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Equality watchdog: Millions may be digital natives, but how many is AI leaving behind?

Credit: Alamy

Marcial Boo, Chief Executive

Marcial Boo, Chief Executive | Equality and Human Rights Commission

3 min read Partner content

Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, but we must ensure it does not perpetuate exclusion on the road to progress.

Artificial intelligence is transforming the workplace, as well as many other aspects of our lives. There is no denying that it has brought major benefits to businesses and some public bodies, including higher levels of productivity and efficiency.

However, while millions are now digital natives and move naturally through the online world, others still experience digital exclusion. This can negatively impact the lives of some groups of people more than others, leading to growing inequalities.

To reduce this risk, it is vital that service providers understand the impact of AI and digital exclusion on their work, users and customers.

Recently I spoke to an audience of 2,500 data protection professionals at their annual conference run by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

I explained the importance of their work in supporting organisations to make the right decisions about collecting good-quality data to address inequalities. I also stressed how, in this digital age, data must be used lawfully and appropriately taking full account of human rights standards.

There is emerging evidence that AI, if poorly understood or implemented, can perpetuate biases and prejudice people by their race or sex, simply because the algorithms and processes rely on existing data where there may already be entrenched inequality.

This means that recruitment algorithms, which have been trained using mostly men’s CVs, can discriminate against women. The consequences of which might lead to women not getting job adverts in areas such as science, technology or engineering, for example.

Most employers and service providers don’t do this intentionally, but they still need to check their systems for bias. If they don’t, it could open them to claims of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is Britain’s equality regulator. It’s our job to enforce the laws that ensure society is fair and groups are not discriminated against because of their characteristics.

One of our priorities is to understand the potential bias in AI and other emerging technologies and to address any equality and human rights impacts.

Nobody should be left behind by technological progress

It is clear that there is little transparency about how and when AI is being used in the workplace.

We aim to identify and reduce any obstacles this is creating for workers, so they can enforce their rights.

Employers must be clear about their use of AI, and about the steps they are taking to be compliant with equality law.

Public organisations also need to embed equality considerations into all their decision making as part of their legal duties.

We will soon publish guidance for public bodies on the use of AI within equality law. This will ensure they consider equality law when making decisions about public services.

It was great to see the ICO’s recent announcement that they will be looking into the impact of AI in recruitment practices and we will be following this work with great interest.

Nobody should be left behind by technological progress. The EHRC will work with employers and public bodies, as well as experts and policy-makers, to ensure we fulfil our statutory responsibilities to make Britain a fair country to live and work in.

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