Should there be an Extinction Rebellion for AI?

Extinction Rebellion campaigners with their slogan Tell the Truth

I went to my first in person meeting since February 2020 last week! (What to wear? How to be? Wonderful and scary!) It was an enjoyable Responsible Tech Meet Up hosted by Cennydd Bowles and inspired by the All Tech Is Human meet ups held elsewhere. It was great and depressing to hear the inside stories from folks at the heart of trying to make tech responsible and accountable, the problems they face and their indefatigable efforts to create change.

We got talking about ‘What Worked’ to persuade companies and governments to change to more ‘responsible’ behaviour. I have been looking at this in different technology and ethical areas for decades. My conclusion is — it’s hard, rarely works and there is no ‘The Way”.

But when it is successful, pressure from all angles was needed — regulation, legal action, investor and insurance pressure, changing incentives and metrics, media shaming, research and industry creating better competitors and solutions, citizens raising concerns— the whole ecosystem needs to align to understand, articulate and highlight the problem, catalyse action and develop alternative solutions.

But at the heart of this, more often than not, is a kick ass NGO. A Greenpeace, PETA, Amnesty International and more recently the climate area has been disrupted in the UK by Extinction Rebellion. At their best they are uncompromising, distilling complex issues to their essence, focusing attention in eye-catching and headline-grabbing ways, galvanising and empowering citizens and holding companies and governments to account for their action and inaction. In short, making life very uncomfortable for pretty much everyone!

It dawned on us, that AI doesn’t have any of those, certainly in the UK.

Here there are some remarkable individuals, organisations, including existing NGOs who are researching, articulating and speaking truth to power about the problems of AI. They are creating ethical frameworks, new metrics, new solutions, shaping regulation, policy, business behaviour. This is probably the most important part of the mix, activism exists to inspire the creation of positive change and solutions. But would they be helped, as so many others have, by a more public profile for their issues and an engaged public — do we need to do more in that area?

The citizen is mainly on the outside of this discussion. Excluded in part by the complexity of the problem and the inherent difficulty in articulating the ‘do this, don’t do that’ and by the academic language. But and simply because no-one is focused on giving them knowledge and empowering them to take their own stand. The importance of empowering citizens to help themselves is to me the most important issue of all.

It has been interesting to see how the powerful Netflix documentary showing the social damage of tech by ex tech industry insiders Social Dilemma has galvanised my 20 year old son and his friends. We need to do much more to empower young people to help themselves. In shaping responsible tech, they are perhaps the most important catalyst of all.

Is there room for direct action in the mix? If yes what would that look like? Could more be done to distill existing information into actionable messaging targeted effectively at different age groups that people can relate to and can help and empower them? What about practical tools for activism by citizens to help them collaborate?

Of course yet another NGO in a crowded space may not be needed, there is lots wrong with the blunt instrument of direct action, NGOs are often as dysfunctional as any other organisation, lots of reasons why this may not be a good idea! But still I think worth someone exploring the gaps in the sector and what could be done even if not me.

I am proposing setting up a small and nimble research project to consider this and investigate what the potential role and approach of such an organisation could be. Who are the current players, what do they do, what are the gaps. Perhaps 2–4 scenarios for what could it do, how would it do it, the business model, who it would reach and what lessons could be learned from other failed and successful civil society efforts to create change.

I would do it in my usual way. Create a small multi-stakeholder advisory group and conduct a widespread co-creation and consultation exercise with a diverse stakeholder group. In particular among AI specialists in think tanks, civil society groups, academia, consultancies, regulators, companies, governments, multilateral organisations. Also learning the do’s and don’ts from practitioners in existing national and international NGOs working in the environment, human rights, animal welfare and other public facing areas.

The involvement of ordinary citizens in shaping this initial research would also be important and money needed for that.

Do you think this is a good idea? If yes, can anyone point me to potential funders for this? If so, email me on hilary@societyinside.com

Love to have your comments, views, ideas too!

Trust, tech governance, citizen involvement in policy