Shining a light on green job pathways for the next generation

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Today marks the launch of a new year-long programme that aims to inspire and motivate young people in the West of England to pursue green career pathways. Known as Inspire Sustainability, it is one of three West of England Combined Authority (WECA)-funded initiatives as part of the Green Futures Fund, that, if successful, could be replicated and scaled to meet the region’s Climate Emergency Plan and Net Zero ambition.

This announcement builds on recent WECA support of other green skills initiatives in local schools, with West of England Mayor Dan Norris awarding the first green jobs grant for three schools to develop a special environmental careers programme -read more here.

Inspire Sustainability: in a nutshell

Developed in collaboration with UWE-Bristol’s Science Communication UnitCabot Learning FederationAvon Schools Eco Network and STEM Ambassadors West of England, the programme was developed as part of the initiative for Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) Inspire programme. Inspire Sustainability will expand the region’s existing hub of sustainability skills education and training to highlight the region’s leading green skills and expertise in the labour market. Working in partnership, the consortium will deliver three areas of work to three pilot schools; Hans Price Academy in North Somerset, Bristol Brunel Academy in Bristol, and Digitech in South Gloucestershire.  The project includes:

  1. All-school engagement: tailored lessons, talks and careers events with diverse role models, culminating in a whole-school Sustainability Summit.
  2. Eco Council engagement: Eco Action Plan co-development to support the schools achieve Eco School status
  3. Teacher engagement: training so that teachers have the confidence to engage young people on these topics and support them to imagine a future where they can see themselves playing an active role in shaping development.

Once piloted, the outcomes will be shared widely to primary and secondary schools as well as to educational professionals and academics through the consortium’s networks.

West of England Mayor Dan Norris with Year 10 pupils from Orchard School at the Youth Engineering for Environmental Sustainability Summit in October 2021

Building on what works

The Inspire Sustainability approach builds on tried and tested methods explored in DETI Inspire, which has engaged over 7,000 children and young people in the West of England on engineering for sustainability.

Consortium member UWE-Bristol’s Science Communication Unit has a track record of working with and training diverse stakeholders to reach sustainability goals. In 2021, the Unit launched its Climate Action Hub to highlight the existing work of students and academics in this space, as well as to offer support and training to further amplify climate action. Currently it is delivering climate communications training to young people and supporting them to act on things that matter to them. The Youth Climate Communications toolkit will be used to develop the teacher engagement portion of Inspire Sustainability.

Meanwhile, the STEM Ambassador programme will be key to recruiting diverse green role models while Avon Schools Eco Network will use their expertise to support the schools to develop their action plans.

If you are interested to know more about any of this work, please contact project manager Sophie Laggan.

This post was first published on the Engineering Our Future blog on 30 June 2022.

Engaging children with STEM through Minecraft: new practitioner guides

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Science Hunters has been engaging children with the computer game Minecraft since 2014. Originally initiated at Lancaster University, the programme is now run in collaboration between Lancaster University and UWE Bristol. Its engineering strand, Building to Break Barriers aims to engage children from under-represented groups with engineering, using the game.

Minecraft is an extremely popular computer game, and has various features that make it ideal for communicating about Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

Over the course of delivery, the Science Hunters team have gained various insights into the practicalities of using Minecraft to engage children with STEM in schools, at Minecraft Clubs for specific groups and at small and large public events. As part of Building to Break Barriers, two guides, drawing on their extensive experience, have been produced for practitioners thinking of using Minecraft for STEM outreach and engagement:

Engagement through Minecraft: Available editions

Engaging children with STEM using Minecraft

The guides lay out why Science Hunters uses Minecraft to engage children with STEM including:

  • Its popularity makes it familiar and appealing to children
  • It can interest them in topics that they might not otherwise engage with, because they’re interested in the game
  • It is also relatively easy to use, and generally quickly picked up
  • Minecraft has various features which represent items and processes in the real world, which can help children explore and understand a range of scientific concepts.   

They also cover the versions of Minecraft available to choose from, and topics such as making STEM accessible, modes of Minecraft, options for setting up the game for use in engagement, face-to-face and virtual engagement and planning considerations. They are not official Minecraft resources. Building to Break Barriers was funded under the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious scheme from May 2020 to January 2022. Ongoing extension work is currently funded by a Biochemical Society Diversity in Science grant. For more information or to discuss future collaboration please contact sciencehunters@uwe.ac.uk.  

