Fear no more: Talking AI

We were commissioned by The Data Lab and the Scottish Government to design and deliver a public engagement programme, the findings from which will inform the development of the AI Strategy for Scotland.

The advent of technology has always been accompanied by hyperbole. This is especially true of Artificial intelligence, or AI, which is more often than not portrayed in the media as self-aware machines or cyborgs that will either destroy us or save us from ourselves. The reality is, of course, more nuanced and much more complex. 

There are multiple categories of AI depending on their function and level of sophistication, made possible through techniques such as machine-learning and natural language processing. In everyday life, these take the form of Netflix recommendations, smart replies in Gmail, and digital voice assistants that we know as Siri or Alexa. AI is more common – and more ubiquitous – than we might think. 

What is hard to deny, however, is that AI will have an impact on the way we live, work, and play. This is precisely why the Scottish Government committed to developing an AI Strategy that helps realise Scotland’s potential as a tech hub whilst meeting the goals of the National Performance Framework whereby Scotland continues to be a successful country where everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive.

Democratic Society was commissioned by The Data Lab and the Scottish Government to design and deliver a public engagement programme, the findings from which will inform the development of the Strategy. Originally scheduled to take place in person, the COVID-19 pandemic required most of this work to be carried out online. While this came with its own challenges, it also led to the adoption of new workshop formats that enabled rich, meaningful, and insightful conversations. In total, we carried out 15 online workshops - family (with ‘family’ interpreted  in the widest sense) and individual - with 49 participants representing a range of age groups, skills, education levels, and geographic areas.

In advance of each workshop, we posted or emailed a pack of materials and pre-workshop information, including background information on AI and AI in Scotland as well as details about data and consent to all participants. During the two-hour workshop itself, participants were presented with balanced information, from sources such as The Royal Society, on what is AI and the opportunities as well as ethical challenges it poses in healthcare, surveillance, future of work, public services, and civic life. Participants were encouraged to voice and discuss their thoughts and opinions throughout the session. Find out more on our methodology in the full report here

The discussions revealed that participants are largely optimistic about the potential of AI to improve their lives and positively transform a range of sectors, such as education, in Scotland. However, there remain concerns about issues, such as bias, and trade-offs, for instance on levels of privacy, that currently accompany the use of AI. This does not imply that participants did not see a place for AI in Scotland’s future. On the contrary, they believed that there exists a distinct opportunity for Scotland to become a global leader in ethical AI. 

AI is coming and fast. In terms of Scotland, we should lead and be an exporter not an importer of AI. We have a valued legal system and the cultural values for AI to be human-centric – to benefit the user at all times. We need to export this to the rest of the world, we do not want to be importing from sources who might not have considered the ethical dimension; that’s the imperative – become a showcase, a centre of excellence for the world on what tech for good means and create a future economy of it.


Emphasis was in fact placed on AI for public good by majority of the participants. Public good was broadly understood to mean for the benefit of wider Scottish society and not solely private corporations. Along these lines, it was underlined that people - not profit - be kept at the heart of the AI Strategy. The idea of AI for public good featured repeatedly and will be explored in greater detail in the next blog together with the notion of ethical AI, so do keep your eyes peeled!

For AI to be ethical, participants suggested that it be developed in a trustworthy and transparent manner, shaped by a diversity of expertise and perspectives. Just as importantly, they strongly urged that the benefits and opportunities afforded by AI be equally accessible to everyone, including and especially those in rural areas. 

There are countries ahead of us and we don’t want to get left behind – with no infrastructure it’s not going to happen. Living in a rural area, the information is not there. Broadband and electricity meters need to be established first and coming back to education, social skills are good, but anything about AI, they [people in rural areas] don’t understand. They need education to use AI so that they don’t feel left behind and people aren’t discriminated against.


The need for a positive narrative around AI was also highlighted as a means of breaking down stereotypes, such as the image of AI as cyborgs, and enabling more people to better understand the role of AI and its relevance to their lives. Last but not least, participants called for more open and honest conversations around the topic - akin to the kind they shared during the workshops -  to raise awareness about rights and risks, and help people make more informed decisions when using AI. To this end, they suggested more public engagement to be carried out so as to feed a greater variety of lived experiences into the AI Strategy.

In the past I’ve been quite pessimistic [about AI] but I’m starting to change my mind… there’s a human future there and it’s starting to tap into human capability, making connections to new ways of working, that’s what we need to tap in to. There’s a big job in terms of selling that to the wider population. My gut feeling is that the wider public will fall on the pessimistic side. If we can educate people on what this is what the human future looks like, that’s something to leverage.


Post-workshop feedback that we received indicates that the opportunity to hear different opinions and perspectives, gain new insights, and learn from one another was particularly appreciated by participants. This in turn also helped build confidence and further interest in discussing the topic with friends and colleagues. As for what we learned from doing this project, we experienced the manner in which participants' understanding of a relatively complex issue broadened organically as conversations evolved, ultimately becoming more positive and more nuanced – a testimony to the benefits of social learning that occurs from meaningful participation. 

I found the session really interesting and I really appreciate the effort that has gone into the workshop to allow people in Scotland to build awareness and share their views on AI...I left feeling energised and optimistic about AI and its place in the future of Scotland.


Before this [workshop] I would be fearful about AI but this has been replaced with positivity.


Read more about the project.

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