UK study finds little trust in algorithms among adults

Thursday, 10 September, 2020

UK study finds little trust in algorithms among adults

A survey for BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has revealed that the majority of people in the UK do not trust computers to make decisions about any aspect of their lives, with 53% of UK adults having no faith in any organisation to use algorithms when making adjustments about them. The survey was conducted in the wake of the UK exams crisis where an algorithm used to assign grades was scrapped in favour of teachers’ predictions.

Over 2000 people responded to the survey conducted for BCS by YouGov; all were shown a description of algorithms before answering any questions. Doctor Bill Mitchell, Director of Policy at BCS, noted that people don’t trust algorithms to do the right thing by them, with little understanding of how deeply they are embedded in our everyday lives.

Only 7% of respondents trusted algorithms to be used by the education sector — joint lowest with social services and the armed forces. Confidence in the use of algorithms in education also differed between age groups, with 16% of 18- to 24-year-olds trusting their use, while only 5% of over 55-year-olds trusted algorithms. Trust in social media companies’ algorithms to serve content and direct user experience was similar, at 8%.

“People get that Netflix and the like use algorithms to offer up film choices, but they might not realise that more and more algorithms decide whether we’ll be offered a job interview, or by our employers to decide whether we’re working hard enough, or even whether we might be a suspicious person needing to be monitored by security services,” Dr Mitchell said.

Automated decision-making had the highest trust when it came to the NHS (17%), followed by financial services (16%) and intelligence agencies (12%), reflecting areas like medical diagnosis, credit scoring and national security. ‘Big tech’ companies like Apple and Google were level, with 11% of respondents having faith in how algorithms are used to make decisions about them personally.

“The problem government and business face are balancing people’s expectations of instant decisions, on something like credit for a sofa, with fairness and accounting for the individual, when it comes to life-changing moments like receiving exam grades,” Dr Mitchell said.

The survey found that 63% of over-55s felt negative about the general use of algorithms in public life, compared with 42% of 18- to 24-year-olds. Attitudes to computerised decisions in the NHS, private health care and local councils differed by age, with 30% of 18- to 24-year-olds trusting the use of algorithms in these sectors, while for those over 55, it was 14%.

“That’s why we need a professionalised data science industry, independent impact assessments wherever algorithms are used in making high-stakes judgements about people’s lives and a better understanding of AI and algorithms by the policymakers who give them sign-off,” Dr Mitchell said.

Image credit: ©

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