By Laura Hobbs and Sarah Behenna.

Please note that these guides were produced in 2021. Information contained within the documents may be subject to change and should be confirmed by users, and does not constitute recommendations.

Cover image build by Jay Fenney.

Empowering WECA pupils with data for sustainable school streets

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Speeding cars, traffic jams, air pollution… these are but a few of the grievances the average city dweller contends with on a daily basis. Below the driving age, children in the West of England do not contribute to these problems, yet they are among the most vulnerable to their consequences.

To allow children to safely make their way to school, without the need to breathe in polluted air and to arrive in a timely manner, EU citizen science project WeCount, together with DETI Inspire, has launched a series of educational resources for KS2 and KS4 pupils. Covering a wide range of subjects, all curriculum linked, children are able to learn about the grand challenges’ cities face in relation to urban travel, and the steps they can take collectively to make their school streets, and cities, safer, healthier and happier. By taking part, schools can gain points towards Modeshift STARS Travel Plan accreditation.

This collaborative project is coordinated by UWE Bristol researchers from the Science Communication Unit. Project manager Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers explains why these resources are so important:

“Road transport is a leading cause of air pollution and climate change within the West of England. For our cities to become net zero carbon emissions by 2030, the date which scientists warn is our deadline to keep global warming below 1.5°C and prevent runaway climate change, drastic changes need to be made to every aspect of life, not least driving. WeCount sensors and associated school resources are one piece of the puzzle in helping citizens to create the changes they wish to see. “

What is WeCount?

WeCount, led by UWE Bristol, is a project that equips households, community centres and schools with low-cost traffic sensors to count cars, bikes, pedestrians and heavy vehicles, as well as the speed of cars. Over time, the citizen scientists can observe trends and use the evidence to lobby for changes on their roads. Among the successes with WeCount data so far, citizens across Europe have convinced their councils to install speed cameras and reduce road speeds, and consider bike lanes and pedestrianisation, spread awareness among residents and contributed to consultations on new housing developments.

How do we get involved?

WeCount is giving away 20 sensors to schools across the West of England. Contact engineeringourfuture@uwe.ac.uk to apply for one for your school.

KS2 resources are freely available here. KS4 due for release later this month. Email the above email address if you would like to be sent a KS4 pack directly to your school when available.

All resources can be delivered without a sensor, using the data available on the Telraam website.

You are also able to buy all of the components required for the sensor at PiHut. For more details on the equipment you need, please see this document .

What’s inside the KS2 pack?

A whole school assembly

Fifteen curriculum-linked worksheets, with instructions and PowerPoint for teachers, covering Geography, IT, Maths, Science, Art and English, Design and Technology. These include tasks to: collect and analyse data; understand different urban travel views; design a bike for the future; vision a healthier, happier school street; and persuade the mayor to consider your proposals.

Lessons can be delivered independently or combined for after-school clubs or themed curriculum, and can be teacher-led or with the support of UWE Bristol or STEM Ambassadors.

What’s inside the KS4 pack?

A whole school assembly

Ten curriculum-linked worksheets, with instructions and PowerPoint for teachers, covering nearly all GCSE subjects – Geography, Computer Science, Maths, Science, Citizenship and English, Design and Technology, History and Engineering. These activities include tasks to: learn about the influence of powerful actors on the proliferation of the car; collect and analyse data; explore the science behind the sensors; debate the role of AI in solving the climate crisis; research local travel issues and viewpoints; design interventions and deliver action projects; creatively write about their experiences.

Lessons can be delivered independently or combined for after-school clubs or themed curriculum, and can be teacher-led or with the support of UWE or STEM Ambassadors.

Sophie Laggan,  Research Associate, citizen empowerment and policy change for urban health and sustainability at UWE Bristol.

New Minecraft programme allows children to digitally engineer the West of England

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A new Minecraft programme featuring iconic Bristol and Bath landmarks is allowing children to digitally engineer the West of England, improving their scientific knowledge and encouraging them to consider Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

The Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) programme team at UWE Bristol have been exploring digitally engineering the West with local children, using the incredibly popular block-building video game Minecraft.

Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge variety of constructions. Players can easily make changes to their builds and quickly visualise new ideas, much like computer-aided design (CAD) software used for digital engineering.

The DETI Skills Inspire team partnered with local design and engineering consultancy Atkins, and Minecraft experts Dr Laura Hobbs and Jonathan Kim, to create a scale recreation of Bristol and Bath within the game, allowing local children to explore, build, re-design and re-engineer their very own cities.

