AI: preparing for the future

Author: Rachel Neaman, CEO, Corsham Institute

In the third of our series of comment pieces for techUK’s AI week, Rachel Neaman, Chief Executive Officer of Corsham Institute (Ci), reflects on the current interest in and potential impact of Artificial Intelligence, and why education, skills and lifelong learning will be critical for the future.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – its opportunities and risks, the ethics of algorithms, and the potential impact of automation on the economy – is the hottest tech topic in the UK at the moment. Or at least, that’s the impression one gets from the current steady stream of research and reports, the Parliamentary Inquiries and government announcements (including the launch this week of the £1bn AI Sector Deal, and the regular seminars and talks hosted by august institutions, spanning both science and the humanities. For the AI tourist, London is the destination of choice this summer with a plethora of high-profile trade shows, conferences and expos on offer.

But is this excitement within the tech sector mirrored within the wider UK population? Possibly not, particularly when it comes to adoption of AI. A survey by Sage last autumn found that 46% of UK respondents had ‘no idea what AI was all about’, while PWC’s 2018 Global Consumer Attitudes Survey found that just 24% of UK consumers planned to buy an AI device, compared to figures up to 59% in developing markets such as Brazil.

These results mask the fact that, as the ongoing Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal shows, data-driven technologies like machine learning and AI are already transforming the world around us, whether the general public are aware of it or not. So it is welcome that those who have the most power to shape how these technologies do that – the tech industry, and decision-makers in Government and Parliament – are grappling with some of the most complex ethical issues and challenges, whilst also preparing the UK to make the most of its opportunities.

The recent, comprehensive report from the Lords Select Committee on AI focused on the need for the UK to put ethics and the public good at the heart of AI development and innovation. And the UK tech sector is listening. As Sue Daley, tech UK’s AI Programme Lead, wrote in her Comment piece on data, ethics and AI for the Observatory for a Connected Society, to mark the start of techUK’s AI week: “This is a watershed moment for the tech sector”.

Ci’s position is that there needs to be much greater public engagement in how technology is shaping our world, and what kind of world we want that to be. The House of Lords’ report rightly put that as the first priority: the need to build “trust and confidence in how to use artificial intelligence, as well as explain the risks”. And, while there is much good work going on to lay the groundwork for this engagement, (which the Royal Society’s Jessica Montgomery explained in her blog for techUK), there is an urgent need to engage beyond the tech sector conference circuit and small seminar events and reach deeply into communities, schools, workplaces and homes.

If the Lords’ wide-ranging and sensible recommendations on skills and education are taken forward by industry, employers and educators, that will be a start. The Select Committee identified that the “UK must be ready for the disruption that AI will have on the way in which we work” – with both “blue-and white-collar jobs which exist today put at risk”. However, this is not to say that new types of jobs won’t be created. The Committee recommended greater encouragement and support for workers as they move into the new jobs and professions that will be created as a result of new technologies.

At Ci, we’re working to ensure everyone – from children through to those in later stages of their working life – are able to adapt to a new culture where lifelong learning and flexibility are the norm, with particular support at moments of major personal change (for example, military veterans entering the civilian workforce, or people returning to work from a caring break).

The education system also needs to adapt and to adapt fast. Will all kids really need to know how to code when they leave school? Quite probably not; machines will do it faster and better than humans. But kids will need to be digitally competent – to understand how to apply technology in all areas of their lives and adapt to the impact it is increasingly having. They will need analytical, problem-solving and creative skills, as well as qualities like resilience and empathy to do so, and these need to be prioritised within the curriculum and teachers supported to impart them.

It’s not just the role of Government or the tech sector to address the impact AI and machine learning are having on our lives. With the support of educators and employers, there is a huge opportunity for us all to be involved – not just to prepare for the impact of AI, but to be involved in shaping it for the benefit of everyone.