Editorial

‘AI may be as complicated to deliver as globalisation’

There’s an emotional response to all this that feels quite different to how people felt about CRM or ERP, experts point out – and that means AI may be a lot trickier to deliver than many optimists hope

Posted 28 September 2017 by

AI may need to be regarded as as big a social force as globalisation – and may potentially ask as many questions of citizens, stakeholders and policy makers.

That was one of the big takeaways from last week’s thought-provoking Think AI for Public Sector conference in London, with closed with a special panel discussion on the Societal Impact of Artificial Intelligence.

The conversation was led by two subject matter experts who study these questions on an on-going basis – Tim Page, Senior Policy Officer act the TUC and Jessica Figueras, Chief Analyst, GlobalData Public Sector.

The two began their observations with pointing out that AI is both hard to define, but already seems to be creating what Page defines as a “sense of unease” in the public.

“There’s an emotional response to all this that feels quite different to how people felt about CRM or ERP,” joked Figureas.

That’s because the stakes are higher, she warned: “If there’s any suspicion that Alexa might overhear how you talk to your kids then bring in Social Services – that’s pretty scary.”

And as a result, anyone wanting to introduce it into the mainstream needs to be very sensitive to social trends, added Page. “We may be on a common journey to AI, like we were all on one to a globalised economy,” he stated.

“But globalisation has had a lot of losers and there’s been a backlash against it; the political class didn’t listen.”

Fears over job losses around AI and automation might therefore cause resistance against even the most promising, or beneficially intended, AI social programme, he warned. “Gains need to be fairly shared, and there needs to be policy about how to help protect employment impact, with a lot of help re-training workers in industries under threat, for example.”

“Ultimately, AI will have to pass the citizen test – you’ll have to convince me it’s a good idea, or I just won’t support it.”

That may mean, she added, that democracy itself may have to adapt to cope with the pace of change. “In the face of Facebook, do we have to change democracy? Do we want to have our lives controlled by two nerds sitting in an office somewhere in Silicon Valley?”

Sobering stuff – but the session did end on a positive.

“Many people about jobs going, and we do need some clear thinking on re-tarining and support for citizens navigating a more complicated lifetime of career building,” noted Page.

“But it’s just as likely that completely new jobs will appear too.”