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UK and US launch prize challenges to develop democratic tech innovations

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The British and American governments are today launching a set of prize challenges – aimed to tackle financial crime and public health emergencies – amid concerns about China’s technological advances.

The challenges are based on using AI tools to examine large and potentially sensitive datasets – although synthetic financial and medical data is being used for the challenges themselves.

They come amid concerns that China is outpacing Western countries with its AI research – which some believe is at least in part hindered in the West by stricter privacy laws as well as technical and ethical concerns.

The challenges were first announced at the Summit for Democracy last year, a virtual gathering hosted by the US with the intention of “renewing democracy at home” and “confronting autocracies abroad”.

Earlier this year the government confirmed it would be jointly funding the challenge for people to come up with mechanisms for AI models to be trained on sensitive data without the data having to actually be revealed.

Because machine learning tools require enormous amounts of data to be trained, privacy-enhancing technologies are a focus as they could allow that sensitive personal or commercial data to be used without the usual risks of sharing the data.

Winning solutions to the challenge are eligible for a cash prize from the combined prize pool of £1.3m, and will be showcased at the second Summit for Democracy, which President Joe Biden plans to convene in the first half of next year.

The first challenge will help tackle international money laundering which the UN estimates costs up to $2 trillion each year, some of which help contribute to organised crime, and some of which may be attributed to kleptocrats in authoritarian regimes.

The second challenge about medical data could allow countries to bolster their pandemic response capabilities, potentially enabling health services to forecast an individual’s risk of infection without imposing on that person’s privacy.

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“We are on the cusp of solving some of the world’s most intractable problems and improving our quality of life with the power of artificial intelligence, but we must do it responsibly by upholding our shared values around privacy,” said US secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo.

“I’m thrilled that we’re launching these joint UK-US privacy enhancing technology prize challenges and motivating our best researchers in industry and academia to innovate on protecting privacy so that we can all reap the benefits,” she added.

“This partnership demonstrates the UK and US commitment to working together to address transnational challenges, as well as to ensuring that our vision of the tech revolution – one that is open and democratic – prevails,” added Nadine Dorries, the UK’s digital secretary.

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