Drawing up a Magna Carta for the digital age

Written by
Lord Chris Holmes

09 Aug 2018

09 Aug 2018 • by Lord Chris Holmes

We all have a role in defining how technology influences our world and the relationship humans have with the machines, argues Lord Chris Holmes.

The fourth industrial revolution, characterised by technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, nanotechnology, the internet of things and robotics, offers incredible opportunities for transformation: from the way businesses are run to the way we live our lives.

However, I believe there is an urgent need to improve the quality of public debate around emerging challenges and issues. Most importantly, we must start asking the right questions. We have the range of tools we need to make a success of ‘4IR’ but we must use all of them. This is far too important to leave to the technologists.

For rounded solutions, we must turn to philosophy, psychology and ethics, to business leaders, policy makers, regulators and society. We can all play a part in deciding what sort of world we want to live in and in designing the future accordingly.

Amara’s law dictates that the effects of technological change will be overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term. Inevitably, predicting the future is a game of imagination and fantasy that gives us jet packs and The Terminator rather than Uber and Siri.

People have always been suspicious of technological change but we used to have more time to adapt (the telephone, for example, took 89 years to reach 150 million users). As the pace of change accelerates, becoming exponential, we have less time to get used to it and, consequently, greater anxiety.

The narrative goes something like this: “The jobs are going, the bots are coming, we’re all going to hell and we don’t even know if we have a handcart!”

Choices, not predictions

The good news is that our inability to predict the future doesn’t actually matter. We don’t need to make predictions about the future, we need to make choices.

Published in April, the report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence calls for ethics to lie at the heart of all technological developments, recommending a cross-sector code based on the following five principles:

  1. AI should be developed for the common good and benefit of humanity.
  2. AI should operate on principles of intelligibility and fairness.
  3. AI should not be used to diminish the data rights or privacy of individuals, families or communities.
  4. All citizens should have the right to be educated to enable them to flourish mentally, emotionally and economically alongside AI.
  5. The autonomous power to hurt, destroy or deceive human beings should never be vested in AI.

These principles could form the basis of what some have called a “Magna Carta for the digital age”. The original Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Liberties) of 1215 attempted to enshrine certain freedoms and limit the power of a feudal king.

This kind of social contract, underpinned by core principles, is incredibly important, but raising public awareness and understanding is also key. We need to get better at asking questions such as “who controls the system?” “who has access?” and “what do users need to relinquish to access the system?”

Staying human

Another question to consider is the relationship we want to have with machines. There is fascinating research about the way otherwise law-abiding shoppers behave when using self-service checkouts. The number of people shoplifting jumps to an astonishing 25% at self-checkouts, largely thought to be due to the fact that stealing from a machine (and a faceless profit-making entity) feels less ‘bad’ than stealing from a person (even when that person is an intermediary).

So, as our interactions with machines increase (think Alexa, Siri, Google Duplex) we need to ask ourselves whether it matters how we treat these machines. Does interacting with humans keep us human?

Personally, I’m excited by, and optimistic about, the potential for technology to improve our lives. It’s incredible to experience the mainstreaming of technology that used to be specialised (for example, text-to-speech software) and the massive popularity of podcasts. And beyond individual benefits, the potential for technology to transform society is boundless: we could save the NHS, make human lives richer, happier and more purposeful.

It’s up to each of us to play our part. As business leaders and individuals, we must start by having the conversations that will shape the future.

You can read a summary of Lord Holmes speech from #ChangeboardFT here, or listen to or watch his presentation in full.