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Artificial Intelligence: what has this got to do with the government?

7th December 2017


While the UK’s exit from the EU is absorbing almost the entire focus, capacity and resource of the government for the foreseeable future, there is one policy area where the government is making a concerted and impressive effort to act thick and fast: Artificial intelligence (AI). This week has seen Google’s AlphaGo Zero AI program win a game of chess against the world-leading specialist software Stockfish 8, within hours of teaching itself the game from scratch. But what does AI have to do with the business of government and why is it their responsibility?

There is considerable momentum building in parliament regarding AI, and we can expect to see even more on this subject in the coming year. The Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence was appointed in June to consider the opportunities and risks of advances in the sector, and to make recommendations to the government. Alongside the Committee’s inquiry, in October the government published an independent review, led by Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti, on how the Artificial Intelligence industry can be grown in the UK. It makes recommendations around skills, data, research and adoption of AI.

Then, in the Autumn Budget and the recently published Industrial Strategy we saw a number of initiatives introduced to make the UK a ‘global centre for artificial intelligence’, including the identification of AI as one of four ‘Grand Challenges’ facing the country and the announcement of an Artificial Intelligence Sector Deal. A ‘Business Champion’ for AI and external advisers will also be appointed in early 2018.

A careful balance will need to be struck between protecting the public interest without stifling innovation. It is widely acknowledged that current legislation and legal structures are not adequate to sufficiently oversee advances in AI, and some urgency to act. The motto of Silicon Valley is to ‘move fast and break things’ – to innovate first and break the rules, rather than talk to regulators beforehand – because it’s such a competitive field, and AI is already being used in ways which have a large effect on society and no real way of governing this.

Major concerns exist around the ownership and exploitation of data in the public domain. At present, the public has effectively made a pact with AI companies to give them their personal data in exchange for the use of modern technology, but many people don’t understand that their own data is being used. NHS trusts’ arrangements with DeepMind to hand over patients’ records has sparked discussion about how and if this data could be exploited, and the question has been raised about who should own the AI systems which have been developed using public data. Not only is legislation required to protect the public interest, but the government will need to consider how companies could be compensated for innovation which has been prevented by this move.

While government funding for research and development in AI is welcomed, there will be challenges for the government to ensure that UK taxpayers’ investment in AI provides a meaningful return on this investment, and UK taxpayers’ money is not used to subsidise AI enterprises in other countries. The new GovTech Catalyst and Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation are an encouraging start to oversee this.

It is the policy, not the technology, of AI which is on the government’s agenda given the economic, ethical and social implications, as well as opportunities. There is responsibility of the government to do something about this, but there are also risks with rushing into regulation too early, and it is questionable whether regulation is feasible in just one country. The government’s acknowledgment of the significance of AI is a welcome start, but it remains to be seen whether the civil service will have the capability to address the scale and complexities that are posed.


Pippa Smith

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