30 May 2023

Driving AI adoption in the public sector: Uruguay’s efforts on capacity-building, trust, and AI ethics

By Kate Iida

Uruguay was one of the standout performers in Latin America in the 2023 AI Readiness Index, ranking fourth in the region and 51st in the world. The Government of Uruguay is undertaking innovative initiatives to become more AI-ready across areas like capacity-building and AI ethics. We sat down for a virtual chat with Maximiliano Maneiro, sub-director of the Information Technologies area at Uruguay’s Agency for e-Government and the Information and Knowledge Society AGESIC, to talk about the country’s National AI Strategy and hear about the government’s vision for the future of AI in the country.

National AI strategy

In 2019, Uruguay published their National AI Strategy, which elaborates the country’s vision for the use of AI along the four main pillars of “governance, responsible use of AI, citizens and AI, and capacity-building,” with a focus on both public sector officials and the general public.

Maneiro told us that one of the priorities in creating the strategy was for it to be a process of interdisciplinary “co-creation.” The government of Uruguay brought together people from multiple backgrounds and sectors, including legal professionals, anthropologists, engineers, and data scientists, to develop the first draft of the strategy. They also undertook a six-month public consultation process, opening the strategy up to feedback from the private sector, academics, and civil society before publication.

Since then, Uruguay has been working to advance along all four pillars of the strategy. They have focused many of their efforts on the “capacity-building” pillar, as the government considers it “important to prioritise training in multidisciplinary contexts, generating skills that enable to understand all the difficulties, challenges and impacts that arise when using AI in the services and processes of public administration.”

AI education for public servants

Capacity-building efforts have focused primarily on increasing AI literacy among public servants in Uruguay. The government started with an initial course to enhance capabilities in basic aspects of AI. Since then, the course offer has expanded, including courses to educate public servants in the technical aspects of machine learning, and deep learning. The government of Uruguay also offers a course that deals with general issues of open data at a basic level, along with other courses specifically about working with data with a focus on data quality.

Maneiro also said that the government has developed a course for those with legal training to understand the legal aspects of artificial intelligence. He added that the government of Uruguay also plans to open up some postgraduate university courses in machine learning and deep learning for public servants with particular expertise or skills in the area.

Ethical AI for the public sector

Another pillar where the government of Uruguay has focused their efforts concerns the “responsible use” of AI. The ethical use of AI is an important priority for Uruguay, Maniero said. “We are well aware of the negative impacts AI can bring. We in the government prefer an AI that is more explainable, rather than one that performs well. I would prefer to penalise the performance of the AI system to gain more explainability.”

As part of this, the government of Uruguay has been working to develop an AI Observatory. Plans for the observatory were elaborated in the government’s Fifth Open Government Plan for 2022- 2023. The observatory will give recommendations about the responsible use of AI, to “promote the ethical, responsible, safe and reliable use (of AI) and to strengthen Uruguay’s AI ecosystem.”

Along with monitoring the use of AI in Uruguay, Maneiro says the observatory will create guidelines for the ethical use of the technology, including algorithmic transparency guides. The observatory is still in the process of being developed, but Maneiro says he expects the observatory to go “live” in October 2023.

Building trust

One of Uruguay’s main goals includes building trust among the broader community about the government’s use of AI. The government also plans to educate Uruguay’s citizens on how to use and interact with AI.

As part of this, Uruguay plans to support “awareness campaigns” which will inform the public about AI and how it is being used in public administration, to help citizens “know their rights in the digital sphere and how to exercise them.” The government also wants to encourage citizens to get involved and participate in the development and application of AI. Regarding the use of AI in the public sector, Maneiro feels strongly that “ it is fundamental to have processes of co-construction (and) co-participation.”

Looking ahead

Maximiliano said that Uruguay’s focus in the future will be on artificial intelligence governance. The next step, Maximiliano said, should be to work on the institutionalisation of artificial intelligence through the creation of an entity dedicated to overseeing progress in the areas highlighted in the National Strategy. The government is also working with UNESCO to develop specific recommendations for the ethical use of AI in the country’s public sector. In the meantime, Uruguay has committed to following UNESCO’s global standard on AI ethics.

Despite a change in the country’s administration in 2020, Maximiliano said that the vision of the National AI strategy remains strong. He expressed optimism that the strategy would continue to be a priority for political leaders. “I think that we have created something that is going to continue despite changes in government,” Maximiliano said.

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