what tech can and cannot do? Coding is starting to feature in school curriculums, but it will take time for this to feed into the workforce. Employees are also upskilling.
Not everybody needs a diploma in computer science for us to embrace more technologically-led ways of working. The other component part of making society more open to innovation is how we communicate.
If government and businesses want to make AI and automated systems a more prominent part of their offer to constituents, employees and customers then they need to explain clearly what informs them, their strengths and potential limitations. After all, algorithms are only as good as the coders who write them, necessarily influenced by their biases and assumptions.
Making it clear how these tools have been developed and on what bases will enable us to have a more fruitful relationship with technology – embracing the efficiencies and insight they can bring while keeping our eyes open to the potential for in-built prejudice or skewed outcomes.
Stephanie Byrne is an account director at Camargue