UK must ensure "productivity dividend" of machine learning benefits all, not just the few

Lynsey Barber
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Machine learning is increasingly appearing in everyday life (Source: Getty)

The UK must give "urgent consideration" to ensuring everyone in society can reap the rewards promised by machine learning and that it doesn't benefit only the few.

The warning comes from several of the country's top researchers in the burgeoning field, who have made a raft of recommendations to ensure the UK can stay a world leading centre for the technology.

A "productivity dividend" is expected from the uptake of the technology, which is already being used by consumers every single day, in the same way as brought by the industrial revolution and the development of electricity.

But it's unclear yet whether this will be shared and who the major beneficiaries will be, according to academics in a new report from the Royal Society.

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“Machine learning is already used in many apps and services that we encounter every day. It is used to tag people in our photos, by our phones to interpret voice commands, by internet retailers to make recommendations, and by banks to spot unusual activity on a credit or debit card," said professor Peter Donnelly, the director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and professor of statistical science at the University of Oxford.

“Machine learning will have an increasing impact on our lives and lifestyles over the next five to ten years. There is much work to be done so that we take advantage of the potential of machine learning and ensure that the benefits are shared, especially as this could be a key area of opportunity for the UK in the coming years.”

Donnelly led the working group behind the report and which also includes Google DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis and research scientist Yee Whye Teh, Uber chief scientist Zoubin Ghahramani and director of machine learning at Amazon Neil Lawrence.

He said it's not yet clear what the impact will be of machine learning on work.

"There have been a number of studies already that have tried to predict what will happen in the next five or ten years and the predictions of those studies are extraordinarily different. It's absolutely clear that machine learning will change the essence of work and the way we work," he said.

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Many of the impacts will be in the same way that spreadsheets are now used instead of someone doing manual calculations but it's "clear there will be sectors and roles which change substantially".

"I think we need to think hard in society about how we want that to unfold," he said.

"We could be passive and just let things unfold, and what's likely to happen is a relatively small number of organisations or commercial entities will benefit a lot and there may well be increased displacement and inequality, a so-called globalisation type effect. Or because we're early on, we could stand back and say, do we want it to play out that way, what are the thing we can do, and want to do as a society to make sure the benefits of this technology are shared as widely as possible."

The group also warned that increasing the UK's access to talent is "critical". Recommendations include teaching an awareness of machine learning at funding for masters and phd courses as well as integrating machine learning aspects into sectors such as law, finance and medicine at university level. These efforts would also likely help people prepare for the changing world of work.

The government's immigration policy should also "support the UK’s aim to be one of the best places in the world to research and innovate" the group said.

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