A Prediction about Predictions

December 11, 2017

Humphrey, I want to do something about


Yes Humphrey, the machines are taking over.

Are they

Yes Humphrey, my advisers tell me I should be up in
arms. Machines – ‘AI’ they call it – predicting what I’m going to buy, when I’m
going to die, even if I’ll commit a crime.

Surely not,

Not me personally, of course, Humphrey – other
people. And then there’s this scandal over Cambridge Analytica and voter
profiling. Has no-one heard of the secret ballot?

knows which way you would vote, Minister

Yes, yes, not me personally, of course, Humphrey –
other people.  Anyway, I want to do something about it.

Of course,
Minister.  Let me see – you want to ban voter and customer profiling,
crime risk assessment and predictions of one’s demise, so that would mean no
more targeted advertising, political campaigning, predictive policing, early
parole releases, life insurance policies…

Well, let’s not be too hasty Humphrey.  I
didn’t say anything about banning things.

My sincere
apologies Minister, I had understood you wanted to do something

Yes, Humphrey, about the machines, the AI. 
People don’t like the idea of some faceless computer snooping into their lives
and making predictions about them.

But it’s
alright if a human does it.

Yes…well no…I don’t know.  What do you
suggest Humphrey?

As I see it
Minister, you have two problems

Do I?

The people
are the ones with the votes, the AI developers are the ones with the money and
the important clients – insurance companies, social media giants, dare I say
it, even political parties..

Yes, yes, I see.  I mustn’t alienate the
money.  But I must be seen to be doing something Humphrey.

I have two
suggestions Minister.  First, everything must be ‘transparent’. 
Organisations using AI must say how their technology works and what data it
uses.  Information, information everywhere…

I like it Humphrey.  Power to the people and
all that.  And if they’ve had the information, they can’t complain,
eh.  And the second thing?

A Commission,
Minister, or a Committee, with eminent members, debating, assessing, scrutinising,
evaluating, appraising…

And what is this Commission to do?


What will the Commission do about predictions and

It will
scrutinise, Minister, it will evaluate, appraise and assess, and then, in two
or three years, it will report.

But what will it say Humphrey?

I cannot
possibly predict what the Commission on Predictions would say, being a mere
humble servant of the Crown.


But if I had
to guess, I think it highly likely that it will say that context reigns supreme
– there are good predictions and there are bad predictions, and there is good
AI and there is bad AI.

So after three years of talking, all it will say is
that ‘it depends’.

Yes Minister. 

Marion Oswald, Senior Fellow in Law, Head
of the Centre for Information Rights, University of Winchester

In homage to ‘Yes Minister’ by Antony Jay
and Jonathan Lynn

The Fifth Interdisciplinary Winchester Conference
on Trust, Risk, Information and the Law will be held on Wednesday 25 April 2018
at the Holiday Inn, Winchester UK.  Our overall theme for this conference
will be: Public Law, Politics and the Constitution: A new battleground between
the Law and Technology?  The call for papers and booking information can
be found at https://journals.winchesteruniversitypress.org/index.php/jirpp/pages/view/TRIL