COMMONS

Government thinking on AI and robotics needs reboot

12 October 2016

Advances in robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) hold the potential to fundamentally reshape the way we live and work. Yet the Government does not yet have a strategy for developing the new skills citizens will need to flourish in a world where Artificial Intelligence is more prevalent, or responding to the social and ethical dilemmas it poses, concludes the Science and Technology Committee report.

Interim Chair's comments

Dr Tania Mathias, interim Chair of the Committee, said:

"Artificial intelligence has some way to go before we see systems and robots as portrayed in the creative arts such as 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."

Transformational impacts

AI systems are starting to have transformational impacts on everyday life: from driverless cars and supercomputers that can assist doctors with medical diagnoses, to intelligent tutoring systems that can tailor lessons to meet a student's individual cognitive needs. Such breakthroughs raise a host of questions for society, including ethical issues about the transparency of AI decision-making as well as privacy and safety.

The Committee is calling for a Commission on Artificial Intelligence to be established at the Alan Turing Institute to examine the social, ethical and legal implications of recent and potential developments in AI.

The UK is well-placed to provide this type of intellectual leadership. Much of the significant progress in this field—such as improved automated voice recognition software, predictive text keyboards on smart phones and autonomous vehicles—has been driven by UK-based technology start-ups, founded by graduates of UK universities, as well as universities themselves. The Committee found, however, that Government leadership in AI was lacking.

Dr Mathias said:

"Government leadership in the fields of robotics and AI has been lacking. Some major technology companies — including Google and Amazon — have recently come together to form the 'Partnership on AI'. While it is encouraging that the sector is thinking about the risks and benefits of AI, this does not absolve the Government of its responsibilities. It should establish a 'Commission on Artificial Intelligence' to identify principles for governing the development and application of AI, and to foster public debate."

Implications for employment

Improvements in productivity and efficiency, driven by robotics and AI, are widely predicted. Yet there are conflicting views about what this would mean for jobs in the UK. Some expect rising unemployment as labour is substituted for AI-enabled machines.

Others foresee a transformation in the types of employment available, with the creation of new jobs compensating for those lost and AI augmenting existing roles, enabling humans to achieve more than they could on their own. Despite these differing views, there is general agreement that a much greater focus is needed on adjusting the UK’s education and training systems to deliver the skills that will enable people to adapt, and thrive, as new technology comes on stream.

Dr Mathias said:

"Concerns about machines 'taking jobs' and eliminating the need for human labour have persisted for centuries. Nevertheless it is conceivable that we will see AI technology creating new jobs over the coming decades while at the same time displacing others. 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. It is disappointing that the Government has still not published its Digital Strategy and set out its plans for equipping the future workforce with the digital skills we will need." 

Further information

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