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Human rights expert receives major funding to investigate impact of algorithms on democracy

  • Date

    Thu 15 Oct 20

An Essex human rights expert has been awarded major funding to look at the impact of Artificial Intelligence-assisted decision-making on individual development and the functioning of democracy.

Dr Daragh Murray, from the School of Law and Human Rights Centre, is among the latest wave of individuals to receive funding as part of UK Research and Innovation’s Future Leaders Fellowships scheme. Dr Murray has been awarded over £1 million for an initial period of four years, to examine the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) assisted decision-making in a range of areas.

Dr Daragh Murray said: “Governments around the world are already using AI to help make important decisions that affect us all. This data-driven approach can offer key benefits, but it also relies on the ever-increasing collection of data on all aspects of our personal and public lives, representing both a step change in the information the state holds on us all, and a transformation in how that information is used.

“I want to look at the unintended consequences of this level of surveillance – the impact on how individuals develop their identity and how democratic society flourishes. Will a chilling effect emerge that changes individual behaviour? And what might the impact of this be? Will the knowledge that our activities are tracked and then translated into government decisions affect how we, for example, develop our sexual identity or our political opinions? Will we all be pushed towards the status quo in fear of the consequences of standing out?

"Ultimately what will the effect of this be on the well-being of our democracy?”

The Future Leaders Fellowships scheme is designed to establish the careers of world-class research and innovation leaders across the UK.

Dr Murray’s project will be interdisciplinary, working across human rights law, sociology and philosophy.

Dr Murray said: “We will be looking at lived experience in the context of wider discussions about how individuals and societies flourish. The intention is to re-imagine the human rights framework to address this very 21st century problem.”

Dr Murray is currently a member of the Human Rights Big Data & Technology Project, based at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre, and the Open Source for Rights Project, based at the University of Swansea. He was co-author with Professor Pete Fussey of the independent report into the Metropolitan Police Service’s trial of live facial recognition, published in July 2019.

He is a recognised expert in the field of Digital Verification, using open source investigation techniques to verify evidence of human rights abuses. He founded Essex Digital Verification Unit (DVU) in 2016 and co-edited Digital Witness, the first textbook in the field, with Sam Dubberley and Alexa Koenig. In 2019, Essex DVU was recognised with a Times Higher Education Award for International Collaboration of the Year, for its role in Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps.

The Fellows appoint mentors. In addition to Essex mentors Professor Lorna McGregor and Professor Pete Fussey, Dr Murray will benefit from the involvement of a stellar group of global experts: Professor Yuval Shany, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is Vice-Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and Deputy President of the Israel Democracy Institute; Professor Ashley Deeks is a Research Professor of Law at University of Virginia Law School, Director of the School’s National Security Law Center and a member of the State Department's Advisory Committee on International Law; Professor Alexa Koenig is Executive Director of University of California Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and sits on a number of national and international bodies looking at the impact of technology, as well as the board of advisors for ARCHER, a UC Berkeley-established non-profit that “leverages technology to make data-driven investigations accessible, smarter and more scalable.”

Launching the latest round of Future Leaders Fellowships, UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with freedom and support to drive forward transformative new ideas and the opportunity to learn from peers right across the country.

"The fellows announced today illustrate how the UK continues to support and attract talented researchers and innovators across every discipline to our universities and businesses, with the potential to deliver change that can be felt across society and the economy."