Research to ensure digital technologies work for society

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UK researchers plan to build our understanding of how to ensure digital technologies work for society.

The Digital Good Network of researchers aims to help make sure artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and other digital technologies do not harm people unnecessarily.

This includes ensuring people aren’t inadvertently excluded from public services, like making GP or hospital appointments, or applying for jobs via digital technologies, because they lack access.

The goal is to equip digital technology developers, companies and policymakers with the necessary know-how. This will mean that algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and other digital technologies are developed and used in ways that benefit people, society and the economy.

Digital Good Index

One of the research outputs will be a tool called the Digital Good Index. It will help companies developing digital technologies and policymakers, assess these technologies and make decisions that support society and lessen their potential harmful effects.

For example, the index could help gauge the success of the Online Safety Bill, which aims to minimise digital harms.

It could also contribute to other policies, including the UK government’s National Data Strategy, which emphasises responsible, fair and ethical data uses, and the National AI Strategy, which focuses on protecting public’s and values.

Ultimately, the Digital Good Index will help:

  • ensure people from all corners of society are supported and not excluded from using current digital technologies and new ones being developed
  • support a more resilient society by better managing digital misinformation, online hate and other online harms
  • plan for digital technologies to be as environmentally sustainable as possible

Project investment

The Economic and Social Research Council is investing £3.2 million in the Digital Good Network. It will be led by Professor Helen Kennedy of The University of Sheffield and will include social science researchers as well as researchers from disciplines including computer science, cultural studies, and environmental science.

Network partners, are contributing an additional £1.8 million to the project in money, expertise and time. The network partners include:

  • BBC
  • Birmingham Museums Trust
  • Zinc VC
  • The University of Sheffield
  • other research organisations

Complex interactions

Digital technologies have become a huge part of our lives in complex and powerful ways. We use digital services and devices to consume, communicate, be informed, and be entertained. And we use digital technologies to make an appointment with our GP, apply for a job, and post videos to social media.

In addition to providing many benefits, these technologies have the potential to cause damage and division including:

  • online bullying
  • mass deskilling
  • job losses
  • fake news
  • threats to the foundations of the democratic process and national security
  • widening digital divides and worsening inequalities

Building our understanding

ESRC’s Interim Executive Chair, Professor Alison Park CBE, said:

The social sciences have a key role to play in ensuring that digital technologies work for people, society and the economy, by building our understanding of how we can use these technologies in ways that maximise their benefits and minimise their harm.

The Economic and Social Research Council has funded the Digital Good Network to ensure society is appropriately equipped to harness the power of digital technologies while ensuring people are not inadvertently excluded or harmed.

Ensuring digital good outcomes

Director of the Digital Good Network, Professor Helen Kennedy of The University of Sheffield, said:

Because technologies can be harmful, it is understandable that to date, there has been more attention to digital harms than to the digital good.

But to ensure that digital technologies have good outcomes for people and societies, we need to turn our attention to what the digital good should look like and how it can be achieved.

I think this is what sociologist Ruha Benjamin means when she says, ‘remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within’.

Strategic investment

This investment contributes to ESRC achieving 1 of its 5 priority areas of investment, digital society, in its 2022 to 2025 delivery plan and also contributes to UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) creating opportunities, improving outcomes strategic theme (further details on the UKRI 5 year strategy).

Work will start in November 2022 and will run for 5 years.

Top image:  Credit: damircudic, E+ via Getty Images

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