Consultants from Atkins created a programme to convert Ordnance Survey data into a to-scale Minecraft world, allowing a highly detailed Bristol and Bath to be created – the West in Minecraft.

This new world was then populated with famous engineering landmarks such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol Temple Meads Station and the SS Great Britain.

DETI Skills Inspire has been using this new Minecraft world at after-school STEM clubs recently established in Lawrence Weston and Easton, Bristol, as part of a STEM in the Community project funded by UWE Bristol and the STEM Ambassador hub West England, in collaboration with local community groups in both areas.

By re-creating these areas of Bristol within the game, children from both Lawrence Weston and Easton are able to explore the parts of their community that are familiar to them, piquing their interest and giving them power to reshape where they live.

Exploring new areas of the city through Minecraft also opens up opportunities for children to visit and talk about some of the city’s famous landmarks, many of which they may never have seen before, strengthening their knowledge and cultural connection with these areas and our city as a whole.

Liz Lister, Manager of the STEM Ambassador Hub West England, said: “Giving young people access to these places and giving them power to reshape them, even if it is just in Minecraft, offers them the opportunity to imagine their world as being different to what it is now. We hope that planting the idea that we can have some control over our own environment will lead some young people to think about the relevance of design and engineering to their lives, and then perhaps on to thinking of themselves as designers and engineers of the future.”

The activity utilises the approach developed by Science Hunters, which is based at UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit and Lancaster University, and is affiliated with their Royal Academy of Engineering-funded engineering strand Building to Break Barriers . The game has proven to be a successful educational tool, and evaluations undertaken by Science Hunters indicate that use of Minecraft through their approach  both attracts children who might not otherwise have engaged with science learning, and successfully improves scientific knowledge and understanding after participating in sessions.

Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Senior Lecturer in STEM Education and Communication at UWE Bristol, said: “So far ‘the West in Minecraft’ has been a huge success amongst the young people attending these STEM clubs. There has been much excitement at finding their own homes within the model city, re-building structures and adding to existing ones. Farms have been built on rooftops as the children have been encouraged to think about how they would re-design their city for a net zero future.”

A set of school resources to explore digital engineering, using this new Minecraft world, are currently being developed by the DETI Inspire team for release next academic year. These 1-2 hour lessons are currently being trialled with local primary schools, linking activities to the curriculum and drawing on several different subject areas to allow for a cross-curricular and rather unique learning experience.

Women Like Me engineers inspire Bristol primary school students

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Based in the Science Communication Unit and Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics at UWE Bristol and organised by Dr Laura Hobbs and Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Women Like Me is a peer mentoring and outreach project, aimed at boosting female representation in engineering. It is supported by the initiative for Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI).

Engineers on our Women Like Me programme are currently undertaking engineering outreach and engagement with children in the Southwest. Recently, Whitehall Primary School in Bristol asked if our engineers could answer questions from their Year 2 pupils as part of their ‘Amazing Engineers’ topic.

The children’s perceptive questions ranged from ‘Why did you want to be an engineer?’ to ‘Did you play with Lego when you were 7 years old?’:

  • Why did you want to be an engineer? 
  • Do you know what your next invention/work will be? 
  • How hard is engineering? 
  • Did you play with Lego when you were 7 years old? 
  • What kind of things do you use at work? 
  • What kind of engineer are you? 
  • Do you like your job? 
  • Did anyone help you with your first project? 

Four women in engineering, three from our current cohort and one a Women Like Me alumna, produced videos in which they answered the children’s questions, giving them both insights into the varied roles in engineering, and representation of diversity within the sector.

With women making up only 12% of engineers in the UK, more girls need to connect with engineering as a career, with positive female role models, and more women need to be supported to make a difference in the workplace. Find out more about the importance of diversity in engineering here.

More ‘meet an engineer’ videos can be found in our playlist.

The school described the connection with engineers as a “great experience for the children”. They really enjoyed watching the videos and hearing from real-life engineers answering their questions.

The children absolutely LOVED the videos! They were talking about them for days – really excited and buzzing! We’re so grateful for the time taken by your engineers to record them.

Kathie Cooke, Whitehall Primary School

Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & SimulationDigital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. Industry partners include Airbus, GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, and CFMS, with in kind contributions from UWE, Digital Catapult and Siemens. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

This post was originally published on the Engineering Our Future blog.

