Use of artificial intelligence set to face public backlash

Artificial intelligence will face a backlash from the public unless researchers and companies make a much greater effort to engage society in its development, one of Britain’s leading scientists has warned.

Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at Surrey university and incoming president of the British Science Association, said AI was more important than all other big issues facing humanity, including climate change, world poverty, terrorism, pandemic threats and antimicrobial resistance: “It will dominate what will happen with all these other issues, for better or for worse,” he warned in an interview with the FT.

AI and machine learning

Use of artificial intelligence set to face public backlash

Speaking ahead of next week’s British Science Festival in Hull, Prof Al-Khalili said: “It is quite staggering to consider that until a few years ago AI was not taken seriously, even by AI researchers. And yet we are now seeing an unprecedented level of interest, investment and technological progress in the field, which many people, including myself, feel is happening too fast.”

Prof Al-Khalili, whose BBC4 television programme about AI was broadcast this week, said official bodies in the UK were issuing reports on the subject but no one was making enough effort to engage the wider public in debate about the risks and benefits of AI.

There could be a public backlash against AI, when people realised what was happening, similar to the one against genetically modified crops a few years ago, he warned, adding that this could result in the technology not being used to its full potential in the UK, particularly in the public sector. “Not only would that be detrimental to the British public,” he said, “but it would also leave the technology to proliferate, uncontrolled and unregulated in the hands of a few increasingly powerful private technology companies at the expense of jobs, equality and transparency.”

Prof Al-Khalili said the UK had a strong scientific and industrial stake in the technology’s success, with DeepMind, Alphabet’s London-based subsidiary, “arguably the world’s leading AI research company”. He estimated that AI could add $15tn a year to the global economy by 2030 — more than the current output of China and India combined.

But this success would depend on “putting transparency and ethics at the heart of AI development and ensuring that regulations are in place”, he said. He added that while previous technological revolutions had not led to mass unemployment, despite gloomy predictions at the time, there was no guarantee that AI would follow that historical precedent.

“Many jobs will be enhanced by AI, many will disappear and many new and as yet unknown jobs will be created,” he said. “A significant government investment in skills and training is imperative if this disruption is to be navigated successfully and to the benefit of the entire population.”

Besides the threat of AI to jobs and social equality — and fears that intelligent machines might eventually take over the world — Prof Al-Khalili said the technology posed other problems, such as cyberterrorism.

“If Russian cyber hackers were able to meddle with the US 2016 elections, then what is stopping cyber terrorists hacking into any future AI-controlled power grids, transport systems, banks or military installations?” he asked. “One growth industry in terms of jobs when AIs start replacing us will be cyber security.”

In spite of his warnings, Prof Al-Khalili proclaimed himself an AI optimist. “AI is going to transform our lives in the coming decades even more than the internet has over the last few decades,” he said. “Let’s make sure we are ready for it.”

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