POST has published 20 COVID-19 Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) for the UK Parliament. ARIs were identified using the input of over 1,000 experts. They were then ranked in order of interest to UK Parliament research and select committee staff, following internal feedback. Each ARI comes with a series of questions aiming to further break down each broad area. The ARIs focus on the impacts of the global pandemic and range from economic recovery and growth, to surveillance and data collection, long-term mental health effects, education, vaccine development, and the NHS.

Machine learning (ML, a type of artificial intelligence) is increasingly being used to support decision making in a variety of applications including recruitment and clinical diagnoses. While ML has many advantages, there are concerns that in some cases it may not be possible to explain completely how its outputs have been produced. This POSTnote gives an overview of ML and its role in decision-making. It examines the challenges of understanding how a complex ML system has reached its output, and some of the technical approaches to making ML easier to interpret. It also gives a brief overview of some of the proposed tools for making ML systems more accountable.

Contact tracing apps could be used to control the COVID-19 outbreak. Most of them work by automatically registering another smartphone when it is close by for a set period of time. If the user then tests positive for COVID-19 in the future, the contact tracing app notifies these contacts. Concerns have been raised about misuse of personal data. Initial data suggests there has been slow uptake of this new technology by users, and it's unclear if contact tracing apps have had or will affect the pandemic. Northern Ireland, Scotland, and now England and Wales have recently launched contact tracing apps.

  • Work programme

    A POSTnote on digital skills for life will discuss the digital skills required for everyday life and employment, why parts of the population may lack these skills and which groups are most affected. It will consider the impact of the skills shortage on individuals and the economy as well as strategies to improve the population’s digital skills. Provisional start date: January 2021.

  • POSTnote

    Evolving life sciences and agricultural research approaches may have a decreasing need to access physical resources in future, such as plant seeds or viral material. Information and genetic data may be all that is required for commercial exploitation of biological resources. This POSTnote summarises the challenge this creates for international discussions on the governance of genetic resources and the possible options for addressing these.

  • POSTnote

    There is increasing interest in using machine learning to automatically analyse remote sensing data and increase our understanding of complex environmental systems. While there are benefits from this approach, there are also some barriers to its use. This POSTnote examines the value of these approaches, and the technical and ethical challenges for wider implementation.

  • POSTnote

    Extremism is possible in any ideology, including (but not limited to) politics and religion. Extremism can affect mental well-being, amplify hostility and threaten democratic debate. The global reach of the internet poses social and technological challenges for safeguarding citizens from extremism online. When the Commission for Countering Extremism surveyed over 2500 members of the public in 2019, 56% agreed that a lot more should be done to counter extremism online. This POSTnote outlines how the online environment can be used for extremist purposes, how exposure to online extremism can influence people and potential strategies to counter extremist content online.

  • POSTnote

    Online technologies are an integral part of many children’s lives. In 2017, the Children’s Commissioner for England identified shortcomings in online safety education and a number of stakeholders have called for action to increase ‘digital literacy’ in the UK. Upcoming changes to the curriculum mean that aspects of online safety will be taught in all schools from 2020. This POSTnote gives an overview of how children use the internet and the opportunities and risks it presents. It provides an overview of current online safety teaching in schools and elsewhere and how this will be affected by changes in the curriculum. It also looks at the role of content filtering and age verification technologies to improve online safety.

  • POSTnote

    Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) measure brain activity and can be used to control digital devices. The focus of BCI development has been on using the technology to allow patients to control assistive equipment such as wheelchairs or prostheses. Beyond medicine they are under development for applications in entertainment, marketing and defence. This POSTnote looks at the underpinning technology, its applications and the associated ethical and regulatory challenges.

  • POSTnote

    Drones (also known as unmanned aircraft) are flying systems that do not carry a pilot. As the technology has become cheaper and more sophisticated, the use of drones for recreational and commercial purposes has grown, with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) reporting a significant increase in the number of permissions obtained for operating commercial drones in the UK. Despite their potential to reduce costs, improve efficiency and provide new services, drones may be misused accidentally or for malicious purposes. For example, reports of drone sightings at Gatwick Airport in December 2018 grounded around 1,000 flights for almost 36 hours, affecting more than 140,000 passengers. In 2018, the Government introduced new limits on where drones can be flown and new registration and education requirements for drone operators and pilots. In January 2020, the new Government introduced an Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill to Parliament that included new police powers for enforcing aviation laws (such as the power to issue a fixed penalty notice for certain drone offences). This POSTnote looks at civilian drones and their applications, focusing on potential misuse and possible responses.

  • POSTnote

    Critical materials (CMs) are key to UK manufacturing, including for the aerospace, automotive, energy and chemical sectors, which rely on materials typically extracted and processed abroad. CMs are vital components of several emerging technologies, including electric vehicles, renewable energy infrastructure such as wind turbines, and digital technologies such as computers and smartphones. The UK imports most of its CMs and faces international competition for key resources. This POSTnote looks at the demand and supply of CMs in the UK and ways of improving supply security.

  • POSTbrief

    This document builds on POST's previous publication, Topics of Interest 2018 (POSTbrief 27). The subjects are listed under under six category headings based on the drivers of change identified in POSTnote 500: demographic change and healthcare; social and cultural trends; geopolitical and governance challenges; environmental pressures and climate change; resource security and sustainability; and technological advance.