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Pandemic boosts public’s faith in technology, but suspicion lingers over AI

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The coronavirus pandemic has made the public keener on seeing technology used to enhance public safety - such as helping the emergency services - although artificial intelligence (AI) remains controversial, according to a study.

The 'Consensus for Change' report found that a slender majority of people interviewed wanted to see more advanced technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics used to boost public safety.

The study - conducted by Motorola Solutions and a research team at Goldsmiths, University of London – found that more than three-quarters of people in the UK (76 per cent) believe technology should be used to help emergency services predict risk, while 72 per cent said technology such as video cameras, data analytics, cyber security and cloud computing needed to be more widely used to address the challenges of the modern world.

The report said that in the wake of the pandemic and the high-speed innovation it sparked in the name of public safety - e.g. accelerated vaccine development; contact-tracing apps, and other technologies - the public is now more willing to place greater trust in new technology.

The research highlights examples such as body-worn cameras being used to keep transport workers safe and new digital tools for police enabling them to issue tickets around Covid-19 compliance whilst still maintaining social distancing.

“Citizens all over the world are coming to terms with what it means to live with Covid-19 and how it impacts their safety,” Dr Chris Brauer, director of the Goldsmiths research team, said.

“Our shared experience of the pandemic has made us realise that technology can play a far greater role in keeping us safe and has increased our understanding of why public safety and enterprise organisations need it to respond to new threats.”

The research also suggests that the pandemic may have even softened some attitudes on delicate subjects such as data collection: according to the report, 78 per cent of people in the UK said they were willing to trust organisations to hold their data, providing it was used appropriately and in the interest of public safety.

However, more work is needed to increase the understanding of emerging technologies such as AI, the study showed, with only 49 per cent of people in the UK saying they would trust AI to analyse the risk of situations as part of public safety measures.

“The pandemic fuelled the need to use technologies in different ways to address new challenges within a rapidly evolving environment,” said Mahesh Saptharishi, chief technology officer, Motorola Solutions.

“As technology continues to quickly evolve, it is critical for organisations to ensure that their advancements are built, and understood, to be human-centric.

“For example, artificial intelligence should be designed in a way that respects human decision making and considers the public’s input and needs, while allowing users to make better-informed decisions and respond to complex threats.

“By designing advanced technologies to be assistive, we ensure that the decision-making remains the sole responsibility of humans.”

Artificial intelligence is one of the fastest-growing spheres of cutting-edge technology. In the last week alone, there have been reports of AI being effectively used for research topics and real-world applications as varied as counting Scottish puffins; predicting climate change tipping points; optimising drug prescriptions for children with cancer; identifying new materials, and planning future cities.

E&T recently spoke to Ed Pyzer-Knapp, worldwide research lead for AI-enriched modelling and simulation at IBM, to discuss how the key to solving future global challenges lies with ‘accelerated discovery’ - precisely the appeal of artificial intelligence for many scientists.

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