Is AI ethics enough of a niche for the UK’s economic strategy?

The House of Lords report on AI and UK economy and society came out this week, with the guardedly bullish title: “AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?” The question mark is moot.

I think a strong case can be reasonably made that the government has been using AI as a fig leaf to cover the economic uncertainty generated by the Brexit decision of June 2016. It is hard to blame the prime minister or her chancellor for making this rhetorical move. Neither of them wanted the country to leave the European Union, and vaunting the UK’s putative special strengths in AI, as part of a “global Britain” narrative, provides a quantum of solace. So, why not?

And having an industrial strategy is common ground between Conservative and Labour parties today. The hands-off neo-liberalism of Thatcher and Blair seems to belong in the past.

Moreover, the report has emphasized the strategic need for the government to do more to bolster the UK’s network infrastructure to support artificial intelligence – not just to spawn new start-ups, but to improve economic productivity more generally.

Britain leads the world in AI. Really?

Deep in the House of Lords report (paragraphs 392 to 403) is a judicious dissection of the claim that “Britain leads the world in AI”. It is a cup of cold water realism rather than a bowl thereof. Nevertheless, it is realistic and balanced, and makes an argument well worth thinking about. Essentially, the report acknowledges that the US and China are the real leaders in AI, and contends that the UK should find itself a specialist niche, putting forward the ethics of AI as its preferred candidate.

Would attending to the ethics of AI give the UK enough heft in the field? We do, in the UK, have a tendency to reach for a claim to “lead the world” in doing good things. It was the Christian missionary flip-side of our gunboat diplomacy in the days of the Empire.

The CND movement, at its several peaks in the late 1950s and 1980s is a good example of this: we can lead the world by moral example, said Bertrand Russell and Bruce Kent. I marched for unilateralism myself in the 1980s, but I digress. Suffice to say it is a noble part of the British liberal tradition, and the House of Lords has often given it a home, sometimes outflanking the House of Commons on the left, ironically for the non-elected chamber. (Indeed, the Lords did this this week, with the vote to demand the government includes a customs union in its negotiation agenda with the EU).

It should not, in other words, be ruled out as an idea, this proposed UK specialization in the ethics of AI. Someone should do it.

The case for specializing in ethics

This is the train of argument in the Lords committee’s report:

“we have discussed the relative strengths and weaknesses of AI development in the UK, but questions still remain regarding Britain’s distinctive role in the wider world of AI. The Government has stated in its recent Industrial Strategy White Paper that it intends for the UK to be ‘at the forefront of the AI and data revolution’. What this means in practice is open to interpretation.

“Some of our respondents … made comparisons with the United States and China, especially in terms of funding. For example, Nvidia drew attention to the large investments in AI being made in these countries, including the $5 billion investment announced by the Tianjin state government in China, and the estimated $20–30 billion investments in AI research from Baidu and Google. Balderton Capital emphasised the ‘many billions of funding’ being invested in AI and robotics in China and the US, and argued that the UK Government needed to invest more in academic research to ensure that the UK ‘remains [?] a global leader in the field’.

“Microsoft also highlighted the disparities in computer science education, noting that ‘in a year when China and India each produced 300,000 computer science graduates, the UK produced just 7,000 ….

“However, it was more commonly suggested that it was not plausible to expect the UK to be able to compete, at least in terms of investment, with the US and China …. [W]e were greatly impressed by the focus and clarity of Canada and Germany’s national strategies when we spoke with Dr Alan Bernstein, President and CEO of CIFAR and Professor Wolfgang Wahlster, CEO and Scientific Director of the DFKI. Dr Bernstein focused on the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy’s bid to attract talented AI developers and researchers back to Canada from the United States, while Professor Wahlster emphasised that Germany was focusing on AI for manufacturing”.

There then follows the proposed UK focus on the ethics of AI:

“In January 2018, the Prime Minister said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that she wanted to establish ‘the rules and standards that can make the most of artificial intelligence in a responsible way, and emphasised that the [UK’s] Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation would work with international partners on this project, and that the UK would be joining the World Economic Forum’s new council on artificial intelligence, which aims to help shape global governance in the area.

“On the basis of the evidence we have received, we are convinced that vague statements about the UK ‘leading’ in AI are unrealistic and unhelpful, especially given the vast scale of investment in AI by both the USA and China. By contrast, countries such as Germany and Canada are developing cohesive strategies which take account of their circumstances and seek to play to their strengths as a nation. The UK can either choose to actively define a realistic role for itself with respect to AI, or be a relegated to the role of a passive observer ….

“We believe it is very much in the UK’s interest to take a lead in steering the development and application of AI in a more co-operative direction, and away from this riskier and ultimately less beneficial vision of a global ‘arms race’. The kind of AI-powered future we end up with will ultimately be determined by many countries, whether by collaboration or competition, and whatever the UK decides for itself will ultimately be for naught if the rest of the world moves in a different direction. It is therefore imperative that the Government, and its many internationally-respected institutions, facilitate this global discussion and put forward its own practical ideas for the ethical development and use of AI.”

Finally, the Lords committee has called on “the Government [to] convene a global summit in London by the end of 2019, in close conjunction with all interested nations and governments, industry (large and small), academia, and civil society, on as equal a footing as possible. The purpose of the global summit should be to develop a common framework for the ethical development and deployment of artificial intelligence systems. Such a framework should be aligned with existing international governance structures”.

It’s a thoughtful argument. And it’s surely better than wrapping AI in the Union Jack, trying to gain an edge over nations in a necessarily global field?

Nevertheless, the UK’s most obvious comparative advantage in AI is located at GCHQ, with its special relationship with the US’s NSA. Might cyber-security prove a better niche than ethics?

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