MPs to investigate the use of algorithms in decision-making

Written by Rebecca Hill on 28 February 2017 in News
News

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has announced it will investigate the use of algorithms in decision-making after holding a Dragons’ Den-style pitching process for inquiry topics.

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London

MPs are to investigate the use of algorithms for decision-making - Photo credit: PA

The process saw nine people pitch their ideas for inquiries to the MPs at the start of the month, which included calls for investigations into the use of evidence by the Cabinet Office and science research in schools.

The committee has today announced it will look into three pitches in more detail, starting with an inquiry into the use of algorithms, which are sets of instructions that computers can use to solve a problem using large quantities of data. 

The algorithm inquiry, pitched by Stephanie Mathisen, campaigns and policy officer at the campaign organisation Sense about Science, will cover the risks and opportunities offered by algorithms.

Writing in PublicTechnology today, Mathisen said: “Quite rapidly, and with little debate, algorithms have come to replace humans in making decisions that affect many aspects of our lives, and on a scale that is capable of affecting society profoundly.”


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Mathisen argued that it should be clear when the government is using algorithms in decision-making, saying that government needs to “be setting the right example”.

Because algorithms can be biased, Mathisen said that it was important for parliament and the public to be able to scrutinise the use of algorithms for decision-making to help ensure that people are treated fairly.

As well as considering these issues, the inquiry, which is accepting evidence until 21 April, will also look at whether algorithmic decision-making can be done in a transparent or accountable way.

In addition, the committee said it wanted to hear about any evidence on good practice in algorithmic decision-making and what ways there might be to provide regulatory oversight.

Committee chairman Stephen Metcalfe said: “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.”

In his statement, Metcalfe also praised the quality of the other suggestions that the committee received, saying that there had been more than 70 ideas put forward.

The other two areas that the MPs decided to investigate further are an exploration of how hydrogen and fuel cells could be better used and into whether the limit on the length of time human embryos can be used for research should be extended.

The committee will launch a fuel cell inquiry later this year, and said it would assess whether the human embryo research question could be answered in its existing work on genomics and genome editing, or if a separate large-scale inquiry should be launched.

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