Public 'don’t trust algorithms' to make decisions about them

The majority of people do not trust computers to make decisions about any aspect of their lives, according to a new survey.

Over half (53 per cent) of UK adults have no faith in any organisation using algorithms when making judgements about them, in issues ranging from education to welfare decisions, according to the poll for BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.

The industry body commissioned YouGov to survey 2,076 adults at the end of August, in the wake of the UK exams crisis, where an algorithm used to assign grades was scrapped in favour of teachers’ predictions.

Just seven per cent of respondents trusted algorithms to be used by the education sector - joint lowest with social services and the armed forces. Confidence in the use of algorithms in education also differed dramatically between the age groups - amongst 18 to 24 year-olds, 16 per cent trusted their use, while it was only five per cent of over 55 year-olds.

Trust in social media companies’ algorithms to serve content and direct user experience was similar at eight per cent. Automated decision making had the highest trust when it came to the NHS (17 per cent), followed by financial services (16 per cent) and intelligence agencies (12 per cent), reflecting areas like medical diagnosis, credit scoring and national security.

Police and big tech companies were level, with 11 per cent of respondents having faith in how algorithms are used to make decisions about them personally.

Older people were less trusting about the general use of algorithms in public life, with 63 per cent of over-55s saying they felt negative about this, compared with 42 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds.

Attitudes to computerised decisions in the NHS, private health care and local councils differ very strongly by age. A further 30 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds said they trusted the use of algorithms in these sectors, while for those over 55, it was 14 per cent.

Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, said: “People get that Netflix and the like use algorithms to offer up film choices, but they might not realise that more and more algorithms decide whether we’ll be offered a job interview, or by our employers to decide whether we’re working hard enough, or even whether we might be a suspicious person needing to be monitored by security services.

"The problem government and business face are balancing people’s expectations of instant decisions, on something like credit for a sofa, with fairness and accounting for the individual, when it comes to life-changing moments like receiving exam grades.

He added: “That’s why we need a professionalised data science industry, independent impact assessments wherever algorithms are used in making high-stakes judgements about people’s lives, and a better understanding of AI and algorithms by the policymakers who give them sign-off.”

In July, BCS teamed up with the Royal Statistical Society, the Operational Research Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the National Physical Laboratory, and the Royal Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications to push for industry-wide professional standards within data science.

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