Providing space for social communication in a STEM engagement project

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This post was originally published on the Engineering our Future and Curiosity Connections blogs.

Neurodiversity Week (15-21 March 2021) celebrates our unique strengths and differences, while recognising that the many talents of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodiverse ways of thinking and learning are often not suited to traditional, formal learning environments. Science Hunters is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) outreach and research programme that uses Minecraft to engage children from under-represented groups with STEM. Projects have covered a wide range of topics such as the Amazon rainforest, understanding diabetes, earth science and volcanoes and space, with the Building to Break Barriers project currently running at UWE Bristol engaging children with many aspects of engineering.

Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge range of constructions. It can be played either as a single-player game or in a shared virtual world with multiple users playing together, and was chosen for Science Hunters because of its popularity (children want to play it!), particular appeal to children who learn differently, and suitability for explaining science.

Food inside lunar base.

A key target group for Science Hunters is children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), particularly through a dedicated Minecraft Club that has been running since 2015. It soon became clear that taking part in the club, alongside children with similar needs in an accepting environment, and playing a game which was a shared special interest, had more benefits for participants than STEM learning alone.

When face-to-face sessions are possible, as they were until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minecraft Club uses a dedicated server, so that children can play together in a safe social online space. Most of the children who attend have ADHD, autism and/or dyslexia. Spaces are limited to no more than 16 at a time, with simple guidelines to keep the club fun; children are not under pressure to conform to ‘neurotypical’ behaviour norms as may be expected in non-specific settings. STEM topics are briefly introduced, and then participants are free to build in Minecraft in relation to that topic; while adults are there to guide and support, children are encouraged to follow their own interests and ideas to create their own unique designs. For four years, data were collected from participating children and their parents/carers, who attended with them, through surveys and interviews.

During this time, 101 children aged 5-17 years attended; responses were gathered from 29 children and 37 caregivers. Results indicated that children both enjoyed and learnt something from attending, and while their feedback understandably often focused on Minecraft, they also indicated that they had benefitted socially and emotionally from being in the shared space with other children with similar interests. This was supported by insights from parents and carers, who described benefits outside the club, such as improved confidence and wellbeing, improved social skills, and reduced need for formal learning support.

Interest in playing Minecraft is what motivates children to attend, and the game provides a range of opportunities for children to potentially develop social and educational skills. This is supported by the process of designing and completing builds, independently or collaboratively, and communicating with others within the shared virtual world. Playing in the same physical space enhances this, as communication can move between the virtual and real worlds and allow in-person peer support and the ‘safe space’ provided in our Minecraft Club supports children with SEN to interact naturally and spontaneously. While it was set up as part of STEM outreach, the social communication impacts of our Minecraft Club – such as making friends, fitting in, and feeling valued without judgement regardless of completing tasks or conforming to expected social behaviours – are at least as important.

Minecraft Club is currently running virtually as part of Building to Break Barriers. We’ve looked at earthquake-proof buildings, protecting against flooding, tunnels, drones and more, and are exploring the effects of the change to meeting online.

More information about Minecraft Club, and its impacts reported here, is available in Hobbs et al. (2020) Shared special interest play in a specific extra-curricular group setting: A Minecraft Club for children with Special Educational Needs, Educational and Child Psychology, 37(4), 81-95.

If you have any queries about the project please contact ExtendingSTEM@uwe.ac.uk .

What is an engineer anyway? – Communicating engineering careers to pupils with DETI’s Engineering Curiosity project

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When children are asked what an engineer is, and what they look like, it can often be a tricky question.  They may jump to the image of an engine mechanic, or a man in overalls with a spanner and a hard-hat.  They may also have trouble recognising familiar jobs as coming under the umbrella of engineering. 

Engineering is defined as ‘working artfully to bring something about’. More literally, it is the application of science and maths to solve problems. And it’s a career that is more relevant than ever – to achieve net zero and a low carbon global economy, everything we make and use, from aircraft to cars, batteries to wind turbines, will need to be completely re-imagined and re-engineered.

When a child does not personally know an engineer, or does not recognise the role of engineering in solving the problems faced by a society, then this notion of an engineer becomes more removed from their view, and critically, from their career aspirations.  In science communication, we encounter children with low science capital throughout our work.  So how can the children dream of becoming an engineer, if they don’t know what one is? 

