Equality watchdog takes action to tackle discrimination in AI

The EHRC aims to build an ethical AI that includes women and minorities

Artificial intelligence (AI) is part of everyone’s daily life. And with this increasing democratisation, its use by public bodies needs to be monitored by the UK Equality Regulator to ensure that the technologies are not discriminatory.

There is growing evidence that biases built into algorithms can lead to the less favourable treatment of people with protected characteristics such as race and gender.

To address this, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has made tackling discrimination in AI an essential part of its new three-year strategy.

It has published new guidance to help organisations avoid breaches of the Equality Act, including the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). The direction gives practical examples of how AI systems can lead to discriminatory outcomes. 

Next step 

From October, the Commission will work with a cross-section of around 30 local authorities to understand how they are using AI to deliver essential services, such as benefit payments, amid concerns that automated systems may wrongly flag some families as being at risk of fraud.

The European Commission on Human Rights is also considering how best to use its powers to review how organisations use facial recognition technology, following concerns that the software could disproportionately affect people from ethnic minorities.

Technology is often a force for good, but there is evidence that some innovations, such as artificial intelligence, can perpetuate prejudice and discrimination if implemented incorrectly. In response, these interventions will help improve how organisations use AI and encourage public bodies to take action to address any negative impacts on equality and human rights.

Marcial Boo, chief executive of the EHRC, said, “Many organisations may not be aware that they could be breaching equality law, and people may not be aware of how AI is being used to make decisions about them.”

Global issue

In an era where AI is omnipresent, it is vital for organisations to understand these potential biases and address any impact on equality and human rights.

Boo continued: “As part of this, we are monitoring how public bodies use technology to ensure they meet their legal responsibilities, in line with our guidance published today. The EHRC is committed to working with partners from all sectors to ensure that technology benefits everyone, regardless of their background.”

The follow-up projects will last several months and report on the initial findings early next year. The guide on artificial intelligence in public services advises organisations to consider how PSED applies to automated processes, be transparent about how the technology is used and keep systems under constant review.

The private sector is also involved. The European Commission of Human Rights is currently supporting a taxi driver in a race discrimination claim regarding Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for identification purposes.

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