A Prediction about Predictions

In this guest post, Marion Oswald offers her homage to Yes Minister and, in that tradition, smuggles in some pertinent observations on AI fears. This post first appeared on the SCL website’s Blog as part of Laurence Eastham’s Predictions 2018 series. It is also appearing in Computers & Law, December/January issue.

Humphrey, I want to do something about predictions.

Indeed, Minister.

Yes Humphrey, the machines are taking over.

Are they Minister?

Yes Humphrey, my advisers tell me I should be up in arms.  Machines – ‘AI’ they call it – predicting what I’m going to buy, when I’m going to die, even if I’ll commit a crime.

Surely not, Minister.

Not me personally, of course, Humphrey – other people.  And then there’s this scandal over Cambridge Analytica and voter profiling.  Has no-one heard of the secret ballot?

Everyone knows which way you would vote, Minister.

Yes, yes, not me personally, of course, Humphrey – other people.  Anyway, I want to do something about it.

Of course, Minister.  Let me see – you want to ban voter and customer profiling, crime risk assessment and predictions of one’s demise, so that would mean no more targeted advertising, political campaigning, predictive policing, early parole releases, life insurance policies…

Well, let’s not be too hasty Humphrey.  I didn’t say anything about banning things.

My sincere apologies Minister, I had understood you wanted to do something.

Yes, Humphrey, about the machines, the AI.  People don’t like the idea of some faceless computer snooping into their lives and making predictions about them.

But it’s alright if a human does it.

Yes…well no…I don’t know.  What do you suggest Humphrey?

As I see it Minister, you have two problems.

Do I?

The people are the ones with the votes, the AI developers are the ones with the money and the important clients – insurance companies, social media giants, dare I say it, even political parties..

Yes, yes, I see.  I mustn’t alienate the money.  But I must be seen to be doing something Humphrey.

I have two suggestions Minister.  First, everything must be ‘transparent’.  Organisations using AI must say how their technology works and what data it uses.  Information, information everywhere…

I like it Humphrey.  Power to the people and all that.  And if they’ve had the information, they can’t complain, eh.  And the second thing?

A Commission, Minister, or a Committee, with eminent members, debating, assessing, scrutinising, evaluating, appraising…

And what is this Commission to do?

“Do” Minister?

What will the Commission do about predictions and AI?

It will scrutinise, Minister, it will evaluate, appraise and assess, and then, in two or three years, it will report.

But what will it say Humphrey?

I cannot possibly predict what the Commission on Predictions would say, being a mere humble servant of the Crown.

Humphrey!

But if I had to guess, I think it highly likely that it will say that context reigns supreme – there are good predictions and there are bad predictions, and there is good AI and there is bad AI.

So after three years of talking, all it will say is that ‘it depends’.

Yes Minister.

In homage to ‘Yes Minister’ by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn 

Marion Oswald, Senior Fellow in Law, Head of the Centre for Information Rights, University of Winchester

The Fifth Interdisciplinary Winchester Conference on Trust, Risk, Information and the Law will be held on Wednesday 25 April 2018 at the Holiday Inn, Winchester UK.  Our overall theme for this conference will be: Public Law, Politics and the Constitution: A new battleground between the Law and Technology?  The call for papers and booking information can be found at https://journals.winchesteruniversitypress.org/index.php/jirpp/pages/view/TRIL

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