You can’t be what you can’t see

It is difficult for children to imagine themselves in that job, when the engineer does not look like them.  Encouraging girls and children from minority ethnic groups into engineering careers, and STEM careers more broadly, is a key focus of the DETI Inspire team working out of UWE. 

In collaboration with My Future My Choice, as well as many local engineers; the DETI Inspire team at UWE have developed the Engineering Curiosity cards and lesson resources for schools.  The aim is to bring the diversity of the West of England’s amazing engineers into the classroom and enthuse and inspire both primary and secondary pupils.  Through not only learning about what an engineer is and recognising their role, but also introducing them to real-life local engineers that may come from similar beginnings, so that they can start to think of engineering as something that could be for them!

Engineering Curiosity

Engineering Curiosity is a collection of 52 cards, based upon 52 local engineers in a wide variety of different roles and industries, in a kind of ‘Top Trumps’ meets ‘Happy Families’ style game.  The engineers featured have also each produced an engaging TikTok style video, giving a fun snapshot of their role and their route into it.  The project has developed lesson plans, curriculum linked worksheets and activities, and school-wide assemblies to accompany the cards and videos, all to aid schools in running sessions that involve the real engineers joining them live in the classroom through video link. 

During the recent British Science Week, local schools around the West have been taking part in DETI’s ‘Big Beam In!’, bringing the sessions to life and reaching over 3500 pupils.  Some of which may just be the West’s future engineers!

Looking to inspire in your science communication, or want to check out all the engineering roles for yourself?  You can find the resources, lesson plans and cards on the Curiosity Connections website.

DETI Inspire builds on the success of previous projects founded and launched in the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol, including Curiosity Connections – the network for inspirational primary STEM education in the West of England, and Women Like Me – a tiered mentoring project for women engineers. The project is led by Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers and includes Ana Bristow, Sophie Laggan and Josh Warren from the SCU.

Josh Warren

Mutual Shaping in Swarm Robotics: User Studies in Fire and Rescue, Storage Organization, and Bridge Inspection

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Fire engine at the Bristol Robotics Lab after a focus group session with local firefighters

I remember this story as if it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2013. I was laying on my bed, listening to music. All of the sudden, I heard someone screaming louder than my music, and banging on the door of my flat. I quickly took off my headphones, dashed to the door, opened it, and found my neighbour shaking, with her face as pale as chalk. Without any word, she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her flat. Then, I went into panic. Smoke was coming out of the door! As we entered the flat running, my neighbour quickly managed to explain that the heater above the wooden bathroom door had caught fire while she was giving a bath to the old lady she was caring for. The old lady needed rescuing. Luckily, we both could take the old lady out of the bathroom before the fire developed more. A fire brigade came in a matter of minutes. The bathroom was destroyed, but no-one was injured.

After that experience, I knew I wanted to do something useful for firefighters because I had experienced how extremely dangerous it is for them to enter a building covered in smoke to put out a fire. Did I become a firefighter? Not quite. I decided to do a PhD in swarm robotics at the Bristol Robotics Lab to design useful technology for fire brigades. Swarm robotics is the study of hundreds and thousands of robots that collaborate with each other to solve tasks without any leader, just like swarms of ants, bees, fish or even cells in our bodies. Imagine if firefighters could release a swarm of robots at the entrance of a building on fire to create a map of the hazards, source of fire and casualties, so that firefighters don’t waste time searching (which is one of the most dangerous parts of their profession). Swarm robotics could also be applied in other settings. How about if warehouses had a swarm of robots automatically organising the stock so that employees only have to ask the swarm for the products they want? Or what if a swarm of robots could spread all over a bridge to monitor cracks? In my opinion, robot swarms are almost ready to leave the lab and enter the real world. We just need to know the type of robot swarms that potential users need. So, along with co-authors Emma Milner, Julian Hird, Georgios Tzoumas, Paul Vardanega, Mahesh Sooriyabandara, Manuel Giuliani, Alan Winfield and Sabine Hauert, we did three studies where we spoke with 37 professionals from fire brigades, storage organisation and bridge inspection. The results have recently been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI (you can read the paper here).





Mutual shaping: a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developer

For the three studies, we followed the framework of mutual shaping. The long-term aim is to create a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developers so that we can incorporate societal choices at all stages of the research and development process, as opposed to more traditional methods where users are asked what they care about once the technology has already been designed. In our studies, we first had a discussion with participants to find out about their job, their challenges and their needs, without any introduction to swarm robotics. After listening to their explanation of the art of their profession, we introduced them to swarm robotics, and gave them examples where robot swarms could be useful for them. Finally, we had another discussion around how useful those examples were for them, and challenged them to think about any other scenarios where robot swarms could assist them.

