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Academia and industry weigh in on impact of AI for Government and Parliamentary reviews

The House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Select Committee is carrying out an inquiry into the implications of advances in artificial intelligence (AI) in the UK. According to a separate report commissioned by the government and released today, AI could contribute £630 billion to the UK economy by 2035.

The committee was appointed in June and has recently closed its call for submissions. It is now in the process of collecting oral evidence, before it compiles its recommendations to the government.

A wealth of written evidence was submitted by high-power research institutes, learned societies, tech companies including Microsoft, pressure groups such as Amnesty International and even the governments of China, Canada and Japan.

The witnesses welcomed advances in AI, describing a range of ways in which the technology could be developed further in the future to improve safety, health and the quality of our lives and environments. The statements also flagged up issues associated with AI, however, that must be addressed in order for the UK population to benefit from the technology.

These issues ranged from the much-discussed rise of catastrophic “killer robots” and other automated weapons, along with challenging questions about the implications of the possible rise of artificial general intelligence for humanity, to more subtle complications, such as issues around biases in machine-learning algorithms, the growing reliance on automation leading to the loss of particular skills and concerns surrounding data protection.

A group of academics based at the University of Edinburgh commented in their written evidence that “the real and current dangers of AI do not lie in superhuman AI, irrespective of what one sees in the cinema or hears in the media.” The financial sector’s reliance on automated trading algorithms, for instance (they wrote) exacerbated the 2010 “flash crash” in the stock market.

Perhaps the most frequently mentioned issue surrounding advances in AI was its impact on employment. Workers in low-skilled jobs are already suffering from the effects of automation, although advances in AI could put many other jobs at risk; one report suggested that as many as one in three UK jobs could be affected by automation.

These concerns were echoed last week in the inquiry’s first oral evidence session by Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield, who has compiled an independent report advising the government on how to build the UK’s AI industry. According to Professor Hall, it is vital for the government to consider how the types of jobs that will be available in the future will be strongly affected by advances in AI.

Appearing beside Professor Hall, Professor Michael Wooldridge, head of computer science at Oxford University, warned the peers that there are too few Brits with the necessary skills to develop this industry and that Brexit could be a serious stumbling block for projects such as Google’s DeepMind, which has a London base, and depends heavily on foreign trained experts.

“Brexit is an issue,” he said. “There [are] not that many British accents in DeepMind.”

At his conference keynote speech in September, Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn spoke out about the need to develop new, relevant skills in the UK adult population in order to combat technological unemployment.

Speaking after Professor Hall and Professor Wooldridge, BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones commented that AI is reaching the peak of a “hype cycle”. This was, he said, partially thanks to the headline-grabbing warnings of high-profile figures such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk on the dangers of AI.

“There are extraordinary claims being made”, he said, referring to existential terror relating to advances in artificial general intelligence.

Meanwhile, the government has released the findings of Professor Hall’s review into how embracing AI could help boost the UK economy. The strategic report, Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK, was commissioned by the Culture Secretary.

According to the authors, AI has the potential to contribute £630 billion to the UK economy by 2035, improving productivity and bringing about improvements in healthcare and other public services, if the government is willing to continue to invest in research, infrastructure and training relevant to the technology.

“Our proposals […] boil down to three fundamentals: enable better access to data, create a greater supply of AI skills and promote the uptake of AI,” said Jerome Pesenti, CEO of BenevolentTech, who collaborated on the review with Professor Hall.

The UK government’s strategic report on AI is available to read online or download as a PDF.

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