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Government failing to prepare UK for robotics and AI

A report produced by the Science and Technology Committee has warned that the UK is fundamentally unprepared for the changes that will come from robotics and artificial intelligence

The government is failing to prepare the country adequately for the changes that will be wrought by surging adoption of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) when it comes to employment, skills, training and many other aspects of modern society, according to the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

In a report produced by the committee, chair Tania Mathias said that although AI had some way to go before it reached the level portrayed in science fiction, it would soon begin to have far-reaching effects on society.

These impacts were already beginning, said the committee, in areas such as driverless cars, supercomputers that can assist doctors with medical diagnoses and intelligent tutoring systems, all of which raise questions for society, including ethical matters around privacy and safety.

“It is too soon to set down sector-wide regulations for this nascent field, but it is vital that careful scrutiny of the ethical, legal and societal ramifications of AI systems begins now,” said Mathias.

But for any of this to happen, the government needed to take a leadership position – something it had so far failed to do, said Mathias.

“Government leadership in the fields of robotics and AI has been lacking,” she said. “Some major technology companies – including Google and Amazon – have recently come together to form 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.”

The committee called for the establishment of a Commission on AI – to be hosted at the new Alan Turing Institute – which would start to examine the implications of the technology. Mathias said the UK was well placed to become an intellectual leader in AI given that a large amount of pioneering work was driven by UK-based academics and technologists.

The new Commission would draw membership from industry, NGOs and the general public, alongside experts in law, social science, philosophy, and computer scientists, natural scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It would focus on establishing principles and standards governing the development and application of AI and advising the government about new regulations. It would need to be closely linked to the Council of Data Ethics, which is currently being set up.

The report also said that despite identifying robots and autonomous systems (RAS) as a key technology three years ago, the government had failed to develop research, innovation and funding for such technologies. In light of this, the report called for the establishment of an RAS Council that could work on a national government-backed strategy, and establish a catapult organisation for RAS startups.

Skills gap

One of the biggest changes that robotics and AI could bring would be a fundamental reshaping of how people work, as gains in productivity and efficiency are enabled, new services and jobs created and others, particularly in low-skilled occupations, become obsolete.

The committee said these transitions would be challenging and the government needed to commit to ensure the UK’s education and training capabilities were adaptable as the demands on the nation’s workforce change.

“Concerns about machines ‘taking jobs’ and eliminating the need for human labour have persisted for centuries,” said Mathias. “Nevertheless, it is conceivable that we will see AI technology creating new jobs over the coming decades, while at the same time displacing others. Since we cannot yet foresee exactly how these changes will play out, we must respond with a readiness to reskill and upskill.”

Committee members also expressed their disappointment that the government had not yet published its Digital Strategy or set out plans for equipping the future workforce with the right skills to thrive working alongside intelligent systems.

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Mark Barranchea, CEO at enterprise information management systems supplier OpenText, said AI would have many benefits for businesses, but warned that as menial tasks and some non-routine jobs were digitised, 20 to 40 million jobs could disappear worldwide.

“We should not, however, fear this disruption,” he said. “M2M communications will enable machines to process data and make decisions based on this data as we move toward more intelligent, cognitive systems. In many cases, the intelligence these systems deliver will be more accurate, immediate and safer than humanly capable.”

TechUK’s head of big data and analytics, Sue Daley, welcomed the report, which incorporated a number of points raised by the industry body in its submission to the committee's initial inquiry. In particular, said Daley, the committee was right to call for greater government leadership in addressing the skills gap.

“This is one of the most urgent policy challenges we face today,” she said. “The UK is losing £2bn a year due to the inability of employers to fill key digital skills roles. As TechUK’s recent Big Data Skills Gap report showed, through a combination of attracting the best international talent and growing a domestic talent pipeline, the UK will be able to ensure it has the skills required to maximise the potential of these technologies.

“But action is needed now. 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. The committee’s view that now is not the time to introduce sector-wide regulations echoes TechUK’s submission.”

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