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Connected Tech: Smart or Sinister?: A Call for Evidence from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport

Research output: Other contribution

Publication date2022
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Impact of increasingly prevalent smart technologies

We think that these changes will result in better or worse futures will be determined in large part by what is prioritised in technological innovation, and to what extent (if at all), previously marginalised, silenced, and exploited voices become part of the conversation. Our major concern is that innovation for profit is incentivised over societal benefits. We recommend that the government incentivises innovation for societal benefit.

Impact of smart technologies on different groups

Increased risks, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised in society
Smart technologies can improve the lives of vulnerable people but at the same time pose more significant risks if not appropriately managed. Therefore, we advocate for more inclusive development of smart devices at every stage of the product lifecycle (e.g. design, testing, implementation and maintenance). For example, datasets used for training, testing, and validating smart technologies are developed for common use cases; taking into account underprivileged and diverse parts of the society is key to their successful and fair adoption. While some technological solutions can be developed especially for vulnerable groups, a recent example with eye implants showed there is no protection once a company decides to end its production. We also advocate for more research with diverse groups. Smart technologies are mainly developed for commercial purposes, meaning that they do not consider different people’s needs and appetite for adoption.

Digital literacies and skills
The government needs to take responsibility for equipping society with the skills needed to use smart technologies in a safe and efficient way (eg to manage their privacy settings or set up secure passwords). Essential Digital Skills Report 2021 showed that c.10 million (19%) of UK adults do not have fundamental digital skills (for example, be able to use a device, connect to a Wi-Fi network and create and update passwords).

Working with smart technologies will require more advanced skills that typical interactions with banking and other governmental online services. Autonomous systems that act on behalf of humans will need to new skills to interact with so that the operation of human-machine systems can be deemed dependable.

How can we incentivise or encourage design that is safe, secure, environmentally- and user-friendly and human rights compliant?

User-centred research and design
People are not aware of certain functions that are designed and developed to protect their privacy or ensure security. We advocate to incentivise and promote companies to conduct user-centred research to make sure that their products are used in a safe and secure way, while their users are aware of different functions.

Standardisation and more certifications of smart technologies to gain an understanding of their environmental impact
The government, in order to achieve its climate goals, needs to give careful consideration and develop policies to ensure the sustainability of smart technologies during their whole product life cycle (production, manufacturing and disposal). Smart technologies also offer the opportunity to capture emissions data more accurately than previously possible.

The key short- and long-term risks and threats

Respecting an individual’s autonomy.
It is imperative that individual users maintain the ability to remain in control and manage the use of smart systems, influence and direct decision-making, and understand the role that such technologies play in their lives.
Privacy and data protection
As the technology is largely data-driven, adherence to good data protection practices and the practice of good and lawful data stewardship is paramount. The use of cameras and monitors for tracking and surveillance purposes and used in many smart technology applications pose a risk of intrusion upon persons’ privacy rights.
Behavioural manipulation.
Smart technologies can threaten interests by using discriminatory, deceptive, and manipulative practices such as nudging and dark patterns.
Use of voice, facial, and emotional recognition systems.
Voice, facial, and emotion recognition systems, used in smart technologies, may pose challenges to users’ privacy, free expression, and social justice.
Cyberattacks and data breaches.
Greater use of smart technologies demand hacking and cyber security protections. Poorly secured smart products and services threaten persons’ online security, and subsequently, their privacy and safety.
Developing common mental models
Without common mental models, stakeholders cannot find a common ground to operationalise and understand the nature of smart technology. This can lead to levels of consumer confusion.
Mixed initiative decision making and provenance tracking
Without tracking the provenance of decisions in systems of humans and machines, we are likely to expose humans and organisations to ethical risks that they may not be responsible for nor equipped to deal with.

Concerns with smart technologies and existing regulatory frameworks
Regulatory and policy-development, guidance measures, and increased awareness and education can be used to overcome the concerns raised. These concerns can be managed and mitigated through an effective governance regime. Although there are existing frameworks and legislation applicable to smart technologies, they do not go far enough in addressing the unique risks posed by smart technologies. Gaps remain in the regulatory framework and policy is fragmented. We suggest that this requires urgent consideration.