Ada Lovelace Institute created to tackle complexities of digital ethics

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan March 27, 2018
The £5 million Ada Lovelace Institute is a timely announcement, given the furore surrounding Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The UK is set to establish a £5 million Ada Lovelace Institute to guide the debate around establishing an effective framework for digital ethics. It is named after the 19th Century mathematician, who is widely regarded as the world’s first computer programmer, and will complement the government’s current work on data ethics and AI.

The announcement of the Institute is timely given the recent furore surrounding Facebook and its use of personal data, which has contributed to the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica allegedly acquired user data from the social network to influence elections and Mark Zuckerberg is facing calls from regulators to explain how Facebook uses and shares its data.

The Ada Lovelace Institute is being positioned as:

an independent voice, speaking on behalf of the public interest and society, informing thinking of governments, industry, public bodies and civil society organisations, in the UK and internationally…The research it funds will provide the intellectual underpinning and longer-term perspective necessary to frame matters of immediate public concern, and anticipate ethical issues. It will offer practical solutions informed by public deliberation. It will explore how to develop ethical thinking within industry to ensure technologies that have the power to shape society go beyond regulatory compliance to consider social impact.

Based in the UK, its objectives include:

  • Bringing together diverse voices to build a shared understanding of the ethical questions raised by the application of data, algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
  • Initiating research and building an evidence base on how these technologies affect society as a whole, and different groups within it.
  • Promoting and supporting ethical practices that are deserving of public trust.

The Institute is intended to complement the work of regulators and the UK Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

The driving force behind the Institute is The Nuffield Foundation, an independent charitable trust that funds research and student programmes to advance educational opportunity and social well-being across the UK. Nuffield has been working over the past six months to set up a partnership of organisations to contribute to the debates around agreed ethical frameworks and codes of practice.

The initial contributing partners are The Alan Turing Institute, the Royal Statistical Society, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, the British Academy, techUK and Omidyar Network’s Governance & Citizen Engagement Initiative.

Nuffield is also contributing £5 million in funding over the next five years. Dame Colette Bowe, Trustee of the Nuffield Foundation and Chairman of the Banking Standards Board says :

Technology offers great potential to improve individual and social well-being, for example in early diagnosis of cancer, or improving the lives of people with disabilities. However, this month we have seen the first pedestrian fatality in a self-driving car crash, leading to calls for testing programmes on public roads to be suspended. And revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged use of Facebook data have heightened public concern about how data is used, with serious implications for trust in digital technologies and industry.

These examples show that in many cases, public scrutiny of the use of data and automated technologies only occurs when something ‘goes wrong’. Valid questions are being asked about data rights, as well as about consent, public interest and what constitutes an ethical approach. The Ada Lovelace Institute will work with its partners to ensure we have these conversations before a critical incident, with the aim of developing codes of behaviour for the application of innovations of data and AI that are deserving of public trust.


Sir Alan Wilson, Chief Executive of The Alan Turing Institute, highlights the importance of widening the digital ethics debate:

As the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, we at The Alan Turing Institute are committed to ensuring that the social and ethical implications of these transformative technologies are fully understood, and that the benefits they accrue can be shared across society. This will require ethical frameworks that keep pace with rapid innovations in the use of data and artificial intelligence, and we are delighted to support the Ada Lovelace Institute in this urgent and important work.

A particular privilege of working at The Alan Turing Institute is our ability to honour the life and legacy of Alan Turing through our ground-breaking data science and AI research. Perhaps the most important lesson of this legacy is the impact that technology can have on society. Turing himself was influenced by Ada Lovelace, so it is a fitting tribute that this new Institute will take the name of another historical figure who played such an important role in the development of the technologies we all benefit from today.

Antony Walker, Deputy Chief Executive of techUK, the UK’s membership association for technology companies, reckons that the Institute has a role to play in enabling the UK to take a lead in digital governance best practice:

Digital ethics is not a substitute for regulation, but an essential complement that can support innovation. By building a world-leading framework for digital governance the UK can be at the forefront of responsible and sustainable digital innovation. As digital technologies become more powerful, the ethical implications of innovation become more significant.

The creation of the Ada Lovelace Institute sends a very clear message that the UK is taking a leadership position in moving on from talking about ethics to taking practical action. The Ada Lovelace Institute will build the capability and capacity we need to understand the ethical implications of new technology and provide practical tools to support good decision-making.

My take

A very welcome development. It would be good to think that Ada Lovelace would have approved of this, as much as she would doubtless have disapproved of the squirming by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Co this past week or so.