In the great AI debate, don't forget about the people whose lives it will most affect - that's us

Government, business and the tech sector are getting very excited about artificial intelligence (AI).

For government, AI presents an opportunity for a technology where the UK hopes to lead the world – a perfect example for politicians of the innovative, digital, global nation they want us to be post-Brexit. A recent government-commissioned report on AI said the UK has a historic opportunity to build on an early lead in this field.

For business, they see AI as the “silver bullet” that could reverse the trend that has seen UK productivity fall far behind our European competitors. Research from Accenture claimed AI could add an additional £630bn to the UK economy by 2035.

For the tech sector – well, there’s a lot of money to be made by pasting an “AI” sticker on any product that crunches lots of data, let alone the prospects for actual AI offerings. That’s not to mention the knock-on boost that AI could give to other areas of technology – experts have suggested, for example, that AI could be the “killer app” that pushes cloud computing towards dominance in IT infrastructure.

Sounds great, eh? But what about the rest of us?

Computer Weekly has reported often about fears that AI will remove hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs. We’ve also tried to temper some of that negativity by pointing out that similar claims have been made for every major technological leap forward in the last 50 years, without causing the unemployment Armageddon that the doom-mongers predict.

Ah, but this time it will be different, they say. This time it really will happen.

Fortunately, these naysayers are having an effect. Concerns about skills and jobs are being discussed in Parliament. The CBI has called for a joint commission involving, business, employee representatives, academics and government, to examine the impact of AI on people and jobs. IT suppliers will get there too, once they get over the excitement of all the money they expect to make.

One lesson from the history of technology innovation is that change takes longer than people first anticipate, but once it kicks in it happens faster than anyone was prepared for.

If society isn’t ready to absorb the impact, the advances stall – but it happens in the end. Look at the great dot com bust as an example – the internet really was as transformational as its pioneers said in the late 1990s before their businesses collapsed, it just needed everyone else to catch up and get used to the idea.

The same will happen with AI. It’s a welcome sign that the tech establishment is now discussing these issues – but for their hopes to be achieved, and without unnecessarily chaotic disruption, it’s a debate that needs to be extended to include the ordinary people whose lives it will most affect.

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