Thought leadership

Robotics and AI have “huge potential” to reshape the way people work and live, but the government needs to do more to address the issues raised by such technology, says a report. MPs on the Science and Technology Committee have called for careful scrutiny of the probable ethical, legal and societal impact.

They want the government to establish a commission to look at the issues. That will include new skills for humans as artificial intelligence takes jobs.

Others, such as Tesla boss Elon Musk, have gone further – declaring AI to be the biggest threat to the survival of the human race.

Acting Science and Technology Committee chairwoman Dr Tania Mathias said: “Artificial intelligence has some way to go before we see systems and robots as portrayed in films like Star Wars.

“At present, ‘AI machines’ have narrow and specific roles, such as in voice-recognition or playing the board game Go.

“But science fiction is slowly becoming science fact, and robotics and AI look destined to play an increasing role in our lives over the coming decades.

“It is too soon to set down sector-wide regulations for this nascent field, but it is vital that careful scrutiny of the ethical, legal and societal ramifications of artificially intelligent systems begins now.”

British company DeepMind, which is owned by Google, has more than 250 research scientists working on AI at its London headquarters.

It has created a machine capable of beating one of the world’s greatest Go players and is currently working on developing an artificial hippocampus – the part of the brain believed to be responsible for memory and creativity.

In its submission to the committee it said: “The impact of AI will reflect the values of those who build it. AI is a tool that we humans will design, control and direct and it is up to us all to direct that tool towards the common good.”

DeepMind recently, along with Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft, set up the Partnership on AI, a group aiming to address concerns about where the technology is heading.

But Dr Mathias said: “This does not absolve the government of its responsibilities.” So far, the government had failed to show “leadership” on the issues, she said.

Dr Mathias wants the commission, which MPs said should be set up at the Alan Turing Institute, “to identify principles for governing the development and application of AI, and to foster public debate”.

“It is conceivable that we will see AI technology creating new jobs over the coming decades while at the same time displacing others,” she said.

“Since we cannot yet foresee exactly how these changes will play out, we must respond with a readiness to re-skill and up-skill.

“This requires a commitment by the government to ensure that our education and training systems are flexible, so that they can adapt as opportunities and demands on the workforce change.”

TechUK, the body that represents UK technology companies, welcomed the report.

“Like all new powerful technologies, robotics and AI will bring great changes, and it is essential that they are used in a way that enhances the lives of ordinary people and strengthens the society that we live in,” said Sue Daley, head of big data and analytics at TechUK.

“Business, academia, citizens and government all have a role to play in ensuring we have an informed and balanced debate about the potential impact of these new technologies and how we can ensure we all benefit from their development and use.”

Roger Bou, director, IoT Solutions World Congress  says “The report rightly acknowledges the importance of being ready to re-skill and up-skill the workforce on a continuing basis. Concerns about AI and robotics fundamentally changing – or eliminating entirely – some roles are realistic, but the fact of the matter is that every major technological change in the history of industry has had this effect.

“The invention of the wheel, around 3,500 BC, displaced some by requiring fewer labourers, but increasing the productivity of an individual worker. In the Industrial Revolution the UK’s great cottage industries like textiles were automated and subsequently decimated by factories. Production lines created new jobs for millions, but many skilled workers were also left high and dry. This cycle was repeated in the deindustrialisation that has left many communities feeling forgotten since the 1980s.

“Automation brought about by technologies such as AI, robotics, machine learning and IoT will also bring about profound change. But we need to give ourselves the best possible chance of understanding what these effects might be. In enterprise and industry, the ‘beta testing’ phase happens in testbeds – an area where we simulate real-world conditions to test these technologies.

“The Industrial Internet Consortium already operates several such testbeds, for technologies like smart energy and asset condition monitoring. These testbeds need to be expanded, with governmental support, to examine the macroeconomic implications of these developments, so that we can arm world leaders and CEOs with the information they need to manage change at the national level.”

Gerry Carr, commercial director at Ravelin says “As one of those start-ups actually working in AI (we use machine learning techniques detect fraudulent payments for online merchants), it feels premature to spend a lot of time looking at the ethical implications of an industry that is really new. For instance, the insistence on ‘transparency’.

“In practical terms for ML this means a choice of certain techniques over others, and can often means choosing a suAb-optimal technique so it can be ‘explained’. Neural networks for instance are hard to interrogate. Is the committee suggesting the UK do not explore their capabilities? I doubt this is the committee’s intention but it might well be the result.

“Trying to impose barriers to discovery when we are only now beginning to understand what is possible seems needlessly cautious. What we can commend is the call for a strategy to equip the UK with the skills to develop and use artificial intelligence products and services.”

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