The fifth techUK Digital Ethics Summit: Reflecting on the past and the future

6 Dec 2021 04:13 PM

Sue Daley, techUK Director of Technology and Innovation, shares her reflections on the progress made since our first Digital Ethics Summit in 2017.

Back in 2017, the year of our first Digital Ethics Summit, it was becoming very clear that the diffusion of powerful new data driven technologies, such as AI, would rapidly change the way we work and live. We believed, and still do, that applied with responsibility and purpose these technologies could achieve great things for people and the planet. But applied casually and unthinkingly we could risk missing this opportunity.  There was a broad consensus then that the best way forward was through the development and deep application of digital ethics to ensure that the process of innovation was reflective, and foresight was applied as we moved forward.  But many questions remained; what does this mean in practice? Do we have the capability and capacity we need? What sort of institutions do we need to stay on the right course?

These questions and others were the reason techUK held its first ever Digital Ethics Summit in December 2017. The aim was to bring together business, academia, government and the third sector to push forward the discussion on how we could build a culture and reputation for digital ethics in the UK that could be world leading. What became really clear very quickly was there was significant interest in this important conversation. A conference room booked for seventy delegates had to be upgraded to a much bigger room as we had over three hundred people registering to attend. In hindsight a great problem to have but it didn’t help my blood pressure around what was already the first event of its kind techUK had ever held in collaboration with partner organisations including as the British Academy, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Open Data Institute, the Royal Statistical Society and the Nuffield Foundation.

The first Summit turned out to be a landmark event. DCMS spoke about the launch of the Government’s new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The Nuffield Foundation announced the creation of the Ada Lovelace Institute and industry spoke about how an ethics by design approach was being taken forward. Panels discussed how to ensure ethical foresight as the use of AI continues to increase, how everyone can embed an ethics by design approach and how we position the UK for ethical leadership. It became clear there were more issues and questions that needed to be unpacked and that this was a conversation that needed more voices, input and discussion. So what began in 2017 has continued to this day with our fifth annual Summit being held this Wednesday.

As part of marking the fifth techUK’s Digital Ethics Summit we wanted to take a moment to reflect on what has happened in the years since the first Summit and explore how the digital ethics conversation has developed and matured. We are therefore releasing insights this week by leaders in the UK’s digital ethics community and by our members, sharing examples of digital ethics in practice ,thoughts and reflections on where they think we are today, the progress that has been made and what the future of digital ethics in the UK may hold.  Many of these pieces are written by people who have been involved in the digital ethics conversation in the UK since the very first Summit and we hope that their own insights, views and perspectives can help to, once again, push forward the discussion on what we need to do over the next five years to continue to be a world leader in digital ethics and show the way by operationalising ethics and demonstrating our ability to innovate for good.