We found very helpful take-home messages. The first one was that participants were open to the idea of using robot swarms in their jobs. That was somewhat surprising, as we were expecting them to focus more on the downsides of the technology, given how robot swarms are frequently portrayed in science fiction. The second point had to do with the particular tasks that participants felt robot swarms could/couldn’t do. This was an extraordinary insight because we identified their priorities, hence the next steps to advance in the swarm robotics research. For example, firefighters said they would highly benefit from robot swarms that could gather information for them very quickly. On the contrary, they wouldn’t like robot swarms extinguishing fires because of the tremendous amount of variables involved in fire extinguishing. That’s exactly the art of their profession – they know how to extinguish fires. In the study with the sector of storage organisation, a participant from a charity shop said that they wouldn’t like robots valuing the items they receive, but robot swarms could be useful for organising the stock more efficiently. Bridge inspectors would rather assess whether there’s damage by themselves, given the information about the bridge that a robot swarm sends them. Finally, most participants brought up concerns to tackle if we want to successfully deploy swarms in the real world. These mainly had to do with transparency, accountability, safety, reliability and usability. Some of the challenges for swarm robotics that were collectively identified in the studies are the following:

  • How can we really understand what’s happening within a robot swarm?
  • How can we make safe robot swarms for users?
  • How can we manufacture robot swarms to be used out of the box without expert training or difficult maintenance?


Bar chart of answers to one of the questions asked to fire brigades

Personally, what struck me the most in my study was that almost three quarters of the participants from fire brigades expressed that they would like to be included in the research and development process from the very beginning. So, engaging with them through mutual shaping was a good choice because it opened up the relationship that they apparently want to have. And that’s really inspiring! I hope our research opens up exciting paths to explore in the future. Paths that will take swarm robotics a step closer to making robot swarms useful for society.

Daniel Carrillo-Zapata, PhD in swarm robotics and self-organisation, Bristol Robotics Laboratory

COVID-19 opportunities to shift artificial intelligence towards serving the common good

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Contact tracing apps are just one measure governments have been using in their attempts to contain the current coronavirus outbreak. Such apps have also raised concerns about privacy and data security. COVID-19 – and the current calls for AI-led healthcare solutions – highlight the pressing need to consider wider ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence (AI). This blog discusses some of the ethical issues raised in a recent report and brief on moral issues and dilemmas linked to AI, written by the Science Communication Unit for the European Parliament . 

AI means, broadly, machines that mimic human cognitive functions, such as learning, problem-solving, speech recognition and visual perception. One of the key benefits touted for AI is to reduce healthcare inefficiencies; indeed, AI is already widespread in healthcare settings in developed economies, and its use is set to increase. 

There are clear benefits for strained healthcare systems. In some fundamental areas of medicine, such as medical image diagnostics, machine learning has been shown to match or even surpass human ability to detect illnesses. New technologies, such as health monitoring devices, may free up medical staff time for more direct interactions with patients, and so potentially increase the overall quality of care. Intelligent robots may also work as companions or carers, remind you to take your medications, help you with your mobility or cleaning tasks, or help you stay in contact with your family, friends and healthcare providers via video link.

AI technologies have been an important tool in tracking and tracing contacts during the COVID-19 outbreak in countries such as South Korea. There are clear benefits to such life-saving AI, but widespread use of a contact-tracing app also raises ethical questions. South Korea has tried to flatten its curve using intense scraping of personal data, and other countries have been using digital surveillance and AI-supported drones to monitor the population in attempts to stem the spread. The curtailing of individual privacy may be a price we have to pay, but it is a tricky ethical balance to strike – for example, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has expressed its concern about excessive disclosure of private information of COVID-19 patients.  

The case of the missing AI laws

As adoption of AI continues to grow apace – in healthcare, as well as in other sectors such as transportation, energy, defence, services, entertainment, finance, cybersecurity –legislation has lagged behind. There remains a significant time lag between the pace of AI development and the pace of AI lawmaking. The World Economic Forum calls for much-needed ‘governance architectures’ to build public trust in AI to ensure that the technology can be used for health crises such as COVID in future.There exist several laws and regulations dealing with aspects relevant to AI (such as the EU’s GDPR on data, or several country laws on autonomous vehicles) but no countries yet have specific laws on ethical and responsible AI. Several countries are discussing restrictions on the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).[1] However, governments in general have been reluctant to create restrictive laws.

