Equality watchdog takes action to address discrimination in use of artificial intelligence

Published: 01 Sep 2022

The use of artificial intelligence by public bodies is to be monitored by Britain’s equality regulator to ensure technologies are not discriminating against people.

There is emerging evidence that bias built into algorithms can lead to less favourable treatment of people with protected characteristics such as race and sex.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has made tackling discrimination in AI a major strand of its new three-year strategy.

It is today publishing new guidance to help organisations avoid breaches of equality law, including the public sector equality duty (PSED). The guidance gives practical examples of how AI systems may be causing discriminatory outcomes.  

From October, the Commission will work with a cross-section of around 30 local authorities to understand how they are using AI to deliver essential services, such as benefits payments, amid concerns that automated systems are inappropriately flagging certain families as a fraud risk.

The EHRC is also exploring how best to use its powers to examine how organisations are using facial recognition technology, following concerns that the software may be disproportionately affecting people from ethnic minorities.

These interventions will improve how organisations use AI and encourage public bodies to take action to address any negative equality and human rights impacts.

Marcial Boo, Chief Executive of the EHRC, said:

“While technology is often a force for good, there is evidence that some innovation, such as the use of artificial intelligence, can perpetuate bias and discrimination if poorly implemented.

“Many organisations may not know they could be breaking equality law, and people may not know how AI is used to make decisions about them.

“It’s vital for organisations to understand these potential biases and to address any equality and human rights impacts.

“As part of this, we are monitoring how public bodies use technology to make sure they are meeting their legal responsibilities, in line with our guidance published today. The EHRC is committed to working with partners across sectors to make sure technology benefits everyone, regardless of their background.”

The monitoring projects will last several months and will report initial findings early next year.

The Artifical intelligence in public services guidance advises organisations to consider how the PSED applies to automated processes, to be transparent about how the technology is used and to keep systems under constant review.

In the private sector, the EHRC is currently supporting a taxi driver in a race discrimination claim regarding Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for identification purposes.

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