//How should we shape our digital world? Insights from a decade of Sciencewise supported dialogues

How should we shape our digital world? Insights from a decade of Sciencewise supported dialogues

Today, we continue our series of blogs looking at public views on the four themes that guide our work. A quick reminder of these themes:

We started this series with a look at the public values and views that are common across all dialogues, regardless of the specific theme. We’ve looked at how we can live sustainably, how we can live healthy lives and at how we shape the future of life. Today, in our final blog of the series, we look at data, AI and robotics and at public views on how we should shape our digital world. Most of the dialogues we have included in this topic are focused on data. They look at the societal and ethical implications of the collection, use and sharing of a range of data, including online behaviour data, geolocation data and health data.  We’ve also looked at data-driven and novel transport and mobility, including autonomous vehicles and drones. 

Public discussions of data, in Sciencewise dialogues, give rise to five main themes.  We look at each in turn. 

Data, AI and robotics technologies should distribute the risks and benefits fairly

Public benefit – or public good – has been a theme in previous blogs in this series. In their discussions of data, AI and robotics, dialogue participants’ views tend to be shaped by whether or not such benefits or goods are evident. Amongst these benefits are public safety, health, security, prosperity and making everyday tasks more efficient. People want research and technology to be used for solving societal problems.

Conversations often focus on the distribution of benefits and harms. Publics are concerned that those who carry the risks are often not those who will benefit and, as with other themes, they worry about digital technologies reinforcing or deepening existing inequalities. This worry is particularly evident in cases where participants think that minority groups could either miss out on benefits or be actively harmed by data sharing. They want to ensure that everyone can benefit and for technologies to be developed and regulated in a way that includes consideration of their impact – and potential harm – on marginalised groups. 

In dialogues about data, people’s focus shifts between risks to individuals and benefits for others or for society as a whole. In discussions about data sharing, they tend to focus on privacy whilst when looking at research findings, they are more likely to discuss wider benefits for groups of people. They call for risk assessments to weigh up the short-term potential harms to individuals versus long term benefits of research.

Business involvement should ensure both private and public benefit

While they see a potential for businesses to deliver the benefits identified above, dialogue participants are concerned that profit could be prioritised over ethical issues or that it could lead to negative societal impacts. They do not trust that businesses will always balance private and public good and want the government to ensure this balance. 

This concern is heightened in the case of health and genetic data, because healthcare is seen as a universal service that should not be driven by private profit. People tend to distrust the motives of private pharmaceutical companies, which they fear may make treatments less widely available or too expensive,  in favour of making a profit. This means that they think some data should not be shared with or accessed by private companies unless there is a clear public benefit, such as a contribution to health research. In addition, they think it should not be shared for marketing or insurance purposes.

Ensure there is clear and accessible information on why data is being shared 

People are often unsure about how much data about them is being acquired and by whom. They feel under informed about the roles played by data, how well developed data-driven technologies are or what the potential harms of the acquisition and use of data might be. They want more awareness raising and ongoing public engagement so that they are more able to understand and make judgements about the potential harms and benefits associated with data.

Dialogue participants see concise and accessible Information as crucial if people are to exercise informed consent in relation to the use of their own data. What are the risks of sharing? What are the potential benefits and harms?  Who will have access to it, what will it be used for? Answers to these questions should empower people to make informed choices, rather than making them feel flummoxed  by the obscurity and verbosity of processes over which they have no say. 

The public want clear accountability for harms

There should be transparency about who is responsible for any harms arising from data use or misuse, so that people can be held to account and non-altruistic use deterred. Effective regulation is seen as crucial, so that responsibility for misuse, including insecure storage and data breaches, is clear and offenders can be held to account. 


As in dialogues on the other topics we have looked at in this series, concerns about equity, inequality and the fair distribution of benefits and harms, and risks, predominate in dialogues looking at data, AI and robotics. In another strong echo of other themes, people tend to express particular concern about how these technologies will impact vulnerable individuals and communities, especially if profit is allowed to take priority over public benefit. Dialogue participants want more and better information about the extent to which data pervades our society and to be able to make informed consent, aided by accessible information, and they want accountability, so that poor use or misuse carries penalties and offenders can be held to account.

Read our full report that draws together findings from multiple Sciencewise dialogues conducted over the last decade in relation to Data, AI and Robotics here.

Take a look at our Projects and Impacts page if you’d like to find out more about some of our previous dialogues. And to hear more about the impact that public participation can have on participants, see here.