Why Scotland must ask 100 questions to unlock AI potential

Scotland’s new AI Strategy is only as good as the questions it asks, says data expert


Can you think of a question, which if answered, could transform society? Scotland must identify 100 such

questions to truly “unlock the potential” of data and artificial intelligence (AI), according to global expert in technology and science, Stefaan Verhulst. Co-founder of the GovLab, an

action research centre at New York University, Verhulst thinks the Scot- tish Government’s new AI Strategy “embraces the public interest”, but lacks “concrete intentionality”. Unveiled by the finance secretary,

Kate Forbes, in March, the strategy outlines Scotland’s ambitions and actions for becoming an AI power- house. Te five-year route map sets out

how the government will harness the full potential of data “to save time, to save money and to save lives”. Verhulst, who is the GovLab’s

chief research and development officer and driving force behind its “100 questions” initiative, says: “Te value of data and AI is only as good as the questions or the decisions it seeks to inform.”

Te project’s mission is to discover

the 100 most pressing questions, which if answered with relevant datasets, would generate high-im- pact insights for the public good. He adds: “Anyone who develops

an AI strategy should complement that with an activity or an engage- ment to identify those 100 ques- tions.” Tis would mean there is a

mission and a purpose behind a region’s AI ecosystem. Verhulst, a former Glasgow Uni-

versity researcher, suggests that a wing of Scotland’s new AI Alliance is established to identify 10 priority domains where AI and data could contribute – from “improving chil- dren’s wellbeing, to mental health, to revitalising tourism in Scotland, to establishing the green economy”.

The AI Alliance is a collaboration of individuals, companies, and citizens from a range of sectors, which according to its chair Gillian Docherty, will “drive the recom- mendations and actions laid out in the AI Strategy and also shape the future requirements”. After selecting the domains, Vel-

hurst explains, “bilinguals” – prac- titioners who possess both relevant domain knowledge as well as data science expertise – must be con- sulted to help pinpoint the 10 most important questions in that area. “It’s very important to engage

with those bilinguals because if you only ask the data experts, you will get questions that might not be important for the domain. And

if you only ask the domain experts, you might get questions or deci- sions that cannot be informed by the data,” Verhulst says. Te final stage would be public

consultation, to ensure “the short- list resonates both from a political but also from a societal point of view”. Te GovLab’s 100 questions

initiative has so far identified eight key domains, which includes mi- gration, gender and disinformation. On Verhulst’s recommendation

to implement a similar project in Scotland, Docherty, who is also chief executive of Scotland’s in- novation centre for data and AI, Te Data Lab, says: “I think it’s a really interesting approach. “[I am] certainly interested in

learning from the experience and understanding of how it could potentially make a difference to the way the AI Alliance will operate and work. But initially, the alliance is set up to deliver on the recom- mendations and actions laid out [in the strategy].” Te ambitions in Scotland’s

“trustworthy, ethical and inclusive”

strategy are already emerging in schemes across the country where data has been used, including two award-winning government projects – one to save victims of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest and one to understand the relationship between health and homelessness.

The government has also helped to establish a “data for children” collaboration with UNICEF, which seeks to improve outcomes for children locally, nationally, and in- ternationally by using data science to solve societal problems. So, is Scotland on its way to be-

coming an AI powerhouse? “I think Scotland has a lot of

great assets, both in terms of uni- versities, and the tech community. I’m always impressed with the data community that resides in Scot- land,” says Verhulst. “Whether or not you’re a pow-

erhouse, I would say, is probably not the right question. Te right question might be whether Scottish people are better off as a result of applying AI?” One down, 99 to go. l


Stefaan Verhulst co-founded the

GovLab at New York University in 2012

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