After decades of somewhat slow progress, a succession of advances have recently occurred across the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), fuelled by the rise in computer processing power, the profusion of data, and the development of techniques such a ‘deep learning’. Though the capabilities of AI systems are currently narrow and specific, they are, nevertheless, starting to have transformational impacts on everyday life: from driverless cars and supercomputers that can assist doctors with medical diagnoses, to intelligent tutoring systems that can tailor lessons to meet a student’s individual cognitive needs.
Such breakthroughs raise a host of social, ethical and legal questions. Our inquiry has highlighted several that require serious, ongoing consideration. These include taking steps to minimise bias being accidentally built into AI systems; ensuring that the decisions they make are transparent; and instigating methods that can verify that AI technology is operating as intended and that unwanted, or unpredictable, behaviours are not produced. While the UK is world-leading when it comes to considering the implications of AI, and is well-placed to provide global intellectual leadership on this matter, a coordinated approach is required to harness this expertise. A standing Commission on Artificial Intelligence should be established with a remit to identify principles to govern the development and application of AI, provide advice to the Government, and foster public dialogue.
Advances in robotics and AI also hold the potential to reshape, fundamentally, the way we live and work. Improvements in productivity and efficiency, driven by the spread of these technologies, were widely predicted, yet there is no consensus about what this will mean for the UK workforce. Some expect rising unemployment as labour is substituted for AI-enabled robots and machines. Others foresee a transformation in the type of employment available—with the creation of new jobs compensating for those that were lost—and the prospect of robotics and AI augmenting existing roles, and enabling humans to achieve more than they could on their own.
Despite these differing views, there is general agreement that a much greater focus is needed on adjusting our education and training systems to deliver the skills that will enable people to adapt, and thrive, as new technology comes on stream. Government leadership in this area, however, has been lacking. It is disappointing that the Government still has not published its Digital Strategy nor set out its plans for equipping the future workforce with the digital skills it needs to flourish. The Government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.
Leadership was also found to be lacking across ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’ (RAS) which, together, form one of the Government’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’. The ‘Eight Greats’ were identified by the Government in 2013 as technologies in which the UK was set to be a global leader, yet we found that there was no Government strategy for developing the skills, and securing the critical investment, that is needed to create future growth in robotics and AI. Furthermore, there was no sign of the Government delivering on its promise, made in March 2015, to establish a ‘RAS Leadership Council’ to provide much needed coordination and direction. This should be remedied immediately and a Leadership Council established without further delay. The Leadership Council should work with the Government and the Research Councils to produce a Government-backed ‘National RAS Strategy’, setting out the Government’s ambitions, and financial support, for this ‘great technology’.
5 October 2016