Prince Charles backstage at GQ event

Prince Charles expresses disgust at cyborgs, as AI warnings raised by think tank

Image credit: Yui Mok/Pool via REUTERS

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has published a paper calling for a “digital commonwealth” to be established as an alternative to the anti-democratic monopolisation of the artificial intelligence (AI) sector by tech giants.

Further contributions to the ongoing debate about AI and its global societal impact have also been voiced this week by well-known nuclear physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili and heir apparent to the English throne, Prince Charles.

In The Digital Commonwealth: From Enclosure to Commons, the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice warns that tech giants could dominate the AI sector in the near future.

According to the report, companies with access to millions of users’ data, such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, are in a position to develop far more advanced AI technologies than rivals with more limited resources. This could pose a threat to fair competition and democracy, the authors conclude.

The IPPR Commission called for regulation of these companies in order to prevent a possible monopolisation of AI technologies. This approach could be similar to the regulations restricting anti-competitive behaviour among utilities suppliers.

“The digital giants occupy the commanding heights of the economy,” said Mat Lawrence, an author of the report. “Their business model is universal in ambition: the extraction and analysis of ever-more data for profit, and the control of the digital infrastructure on which we all depend.”

“Instead of a world where digital power is concentrated in the hands of the few, we need to build a digital commonwealth, where data and the digital infrastructure are organised as an open, collective good to drive inclusive innovation.”

The IPPR report also suggests that these digital giants could be prevented from entering new markets which could give them an anticompetitive advantage unless they agree to open up their data for public benefit.

“So far, the development of the modern digital economy has largely been determined by powerful market actors, with little proactive or innovative response from government,” said report author Laurie Laybourn-Langton. “It is high time that changes. Without bold action, the boundless ambition of the universal platforms threatens to undermine democracy, accelerate inequality and concentrate economic power.”

The report’s concerns are in part echoed by the incoming British Science Association (BSA) President: nuclear physicist and science broadcaster Professor Jim Al-Khalili. Speaking at a briefing in London ahead of next week’s British Science Festival, he commented that managing the societal impacts of AI should be the greatest priority for the UK government.

“Until maybe a couple of years ago, had I been asked what is the most pressing and important conversation we should be having about our future, I might have said climate change or one of the other big challenges facing humanity, such as terrorism, antimicrobial resistance, the threat of pandemics or world poverty,” Al-Khalili said. “But today, I am certain the most important conversation we should be having is about the future of AI. It will dominate what happens with all of these other issues, for better or worse.”

Al-Khalili commented that the technology was advancing without sufficient government scrutiny or regulation, such as with regards to the impact of AI on employment and security.

“Many people are becoming increasingly nervous about what they see as unchecked progress in AI. There are valid concerns about the widespread implementation of AI leading to an increase in inequality. Robotics and autonomous systems are predicted to bring about job losses, primarily affecting workers in low-skilled roles, and there is still little research on how the future effects of automation may vary across the UK,” he continued.

“We are now seeing an unprecedented level of interest, investment and technological progress in the field, which many people, including myself, feel is happening too fast.”

Al-Khalili later qualified that he was not worried about AI, but about a lack of preparedness for the technology and its impacts.

Meanwhile, none other than Prince Charles has waded into the ongoing debate over the future of AI. In an interview with GQ, the heir apparent suggested that there could be a panic in the future as AI comes to threaten “the things that are essential to our lives as human beings”.

“The thing I find hardest now is to cope with this extraordinary trend that somehow we must become part human, part machine, which I totally and utterly object to. It is crazy to go that far because I think, ironically, the more AI and robotics they want to introduce, the more people will rediscover the importance of the traditional crafts, the directly human things that are crafted by humans and not by machines,” Prince Charles said.

Recently, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane warned that AI could put thousands of UK jobs at risk due to the technology rivaling human cognitive abilities: All of a sudden it will be the machine replacing humans doing thinking things, as well as doing things, Haldane commented on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

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