Though the quest for artificial intelligence (AI) began almost 70 years ago, the concept has only recently become an all-pervasive technology, leaving policy-makers scrambling to keep up.
Over the last 25 years, new approaches to AI, significant technological advances, and substantial financial backing have transformed the field beyond measure.
Today, narrow AI that is equal to or better than human intelligence at performing specific tasks already exists.
However, most experts estimate that general AI – machine intelligence equal to that of humans – will arrive between 2040 and 2075. The notion that computers will one day be able to think like us is certainly within reach.
With the negative slant on the great AI debate increasingly leaning towards the possibility of large-scale job losses, the positive impact that the technology can have on reshaping our societies and economies has largely snuck under the radar. Unsurprisingly, governments globally remain unsure of what to do.
Should our regulators interfere and run the risk of social upheaval? Should they let the technology run its course and try to mitigate the social impacts as they unfold? Or, do they move to introduce broad-brush regulation that risks stifling innovation?
Given the speed and unprecedented progress made in AI, understandably policy-makers have struggled to keep up. It is now more critical than ever that our political institutions develop their understanding of the field and its wider implications for society – and fast.
How will the technology affect healthcare and the NHS, for example? Is the introduction of the universal basic income inevitable?
Our regulators will need to take an urgent look at such questions and examine them in-depth.
With these considerations, however, there will also be an increased need to prevent the stifling of innovation. In the UK alone, according to the third annual Tech Nation report, the digital sector accounts for 1.56m jobs, equating to more than a 10 per cent growth in the number of jobs in the UK between 2011 and 2014, creating new roles three times faster than the rest of the UK job market.
Specifically in AI, the last five years have seen UK startups heralded as global leaders in the field. Google’s £400m acquisition of DeepMind was undoubtedly a clear example of the value that Silicon Valley’s giants afford to our industry leaders, representing one of the undisputed success stories for the UK technology industry. This has in turn lead to consistent and ongoing investment from across the pond.
The announcement in June that the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will provide financial support for UK businesses working on cutting-edge technology, and that Innovate UK are making up to £16m available for robotics and AI technologies, were big steps in the right direction for greater unity between government and the tech sector.
With the digital sector being a key component of the UK’s economic prosperity, and the government agreeing to invest in AI research, legislators need to nurture the technology to ensure that it reshapes the future of work and society for the better.
Regulations on storage and data usage should run in tandem with moves to make machine learning models and data sets as open and transparent as possible. Innovation must not be constrained to those with the deepest pockets, nor those researchers that have the tightest grip on the latest technology. It is key that the public-at-large are able to shape and influence the direction of this shift, with the government spearheading it.
Governments around the world must take ownership of driving awareness of the benefits that AI has to offer. Collaboration between our institutions, the tech industry, and cross-sections of society will be crucial to help shape the social, political and economic impacts of tomorrow, rather than allowing us to simply fear the worst.