Artificial Intelligence - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:40 pm on 26th April 2018.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital) 1:40 pm, 26th April 2018

My Lords, having immersed myself in the subject of AI for the past year, I am absolutely clear that there is complete cross-party consensus on the potential for AI in the UK. I welcome today’s sector deal, particularly the evidence of cross-departmental working, which underlies quite a lot of the work that is beginning to take place. I very much hope that today’s sector deal is simply the tip of the iceberg of the Government’s AI policy and ambition. I note that the Minister used the word “ambition”, and I very much hope that this is but the first in a number of steps that need to be taken.

I hope we will have a much more extensive debate when the Government’s response to our Select Committee report is issued in due course, because it covers so many aspects. As I see it, today’s sector deal is essentially a nailing down of the commitments made in the industrial strategy, the proposals in the Hall-Pesenti review and the commitments made in the last Budget. I should be very interested if the Minister could unpack how much actual new money is involved in today’s sector deal, because I see it essentially as a packaging up for the sector rather than a new, dramatic development.

There are many aspects of the sector deal to welcome, not least the role of the British Business Bank in helping finance AI developers, growth companies, and so on. I hope they will be given an even more important role in the future, and I hope they will not go the way of the Green Investment Bank, which is an absolute object lesson for the Government in this respect.

The Select Committee thought that the fundamentals of government policy were right but it was a question of scale, ambition, co-ordination and drive behind the policies of the new bodies involved. There are many examples of this. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, rightly mentioned infrastructure investment. When only 3% of the country is covered by ultra-fast broadband, a £1 billion investment is neither here nor there. It is a bit of encouragement but it will not move us very fast up the curve compared to our international competitors. Then again, the scale of the skills gap is absolutely huge. I know that there was some negotiation as part of the Hall-Pesenti review, but 200 new PhDs in AI, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson—off-the-shelf or not—being initially financed is the absolute bare minimum required.

Then again, we are heavily dependent on skilled EU workers. A Brexit brain drain is already threatening the UK tech sector, which relies heavily on foreign talent from the EU. DeepMind is already setting up a laboratory in Paris because of that. We need overseas students to stay. Will the Government reinstate post-study work visas for graduates in STEM subjects who find suitable employment within six months of graduating? The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned a doubling of tier 1 visas. That is very welcome but why do not the Government declare, as the Select Committee suggested, a shortage occupation in tier 2 for machine learning and computer skills? That might make a huge difference. Collaborative research with EU countries is at risk as well. How will we fill the gap post 2020?

As virtually every Select Committee witness told us, creative skills will be crucial in the mix as well. What are the Government doing to emphasise not just STEM but STEAM in our schools? There is a dangerous dropping off of arts and creative subjects already. But, of course, it is not simply about the opportunities, of which there are many, but mitigating the risks as well, and making sure that we retain and build public trust in the new technologies involved. Inclusion is of crucial importance in this context. A strong inclusion and diversity agenda ran through our Select Committee report, which has been welcomed. In particular, we need more women in digital roles to help fill the skills gap. What are the Government doing to develop a culture that is inclusive, respectful and encourages women to pursue careers in AI?

Ethics must likewise be moved forward. I hope that the Government move forward quickly with this via the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation by convening an international conference and other forms of international collaboration. I include the EU in this. Yesterday it published its report, Artificial Intelligence for Europe. In that, the role of the Charter of Fundamental Rights is highlighted as being the instrument by which one could incorporate a code of ethics. This makes the vote on Monday doubly valuable and I hope the Government will take due note. That is a very helpful way of making sure that we have an ethical framework that could cover most European countries.

I could raise many issues, not least data, which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned. I hope the Government will be talking to the Competition and Markets Authority about issues such as data monopolies. I hope that, as the Data Protection Bill goes through the Commons, they will look at whether we have real strength, and whether Article 22 of the GDPR really gives us sufficient rights of explainability for autonomous decision-making, as I raised in this House.

Finally, it is about ambition. If the UK wants to be seen as a world leader in any aspect of AI development, it needs to move as quickly as other countries, such as Canada and France. It must set its ambitions high to be a global player. It must welcome talent in growing its AI industry from start-ups to the next level.