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AI-generated Public Services

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure citizens are not excluded from accessing AI-generated public services.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point, because the shift online and the use of AI are irreversible. They offer substantial opportunities, but problems could arise for some disadvantaged groups. That is why departments are required, by the Government’s service standard, to provide support via alternative channels for all their online services. Our road map for digital and data, updated on 29 November, focuses on enabling the confident and responsible use of AI to improve efficiency and services.

I thank the noble Baroness for that, but the latest Ofcom study of internet use in the UK showed that 7% of people have no access at all and 18% have access solely via their smartphone. That is fine for most tasks, but less helpful when filling out complex forms or seeking support. The ambition of providing better public services through a digital revolution is a good one; however, what works for most people will not work for everybody, so what is being done to ensure that this small but important group, who are being left behind when attempting to access essential public services, can access them in the future? If they cannot, we will not have a universal service.

This of course is why the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has affordable access to public services, whether online or offline. Departments are required, by the service standard, to provide support via alternative channels for all their online services to all users, including the disabled. That can be by phone, through face-to-face meetings, by letter or via web chat, which is important for the unsighted. The system of assessments is co-ordinated by the CDDO in the Cabinet Office, and these requirements cannot go on to GOV.UK without assurance secured.

My Lords, I declare my technology interests, as set out in the register. Does my noble friend agree that, wherever AI is used in public services, it should be labelled as such, so that everybody is aware of that fact? Similarly, wherever public citizen data is used, we should decide whether that is through opt-in or opt-out means. Further, public trust is essential to all deployments of new technology, including AI. Does my noble friend agree that one of the best ways to deliver public trust is to ensure that services are accessible and inclusive by design?

I very much agree that, to ensure public trust, you want services that are accessible by design. Coming from the retail sector, I have a slightly less rosy view of labelling. Like earlier data changes, AI is part of a continuum of technological change. The key thing is to have proper arrangements, such as, for example, the AI Safety Institute, which we have now set up following the Prime Minister’s AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park with international partners. This is to make sure that we are aware of what is happening, because there are opportunities as well as risks to AI. I have a whole list of opportunities, which we can go through, but I would like to hear some more questions.

My Lords, I will follow up the Minister’s previous answer. The public sector can benefit from many kinds of artificial intelligence that are a long way from the image of a killer robot threat to mankind, which often features heavily in the public debate. AI can improve hospital bed management, care worker rostering, public procurement and many other dull but very valuable tasks. Does the Minister share my concern that the killer robot narrative may overshadow the adoption of these much less controversial AI systems? What are the Government doing to encourage and accelerate their deployment?

I do not think that list is dull. I have other examples, such as the world-leading child abuse image database, which the Home Office is working on. My son, as a detective in the Met, thinks it will be a marvellous opportunity to make the police’s job easier and less awful. The noble Lord is right that the robot vision has to be moderated by an understanding of the usefulness of AI on many things, such as conversational front ends to public services on GOV.UK. These things will make life easier and more accessible, which is why it is good that we are debating them and can reassure people. Of course there are fears, which is one of the reasons why we are working on guidance on frontier AI—that is in the pipeline.

My Lords, we know from the Post Office Horizon scandal that the Post Office itself, the prosecuting authorities, the courts and God knows how many hundreds of lawyers were, for years, unable to identify failure, including in the computer system. What confidence can we have that the Department for Work and Pensions has people able to tell if the data that informed AI had a bias in it which caused it constantly to be making mistakes? Do we have people trained to do that? I am not confident that they even exist. I am just picking this example out of the sky.

I agree that the Post Office scandal was one of the most awful. It is good that we now have a proper process for moving forward on it, even if it is far too late. To deal with the point raised by the noble Lord, I can say that we are setting up the AI Safety Institute and a hub in the Cabinet Office, bringing in experts from outside. The idea is that they can help across the board with these issues. Some of the uses of AI, such as with fraud at Companies House and the DWP, can be very useful. The noble Lord is right in that we need to look at the dangers as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Allan, rightly said, we have to make sure that we look at the opportunities. We think that, as regards public sector productivity, costs could be reduced by about £5 billion a year through the sensible use of AI on the kinds of things that we have been debating.

My Lords, I too am optimistic about AI, but I am also concerned about leaving people behind. I refer my noble friend to the report about digital exclusion published earlier this year by the Communications and Digital Select Committee, which I chair. It painted quite a stark picture. It showed how much more complex this challenge is becoming because of the way in which technology is developing at pace. I am sad to report that we found that the Government’s strategy for dealing with exclusion was not good enough. Will my noble friend revisit that report? Will she also explore one way forward—by looking at a joint venture with the banking sector? It has long promised to have banking hubs in towns. These could also become digital hubs where people could go to learn, and for assistance and advice as to how to get on to digital services in the way in which we need them to do.

I thank my noble friend for her report, which I have just picked up for my Christmas reading. It has been rather influential within the system. I do not know if my noble friend is aware of the cross-Whitehall ministerial group chaired by the new Minister for Technology, Saqib Bhatti MP. It will certainly look at how the digitally excluded can be helped in hubs in different ways. The library network already exists. I have always thought that this is very useful in communities. I have collaborated with bank expertise on fraud—which is my area of responsibility. I am grateful for the work of her committee. I will certainly take her point away.

My Lords, was the noble Baroness briefed on a question which I asked on the last occasion when this topic came up? I asked if the Government were looking at developments with Paradot. The Minister who was answering did not know anything about it. Paradot is an online buddy. I have a therapist friend who believes he will be out of business in five years’ time because of the way in which this is developing. If this kind of change takes place, it will have a massive impact on what will happen in the public service.

The noble Lord makes a good point. The honest truth is that I was not aware of his intervention. Perhaps I can go away and get back to him on another occasion. This sounds a very interesting point and issue.