One of the most enduring debates in politics is around innovation and what, if anything, governments should do to foster it.  For some, the creative genius of the market place should be kept separate from what they see as the dead-hand of the state.  For others, policy-makers have a clear and legitimate interest in leading ethical debates about the adoption and regulation of new technology.  Some observers might characterise companies and government as occupying opposite ends of this spectrum, but in reality they are close together.  Innovative companies welcome the encouragement and improvement which political scrutiny can bring; whilst innovation-hungry governments bolster the critical role played by the private sector.

This innovation debate is being reignited this year. In April the European Commission launched its draft regulation on artificial intelligence, seeking to set parameters on where and how machine-learning technology can be deployed.  And shortly in the UK, the Department for Business will be launching its Innovation Strategy which, we are told, will aim to set out how best government can drive and support innovation. In these and other cases Governments and parliaments have a legitimate democratic duty to interrogate new technologies and act as adjudicators of the public interest. Not only is this right politically, but it is also good for the economy; through such forensic engagement the technology under scrutiny can be improved and developed. And – although doubted by some – regulatory prodding can be as good as free-market competition in helping drive innovation.

Through the ages innovation has provoked dispute as those seeking to conserve a certain way of life pushed back against new ways of thinking and development of technology.  In fact, when it was first coined in seventeenth-century England, “innovation” was a term of abuse, hurled at those pursuing the “giddie novelty” of new liturgical practices in the Anglican church.

A century on, whilst mill owners thought that new mechanical looms would improve productivity and quality, their workforce of weavers thought these new contraptions were a threat to their livelihoods (quite rightly, as it turned out). And then a few decades later, some confidently predicted that travelling on the new-fangled steam trains would prove fatal.

What these and myriad other clashes show us is that new developments always attract scepticism and scrutiny.  But rather than ducking these challenges, innovators should welcome it, both as proving ground for the technology but also to clarify the ethical case for its use.

Concerns about innovation will often be well-grounded. There cannot be a policy-maker looking at AI who is not now aware of the Amazon recruitment process that used an algorithm and data based on historical hiring patterns to find new candidates. This unsurprisingly resulted in the successful applicants having the same ethnic and gender profile as the incumbents.  And yes, autonomous vehicles have killed pedestrians; facial recognition software has sometimes been used beyond its intended purpose; and occasionally the computer wrongly says “no”.

Innovative companies and tech developers should not shirk these awkward situations, however. In this sense, any push-back to the speed or direction of technical development can be seen as the system working well. It is right that new ideas get road-tested, not just literally as with driverless cars, but figuratively too, in the crucible of public debate.

We should want the morality of facial recognition to be discussed; we need the questions to be asked about algorithmic biases; and we can welcome the concerns about the fairness of market outcomes. Plus, we should step into the challenge of demonstrating the economic case for new technology.  This is not to say that every advance should add to GDP, but it should at least not diminish it.  Innovation which boosts prosperity is a worthy goal: financial resources are finite, so putting money to its best use should be the concern of both business executives and government ministers.

It is when these questions stop coming and innovation takes place in an ethical vacuum that we should really be worried.  So for any company operating in this environment there are two tasks. 

First, to listen to and engage in the debate; second to provide the positive examples of the use of technology. It is only through constantly explaining and describing the capabilities and benefits of services – and the economic benefits that may derive from them – that we can hope to win in the court of public opinion.

We should go beyond the dry policy debate based on legislative articles, and into the world of real-life cases. Showing how using a machine-learning based algorithm to better identify chemical reactions will make a safe and effective drug, for example, has the virtue of being science-based and delivering demonstrable benefit to society. As does showing how medical professionals can determine a patient’s course of treatment based upon machine-learning tools; this, in turn, reflects how AI is perhaps ‘human’, after all.

Fundamentally, we must focus on how technologies are not ends in themselves, but the means to do something useful. It is easy to fall into the beguiling trap of answering “how can we be more innovative?”. Rather, the question should be: “how do we make our population healthier?”. Likewise, instead of probing how we make better technology, we should ask how that technology can make the world safer and fairer. By asking – and answering – questions like this, we will generate a better understanding of the role and importance of technological development.

Change is not always necessarily for the best and although many technological advancements will deliver widespread benefits, they are also frequently accompanied by nearer term societal challenges. But in the modern age innovators should recognise the moral and legal imperative of ensuring their improvements work for all of society, and ensure they play a full part in the democratic debate that accompanies the introduction of ground-breaking technologies  The main lesson of history is that innovations which win out are not just those which are best functionally, but those which actually add value to people’s lives.

Richard Mollet is Head of European Government Affairs at RELX