Government told to up its game on artificial intelligence

Written by Rebecca Hill on 12 October 2016 in News
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MPs have urged the government to set a strategy to deal with the ethics and technology associated with rapid advances in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Rise of the robots: Government needs better planning for advances in AI advances - Photo credit: Flickr, Victory of the PeopleCC BY 2.0

In a report published today, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said the government’s leadership on AI and robotics “has been lacking”.

The committee said that, although it was “too soon” to set sector-wide regulations, it was vital that government began scrutinising the ethical, legal and societal implications of AI advances now.

Making an early start on the discussion would encourage public trust and ensure the UK focuses on developing “socially beneficial” AI systems, it said.


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Some of the ethical issues identified by the committee are verification, transparency, how to increase accountability and privacy issues.

“As the field continues to advance at a rapid pace, these factors require ongoing monitoring, so that the need for effective governance is continually assessed and acted upon,” the report said.

The committee’s interim chair Tania Mathias noted that a group of big tech companies had formed 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,” she said.

The MPs have recommended that the government creates a Commission on Artificial Intelligence to examine the social, ethical and legal dimensions of AI developments and advise government. It should also work with the Council of Data Ethics that the government has agreed to set up.

In addition to the ethical and regulatory aspects of AI and robotics, the committee heard evidence to suggest there were real concerns about machines “taking jobs”.

This chimes with concerns raised by staff at government departments and local authorities, which are seeing a rise in the use of robotic technologiesHMRC recently announced it was working on 30 robotics projects, for instance. However, many organisations say that the move will automate the monotonous tasks and allow staff to focus on more rewarding roles that cannot be done with computers.

Mathias noted that it was not possible to see how exactly the changes would affect the workplace, the government “must respond with a readiness to re-skill and up-skill”.

The government must take the lead on this by setting flexible training and education systems, the report said, adding that it was “disappointing” that the government had still not published its digital strategy.

“Digital exclusion has no place in 21st century Britain,” the MPs said. “As we recommended in our Big Data Dilemma, Digital Skills Crisis, and Satellites and Space reports, the Government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.”

Welcoming the report, industry representative body TechUK’s head of big data and analytics, Sue Daley, said that the government needed to take action now on the digital skills gap.

“The scale of the growing gap over the next decade cannot be underestimated and must be closed if the UK is to realise the full benefits of AI,” she said.

However, Rob McCargow, artificial intelligence leader at PwC, stressed that the government needed to remember that, with advances in AI, humans “will need to focus on creativity and critical thinking”.

He said: “While we can train people for the skills we think we'll need in the future, we don't know if those jobs will exist in the same way. It's important to develop not only vocational, but also adaptive skills in the younger generation to support an agile approach to our next big skills challenge.”

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