Theresa May has issued a call for international co-operation to develop ethical rules for the use of technological breakthroughs in areas like artificial intelligence (AI).
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Prime Minister said she wanted to make the UK a world leader in innovative technologies, including AI, which could provide “a path to deliver prosperity and growth for all our people”.
However, she said that new norms and regulations must be developed to allay public concerns over issues like the control of private data, the disappearance of traditional jobs and the abuse of social media.
Mrs May urged financial investors in social media companies like Facebook and YouTube to take a more active role in ensuring that their platforms are not used to spread extremist messages or images of child abuse.
She suggested the legal definition of social media platforms must be updated to move on from the “increasingly unsustainable” framework which frees them from the liability of a traditional publisher for the material they distribute.
She cited the ride-hailing app Uber as an example of a groundbreaking company which “got things wrong” on safety and workplace protections, requiring laws to be updated to ensure that new technologies “don’t become a one-sided deal that can become exploitative”.
A loss of public trust in new technologies would be “hugely damaging” to the companies investing in them, she warned, pointing to a recent poll suggesting seven out of 10 Britons feel social media sites do not do enough to prevent unethical behaviour.
Mrs May said her aim was to make the UK “a world leader in innovation-friendly regulation” which would help firms retain the public trust they need.
She added: “When technology platforms work across geographical boundaries, no one country and no one government alone can deliver the international norms, rules and standards for a global digital world.”
In a global digital age, “we need the norms and rules we establish to be shared by all”, she said.
“That includes establishing the rules and standards that can make the most of artificial intelligence in a responsible way, such as by ensuring that algorithms don’t perpetuate the human biases of their developers.”
Mrs May told her audience of political and business leaders in the Swiss ski resort: “We have to do more to help our people in the changing global economy, to rebuild their trust in technology as a driver of progress and ensure no-one is left behind as we take the next leap forwards.
“But … we have to remember that the risks and challenges we face do not outweigh the opportunities.
“In seeking to refresh the rules to meet the challenges of today, we must not miss out on the prize for tomorrow.
“For the forces of free trade and technological progress which have brought us to this point are as nothing in comparison to their potential to enrich the lives of our children and grandchildren.
“The United Kingdom has a proud history of stepping up, seizing the opportunities of our time and shaping the international rules and partnerships that can deliver progress for all.
“We stand ready to do so again.”
Mrs May said that the Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation would work closely with international partners to build a “common understanding” on the safe and ethical deployment of AI.
She also confirmed the UK is joining the WEF’s new council on artificial intelligence to shape global governance of the new technology.