Majority of public want IT industry regulated

The IT industry should be regulated to ensure ethical standards in areas like artificial intelligence (AI), according to the public.

Research among 2,100 UK adults - commissioned by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT - found the majority (59 per cent) believed the IT profession should be “kept focussed” on “solving society’s problems” by an independent regulatory body.

In contrast, only 23 per cent felt that “big tech” companies should have the task of enforcing the industry’s ethical standards, while only 22 per cent said politicians should have the job.

The results come after a summer of high-profile public sector projects faced technical problems and public criticism, including the use of algorithms to estimate exam results and errors in the use of Excel to track COVID-19.

Half of respondents (50 per cent) felt they could trust computer scientists to create artificial intelligence that is focused on improving the quality of their life. But most people (63 per cent) did not think new computer science graduates were suitably qualified to write software that makes life decisions about them.

And a majority (62 per cent) said computer programmers should be qualified as Chartered professionals, meeting the same standards as Chartered Accountants.

Andy Phippen, a fellow of BCS and a professor of IT ethics and digital rights at Bournemouth University, said: “There are plenty of people within academia who would view ethical parts of the curriculum as a distraction from 'proper' courses that consider technical facets of computer science.

“One test I have often done with computer science students is 'would you get onto an aeroplane you’d written the software for?'. Most will say 'no'.”

Phippen said: “Given the greater prevalence of algorithms and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence being used in government and private sector systems to decide things about our lives, it is essential that anyone studying computer science also receives a good grounding in ethics and social responsibility.

“While we have patches of IT regulation, including the ICO for data, and Ofcom’s role in social media harms due to be made law soon, I’m not sure we’ve got the right oversight across all aspects of IT.”

Phippen said many people who have not studied computer science are involved in the design, delivery, implementation, running and assurance of computer systems. He said they should all be appropriately qualified and independently accredited.

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