Digital Minister puts people – ‘not machines’ – at heart of new AI vision for Scotland

Kate Forbes, Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy for the Scottish Government, speaks at the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE)

Scotland’s digital minister has put people – ‘not machines’ – at the heart of the nation’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) vision, which will take the form of a new strategy launching next year.

Kate Forbes, Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, set out the Scottish Government’s intention to start a nationwide process – mentioned in the recent Programme for Government – that engenders ‘buy-in’ from across society to a plan to use AI as a digital tool to improve citizens’ lives.

Forbes MSP, who has personally taken charge of a steering group committee to develop the strategy, said she wants AI to be relateable to ordinary ‘unsuspecting’ people who may not be digital experts but who can contribute to how an AI strategy is delivered, in terms of automating processes which will unlock economic and social potential, underpinned by an ethical framework which guides the process.

Speaking at the Royal Society of Edinburgh – Scotland’s National Academy – Ms Forbes said on Friday that the strategy – which will be led by The Data Lab, the national innovation centre for data science and AI – will be built around saving ‘time, money and lives’ and could, according to independent research presented at the event by BT, unlock £13bn in additional economic output.

Ms Forbes said that at a time of “huge uncertainty” that we all have to “work together” and that the “core guiding principle” of the new strategy – which builds on the work of Building a World-Leading AI and Data Strategy for an Inclusive Scotland, a strategy released early this year by the Scottish Council for Development & Industry (SCDI), BT and ScotlandIS – will be citizen-focused.

Over the course of the next 12 months – before the strategy is revealed in 2020’s Programme for Government – the Scottish Government will work assiduously to consult individuals, groups and businesses to ensure that public support is secured to build a policy around how AI might be utilised in practice beyond the ‘rhetoric’ of any strategic warm notes of intent.

She said: “Because it’s one thing sharing the rhetoric about what we want to achieve, but quite another putting in place the tangible steps to get the outcome. Our intent to deliver that high-level AI strategy for Scotland focuses on the benefit to the citizen as its core guiding principle, it’s aligned with the National Performance Framework and it aims to enable economic growth.

“It is looking at the course of the next five years – but of course won’t be restricted to the next five years – and we recognise the points that I’ve just mentioned that getting buy-in from across society and across the business community and across the public sector is key to our approach of delivering the strategy. The strategy will also set out a route to securing public support for using AI to realise the economic, the social and the environmental value for Scotland.”

She added: “And if you haven’t already picked it up, one of the things that I’m most passionate about is getting unsuspecting people involved. People that may not think of themselves as being AI experts or digital experts but frankly will be pivotal in terms of embedding AI in a whole host of different spheres. So I want to speak to the doctor who may be able to use AI, or the nurse who may be able to use AI, or the teacher.”

Ms Forbes said she welcomed the creation of the Scottish Government’s Data Delivery Group, which will oversee delivery of the ‘high-level plan’ and which will monitor developments in the sector as it moves towards that goal.

She also acknowledged the challenges around how you go about obtaining consent to use sophisticated computer processes to replace human input in any given task.

She said: “When it comes to discussing things like AI and emerging technologies there can be a sense of intimidation at those words and those titles but AI at its very heart is merely a set of techniques used to allow computers to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence. And in that sense – when you break it down – it’s quite simplistic: it’s already been around for a long time but it’s continuing to grow.”

She added: “And I think there’s a real, fascinating challenge before us in terms of taking people with us if we really believe that AI has the potential – and is already being used – to improve public services, to unlock economic opportunities, there’s a challenge there in how we take the public with us, how we take businesses with us, that may not see themselves as tech businesses: that doctor, that nurse who may not seem themselves as digital experts but in how we help them, and equip them with the potential to make use of AI.”

She said: “And it does present challenges, whether those are ethical issues around using people’s data and then making automated decisions about them, or whether it’s the disruptive effects on employment and the workplace. And there’s a challenge before all of us in how we consider carefully and sensitively using AI and making sure it’s designed by and for people as appropriately as possible.”

She added: “We have got to do all of this in a fair and ethical, and a socially responsible way that puts people and not machines first, and we’ve all got a part to play in that whether it’s public, private, third sector, civic society, communities and individuals the length and breadth of this country in navigating a route forward through what is a very dynamic and challenging space.”

Among the AI-related initiatives underway in Scotland, Ms Forbes highlighted £1.5m data for children collaborative with UNICEF, which aims to improve health and wellbeing outcomes for children in Scotland and globally. She also spoke of the Scottish and UK Government supported £1.2bn Edinburgh and South East City Regional Deal, of which around half of the expenditure is earmarked for data-driven innovation, and £60m specifically focused on innovation projects.

Ms Forbes also said that she was “delighted” that her digital portfolio had made it across such a wide range of policy areas in the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which was launched last week.

She said: “It’s always great as a Minister to do the ‘control F’ function once the Programme for Government has been published to see how many times your portfolio made it into the Programme for Government; and I was delighted to see a significant emphasis placed on, data, digital and yes, on AI.”

The Data Lab put together the initial structure for the process, which was accepted by the Data Delivery Group and will oversee creation of the AI strategy between now and next September. In terms of next steps, a steering committee will be appointed with invitations to go out to key organisations next week. “As everyone will appreciate, we have a lot of people who will be interested in this, and in order for it to be an effective committee we can only have so many people,” said the Data Lab’s Steph Wright.

She added that there will be six draft working groups across six themes, which are subject to change, depending on the steering committee; the initial themes outlined at the event were: Ethics & Governance, Future of Work, Education & Engagement, Public Services, Research & Development & Data Fabric. There will be five phases towards the eventual publication of the strategy, with an initial scoping document being put together by the steering committee in phase one (by the end of 2019), with a three-month public consultation due to be launched in January. Other key developments are that economic development consultancy Anderson Solutions has been selected as a professional facilitator to help the steering committee and working groups come to its conclusions.