COMMONS

Dragons' Den style pitches yield three new inquiries

28 February 2017

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is launching an inquiry into the use of algorithms in public and business decision making following a Dragons' Den-style 'My Science inquiry' pitch process where members of the public propose areas to be examined by MPs, in a new democratic experiment.

Algorithms in decision making inquiry

An algorithm is a set of instructions that can be understood by a computer to solve a problem or complete a task. A cooking recipe is essentially an algorithm, but a computer can use an algorithm to draw on large quantities of data to produce an answer to complex problems.

Algorithms help gadgets learn to recognise voice commands and are being developed for driverless cars. But decisions made by algorithms are already affecting many aspects of our lives, from the stories that appear in our social media newsfeed, to being offered a credit card, or even invited to a job interview.

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said

"We received over 70 inquiry ideas through our 'Dragons' Den'-style process. The Committee was really impressed by the quality of suggestions received, and it was difficult to choose what to take forward in the short term. The process has given us plenty of topics to consider as we plan our future programme of scrutiny, starting with an inquiry into Algorithms.

Algorithms have been in use for hundreds of years but the sheer speed of computing power today makes many new applications possible. This poses important questions about how best to use these in making decisions that affect people, and also how to provide the right safeguards and oversight."

Dr Stephanie Mathisen, Campaigns and Policy Officer at Sense about Science, said

"I'm extremely pleased that the Committee has decided on this inquiry into algorithms in decision-making. Quite rapidly, and with little debate, algorithms have come to replace humans in making decisions that affect many aspects of people's lives. They're being used in a huge range of scenarios, from sifting job applications to deciding whether to release prisoners on bail, and on a scale that is capable of affecting society profoundly.

On the one hand, algorithms could help to eliminate unconscious biases, but they can also replicate and compound existing biases and discrimination. The current lack of transparency around algorithms – and therefore accountability, choice and the ability to challenge decisions made by them – is a subject that deserves a lot more scrutiny and public engagement"

Successful 'My Science Inquiry' proposals 

The inquiry follows the Committee's recent work on Robotics and AI, and its call for a standing Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Dr Stephanie Mathisen and a number of fellow presenters emerged as successful in convincing the Committee to take their proposals forward as future Science and Technology inquiries, as follows:

Algorithms

Dr Stephanie Mathisen (Sense about Science) proposed that the Committee investigate the use of algorithms in decision making, and how algorithms can exacerbate or reduce biases.

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells

Amanda Lyne (UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association) suggested an inquiry to explore how the development of hydrogen and fuel cells could be better utilised to provide benefits to the energy system. The Committee intends to launch an inquiry on this topic later in 2017.

Human Embryo Research, the "14 Day Rule"

Sandy Starr (Progress Educational Trust) recommended the Committee hold an inquiry into extending the '14 day rule' – a limit on the length of time human embryos can be used for scientific research. The Committee will explore the question of whether a large scale inquiry should be held once it has undertaken its work on Genomics and genome editing.

Amanda Lyne, Chair of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, said

"We were really pleased to have the opportunity to be part of the ‘My Science Inquiry’ process, and present our case, in what was an innovative approach to setting the agenda for the Committee.

We are even more delighted that our suggestion has been successful and are very much looking forward to helping the Committee inquire into the role that hydrogen and fuel cell technologies can play in a cost effective future energy system".

E-cigarettes 

In addition to those selected following the presentations, the Committee intends to launch an inquiry into e-cigarettes following written two submissions by Jack Neville and Sarah Jakes, details of which will be announced shortly.

Further information

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