Public debate on algorithms, artificial intelligence and ethics: the upcoming high points

07 June 2017

The public debate led by the CNIL on the ethical matters raised by algorithms and artificial intelligence will keep spreading through a dozen initiatives in June and July all over France. Institut Mines-Télécom, association OpenLaw and confederation CFE-CGC will be some of the 40 partners that will lead the following debates.

Algorithmes en débat

The Digital Republic Bill recently gave a unique assignment to the French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) which is to lead a reflection on the ethical and societal matters raised by the rapid development of digital technologies. While algorithms are frequently at play in our everyday lives, only 31% of French people believe that they know precisely what it is all about*: the CNIL thus made the decision to open up in 2017 a large public debate on algorithms and artificial intelligence. Public institutions, associations, companies, research centers: around 40 partners take action to give body to this large and open public debate.

Autonomy, accountability and ethics at the core of the reflection on algorithms and AI

  • The Institut Mines-Télécom, a scientific institution dedicated to Research for Innovation in the fields of engineering and digital technology, will undertake an international conference “The many dimensions of Data” on June 22nd and 23rd. Topics such as bias in algorithms or access to data will be questioned by key actors from Europe (European Commission) and abroad (Carnegie Mellon University).
  • On June 19th, Allistene’s research committee on ethics (CERNA) and the “Société Informatique de France” will also carry out a day of debates called “Ethics and algorithms: both a moral requirement and a competitive advantage” that will give an overview of the main ethical questions underlying the growing resort to automation and algorithms in decision-making. Researchers (Inria, CNRS), manufacturers (Renault, Qwant) or associations’ representatives (La Quadrature du Net) will be among those who will discuss these issues. Allistene’s CERNA will go further on the reflection with another discussion on July 3rdfocusing on the renegotiating of sovereignty due to algorithms.

Some events will take a more specific look at artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms:

Law, security, healthcare, human resources: a sector-based approach for some partners

Some of the partners of the wide public debate facilitated by the CNIL have favored a sector-based approach according to each of their fields of expertise. The outcomes of the growing use of algorithms will be analyzed for the justice system and the legal profession through several initiatives.

  • A series of workshops is currently being set up by association OpenLaw in order to design qualitative datasets meant to improve the algorithms used by the legal profession. A crowdsourcing workshop will be held on June 8th.
  • The potential and challenges of algorithms for both the justice system and law enforcement authorities will be brought up by the National Institute of Higher Studies of Security and Justice (INHESJ) during a day of debates “Security and justice, the challenge of algorithms”, on June 27th.
  • The following day, predictive analytics in justice will be on the program of a roundtable led by the Law department of the Catholic University of Lyon. A trial simulation on the case of an autonomous car will also be set up on June 28th along with Lyon’s Administrative court of appeal.

Algorithms and artificial intelligence also foresee some major changes on healthcare.

  • This is the reason why mutual insurance companies will discuss the impact of a greater personalization of their services during a conference “Algorithms in healthcare: which ethics?”  on June 8th.
  • The implications of algorithms for individuals’ health are also a main concern for the “Genotoul Societal”, organization that reflects on biosciences, which will lead an afternoon of workshops in Toulouse on June 22nd.

Finally, recruitment and human resources will also be at the core of the reflection in June:

  • On June 14th, researchers, human resource directors and general directors will share their thoughts on predictive analytics applied to the labor market in the framework of a roundtable “Artificial intelligence: ethics, at the crossroads of human resources and Big Data” organized by the confederation CFE-CGC.
  • On June 16th, French Association for Employment Law (AFDT) will undertake an afternoon of workshops on topics such as recruitment, internal job change and decision-making of human resource directors.

Overview of the first steps of the public debate

Last April 18th, Chair of the CNIL and of the Article 29 Working Party (group of the 28 European Union Data Protection authorities), Isabelle FALQUE-PIERROTIN, took part in a discussion on how the new ecology of social media and machine learning algorithms changed the way political campaigns are run, alongside with researchers and developers such as Tristan HARRIS, former design ethicist at Google and director of “Time Well Spent”. Video clips from this event led by the Future Society at Harvard Kennedy School are available online here and here.

The same day, Big Data and human resources were the subject of one of the very first initiatives of this public debate. The confederation FO-Cadres gathered more than 150 people from trade unions and companies (general directors, human resources directors…) to untangle both the potential and the risks of applying large-scale data analysis and predictive analytics to workers’ personal data.

These partners have thus been some of the first to answer positively to the CNIL which, – after an opening event on January 23rd for which both verbatim record and video clips can be found online –, invited any player concerned about the ethical matters of algorithms to organize a moment of thinking and debating on these questions. Around 30 debates and events will spread out throughout France until September, so as to constitute an overview of the main ethical matters which are raised and to increase the collective knowledge on these issues in civil society.

How to join the public debate?

Every institution or player that would still want to take part in this public debate can reach the CNIL to discuss the ways and means to contribute and to put together an event (public conferences, expert workshops or other initiatives).

The CNIL will collect the written outcomes of these initiatives in order to submit at the end of the year an overview of the ethical questions and – where necessary – recommendations.


* Study led by IFOP from January 9 to January 11 2017 with a sample of 1001 people, representative of the population of France aged 18 and older. Self-administered questionnaire online.

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