A new report commissioned by the European Parliament will feed into the work of their Scientific Foresight Unit, STOA. The report, written by the Science Communication Unit, was led by Professor of Robot Ethics, Alan Winfield.

Broad ethical questions

Reviewing the scientific literature and existing frameworks around the world, we found there are diverse, complex ethical concerns arising from the development of artificial intelligence.

 In relation to healthcare, for diseases like COVID-19, where disease is spread via social contact, care robots  could provide necessary, protective, socially distanced support for vulnerable people. However, if this technology becomes more pervasive, it could be used in more routine settings as well. Questions then arise over whether a care robot or a companion robot can really substitute for human interaction – particularly pertinent in the long-term caring of vulnerable and often lonely people, who derive basic companionship from caregivers.

As with many areas of AI technology, the privacy and dignity of users’ needs to be carefully considered when designing healthcare service and companion robots. Robots do not have the capacity for ethical reflection or a moral basis for decision-making, and so humans must hold ultimate control over any decision-making in healthcare and other contexts.

Other applications raise further concerns, ranging from large-scale and well-known issues such job losses from automation, to more personal, moral quandaries such as how AI will affect our sense of trust, our ability to judge what is real, and our personal relationships.

Perhaps unexpectedly, we also found that AI has a significant energy cost and furthers social inequalities – and that, crucially, these aspects are not being covered by existing frameworks.

Our Policy Options Brief highlights four key gaps in current frameworks, which don’t currently cover:

  • ensuring benefits from AI are shared fairly;
  • ensuring workers are not exploited;
  • reducing energy demands in the context of environmental and climate change;
  • and reducing the risk of AI-assisted financial crime.

It is also clear that, while AI has global applications and potential benefits, there are enormous disparities in access and benefits between global regions. It is incumbent upon today’s policy- and law-makers to ensure that AI does not widen global inequalities further. Progressive steps could include data-sharing and collaborative approaches (such as India’s promise to share its AI solutions with other developing economies), and efforts to make teaching around computational approaches a fundamental part of education, available to all.

Is AI developed for the common good?

Calls have been issued for contributions from AI experts and contributors worldwide to help find further solutions to the COVID-19 crisis – for example, the AI-ROBOTICS vs COVID-19 initiative of the European AI Alliance is compiling a ‘solutions repository’. At the time of writing, there were 248 organisations and individuals offering COVID-related solutions via AI development. These include a deep-learning hand-washing coach AI, which gives you immediate feedback on how to handwash better. 

Other solutions include gathering and screening knowledge; software enabling a robot to disinfect areas, or to screen people’s body temperature; robots that deliver objects to people in quarantine; automated detection of early breathing difficulties; and FAQ chatbots or even psychological support chatbots.

Government calls for AI-supported COVID-19 solutions are producing an interesting ethical interface between sectors that have previously kept each other at arm’s length. In the hyper-competitive world of AI companies, co-operation (or even information sharing) towards a common goal is unchartered territory. These developments crystallise one of the ethical questions at the core of AI debates – should AI be developed and used for private or public ends? In this time of COVID-19, increased attention by governments (and the increased media attention on some of the privacy-related costs of AI) provide an opportunity to open up and move forward this debate. Moreover, the IEEE urges that the sense of ‘emerging solidarity’ and ‘common global destiny’ accompanying the COVID-19 crisis are perfect levers to make the sustainability and wellbeing changes required.

One barrier to debate is in the difficulty of understanding some of the most advanced AI technologies, which is why good science communication is crucial. It is vitally important that the public are able to formulate and voice informed opinions on potentially society-changing developments. Governments need better information too – and up-to-date, independent and evidence-based forms of technology assessment. Organisations such as the Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics team in the US Government Accountability Office or the European Foresight platform are examples that are trying to enable governments and lawmakers to understand such technologies deeply while they can still be shaped.

In order to enjoy the benefits of AI, good governance frameworks are urgently needed to balance the ethical considerations and manage the risks. It is yet to be seen if the COVID-19-prompted developments in AI will herald a new era of public-private cooperation for the common good, but if there was ever a time to amplify this conversation, it is now.

Ruth Larbey, Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol.


[1] Belgium has already passed legislation to prevent the use or development of LAWS. 


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