Boris Johnson summons world leaders for tech summit

The prime minister warns UN delegates about the threat of “digital authoritarianism”

The UK prime minister Boris Johnson standing by a lecturn

Boris Johnson has invited leaders from across the world to attend a summit next year geared towards tackling some of the biggest ethical and regulatory questions in tech.

Addressing the UN, the prime minister set out a mission for the UK and other leading tech hubs to ensure that innovation is designed in such a way that it preserves freedom, pluralism and is grounded in ethics.

Details on this London-based summit, including the date and objectives, are thin, but it will be organised in the context of mounting concerns that innovation is escaping regulatory frameworks.

"We need to find the right balance between freedom and control; between innovation and regulation; between private enterprise and government oversight," the prime minister told UN delegates.

"We must insist that the ethical judgments inherent in the design of new technology are transparent to all. And we must make our voices heard more loudly in the standards bodies that write the rules.

"Above all, we need to agree a common set of global principles to shape the norms and standards that will guide the development of emerging technology."

The prime minister also used his address to highlight the implications for technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and warned about the reality of "digital authoritarianism" and unintended consequences.

Despite the UK being a leading hub for tech, the prime minister said, the government and counterparts around the world have been blindsided by the break-neck speed of innovation, and the way in which the internet has changed over the last decade.

The summit, scheduled to be held during 2020, will aim to gather world leaders to discuss how best regulation can keep up with developments in areas such as nano-tech, voice assistants, and machine learning.

"I hope you will come there, where we will seek to assemble the broadest possible coalition to take forward this vital task," Johnson continued.

"Building on all that the UK can contribute to this mission as a global leader in ethical and responsible technology.

"If we master this challenge - and I have no doubt that we can - then we will not only safeguard our ideals, we will surmount the limits that once constrained humanity and conquer the perils that once ended so many lives."

One key piece of regulation that has served to curb excessive and unethical practices in data processing is the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Legislative bodies, like the House of Lords, have discussed setting frameworks for technologies such as AI, and it's likely that the future will see GDPR-esque legislation for other emerging areas. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is also consulting with experts on the implications for AI on data protection.

The government itself, meanwhile, has strived to keep on top of emerging technologies by instilling responsibility into agencies like government digital services (GDS).

Its latest plans centre on harvesting anonymised data from visitors to the gov.uk family of websites to improve the user experience (UX) of members of the public seeking to access public services. GDS' interim director general Alison Pritchard has insisted that this practice, which is already underway, complies with existing legislation and does not engage in 'targeted advertising'.

"For us to understand whether people, not as individuals but on aggregate level, are taking up services that we know by virtue of the Brexit checker that they might need," Pritchard said, "we also have a need to think about the broader campaign, where there's an iterative journey to understand how prepared, for instance, businesses really are, and whether they're engaging with the services needed.

"So it's that sense of making sure we're able to refine how we are reaching the various stakeholder groups."

IT Pro approached the government to ask for further details around the prime minister's tech summit, but did not get a response at the time of writing.

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