UK calls for a taskforce to keep AI and robots in check

Commons Committee calls for a 'Commission on Artificial Intelligence' to be set up at the Alan Turing Institue

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While artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are starting to play a more valuable role in people's lives, a new report states that the UK is ill-prepared for an inevitable autonomous future. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said today that the UK government "does not yet have a strategy" for fostering AI and robotics or properly considered the "social and ethical dilemmas" they may pose.

Ministers found that while such systems are still in their infancy, AI is already starting to have "transformational impacts" on society, suggesting now is the time to evaluate possible the potential ramifications of its growth. The report touches on the development of driverless cars and emergence of supercomputers that can beat world champions at an ancient Chinese board game and questions whether the government has a plan for when "algorithms" go wrong (we all know how Ex Machina played out).

"Artificial intelligence has some way to go before we see systems and robots as portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars," says Dr Tania Mathias, interim Chair of the Committee. "At present, 'AI machines' have narrow and specific roles, such as in voice-recognition or playing the board game 'Go'. But science fiction is slowly becoming science fact, and robotics and AI look destined to play an increasing role in our lives over the coming decades."

The Committee calls upon the government to set up a "Commission on Artificial Intelligence" that can be housed at the Alan Turing Institute. It would be tasked with monitoring the developments in AI systems and would set standards to ensure they're "socially beneficial." The group highlighted Google's Photos app, which was reported to have labelled black people as gorillas, as a situation where AI may have been fed "subconscious cultural biases." While it could be put down to the training data the Photos algorithms were fed, the Committee says more work must be done to stop accidental discrimination.

AI and robots, of course, offer a very credible threat to jobs (a robot wrote a post for Engadget, after all). Ministers are aware that systems will "reshape fundamentally" how we live and work and that the potential loss of established roles "will be challenging," but there's no clear answer as to how technology will shape the future workforce.

The Committee notes that the UK must "respond with a readiness to re-skill, and up-skill, on a continuing basis" but is quick to lambast the government for its lack of leadership in developing education and training systems in this area. "It is disappointing that the Government has still not published its Digital Strategy and set out its plans for equipping the future workforce with the digital skills it needs to thrive," the report concludes.

With products like the Amazon Echo and Google's Assistant AI making their way to more Britons, consumers are becoming accustomed to early-stage AI. We're not yet at the point where we're putting our lives in the hands of artificial intelligence, but machines are already using deep-learning techniques to make it easier for us to go about our day.

The UK has helped drive innovations in the space -- thanks to companies like DeepMind (now owned by Google), Magic Pony (now owned by Twitter) and Swiftkey (now owned by Microsoft) -- but it's up to the government to ensure that AI systems, no matter how small, are created with a social framework that doesn't negatively affect the people they're are supposed to benefit.