The evolution of science fiction into science fact has become so prevalent it no longer attracts remark.
Technologies that once lived only in the pages of futuristic novels or the flight deck of the USS Enterprise – like the universally connected mobile phone or DNA editing – already surround us. And, from the driverless car to delivery by drone, if they are not commonplace quite yet, surely it is only a matter of a few short years before they are?
Of all these scientific transformations, the most talked about is Artificial Intelligence. Businesses from every sector, politicians and philosophers across the globe see AI as potentially transformative. Driving entirely new solutions to many of problems that face us; creating entirely new ways of working, interacting and living our lives; raising entirely new ethical, social, legal and practical challenges.
Attending a fascinating meeting of the AI Working Group of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), served to re-emphasise the subtleties and complex challenges raised by the introduction of technological change (and even more paradigm shifts in technology) in the real world and the role of government, business and advisors in navigating those challenges.
By bringing together businesses at the cutting edge of AI development with those who are exploring the use of AI to solve their business challenges and to connect them representatives of the twin bodies leading the UK Government’s AI Agenda – the Office of Artificial Intelligence and the Centre for Data Ethics – the meeting provided a platform to explore some of the very practical questions raised by AI.
Every country, every region and every city wants to be at the forefront of the next scientific revolution. The UK has a tradition of leadership stretching back to the first industrial revolution when the steam engine was the great “emerging technology”. It should therefore come as no surprise that grasp the opportunities of what some call the “fourth industrial revolution” forms a key component of the UK’s Industrial Strategy.
As the meeting recognised, the single most important step is how to take the technology out of the hands of technologists and into the real world. The genius of the first industrial revolution was the rapid application of the steam engine in myriad environments across the economy. Within a generation they had moved out of the mines and were moving people and freight, and powering factories, the length and breadth of Britain.
The winners of the fourth industrial revolution will be those who grasp the opportunities of AI and apply it successfully to solve existing problems and create new opportunities. Those people will not necessarily be those who can program AI code. Indeed it is arguable that computer scientists are the least likely of all to see the true value of their work; that takes different skills and insights – those of identifying the problems and opportunities; how the technology can be applied; and of navigating both individual, organisational and societal resistance to change.
The Working Group explored three broad areas which the UK, like every other society, needs address:
- Data – if AI is the steam engine of the fourth industrial revolution, data constitutes the raw materials which both drive the engine and which the engine processes to create value. Helping business to access to the most useful data is therefore a central policy objective for Governments. One with which the UK’s fast developing “data trusts” initiative is designed to grapple
- Skills – as the success of AI will lie not simply in the ability to generate algorithms and AI based systems but also deploy them in practical applications, so the skills necessary for success will straddle those areas meaning that the UK’s emerging program promoting academic and technical focus on AI and the AI “sector deal” will need to be the start of a more wide ranging transformation in skills across the economy
- Trust – the rollout of factories and railways generated immense political controversy over the impact on society and the environment. It is therefore not surprising that this latest revolution raises complex new questions about social impact – whether the risks of hidden bias in AI systems, the allocation of value from (and responsibility for) AI activity or even “machines playing god”. The UK’s strong tradition in finding proportionate regulatory and self-regulatory solutions to complex problems provides it with an opportunity to take a leading role in one of the central questions of the next 20 years.
The CBI’s Initiative, and government’s engagement, demonstrate the drive in UK government and business to grapple with the real world challenges of taking AI from invention to real world innovation. They also remind us that that is a much more complex process than raw invention and a more subtle process than ever emerges from the pages of literature or the TV screen.