Social Enterprise & AI: How will new advances support our sector?

Posted: 06 February 2024, in Blog

Scotland’s 2021 AI strategy set a bold ambition, to become a leader in “trustworthy, ethical, and inclusive AI.” 

With recent reports revealing AI use across Scottish Government departments, from invoice analysis to fish scale identification, it’s clear they’re taking action. But does the reality match the aspiration, and what does it mean for social enterprises in Scotland? 

Firstly, as the Scottish Government acknowledges, the field of AI is evolving rapidly. Their commitment to regular strategy reviews shows awareness that best practices may shift quickly.  

This adaptability is crucial for social enterprises, too, as they navigate the potential of AI to enhance their impact and allow them to focus on the social impact they create whilst alleviate more mundane and administrative tasks. 

The strategy outlines three key actions: leadership through the Scottish AI Alliance, building a strong foundation, and fostering an AI powerhouse. While the Scottish AI Register, showcasing public sector AI projects, exemplifies transparency, some questions linger.  

However, the decision to have a defined strategy is a welcome one, but to follow through with ambition of having a “trustworthy, ethical and inclusive AI” seems difficult. The creation of a Scottish AI Register – which provides information on AI systems in use or in development in the public sector in Scotland – is to be applauded and should be considered best practice for any country going forward. This open and transparent policy will allow much greater trust by the public, to allow AI to create an easier, and fairer public policy environment. 

As much as transparency should be included in every AI strategy the announced expansion of AI in Finance Management and the Health Workforce could raise concerns for some people. 

 While language models and chatbots offer efficiency, can we guarantee that they will be “trustworthy, ethical, and inclusive” for social enterprises that often work with vulnerable people and communities?  

Ethical biases in algorithms are well-documented, and social enterprises must be especially cautious of perpetuating inequalities. Can the Scottish Government and social enterprises find an AI program which can overcome these biases? I personally believe that the technology is not there yet. But it is evolving very quickly, so potentially will be there soon rather than later.   

On the positive side, the Scottish Government’s use of AI for tasks like identifying fish scales and modelling ice road temperatures demonstrates practical applications beyond administrative functions. This broadens the scope of AI’s potential impact in Scotland, offering opportunities for social enterprises to address environmental challenges or optimise resource allocation. Imagine AI-powered tools assisting in social impact assessments, streamlining fundraising efforts, or personalising support services. 

Overall, Scotland’s AI journey is exciting. The proactive approach and transparent register are positive steps. However, translating ambition into reality for social enterprises requires robust leadership, ethical considerations, and a focus on tangible benefits for communities.  

We must be able to demonstrate that we are not just riding the AI wave, but actively shaping it for a trustworthy, ethical, and inclusive future that empowers social enterprises to make a positive difference.

Andy Paterson, Policy Officer, Social Enterprise Scotland