Artificial Intelligence (Select Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:06 pm on 19th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench 4:06 pm, 19th November 2018

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his able chairmanship of the ad hoc Select Committee on AI in the United Kingdom. In my many years in your Lordships’ House I have never been on a Select Committee that has been so absorbing and stimulating.

We are living in the most extraordinary times. The confluence of big data, connectivity and artificial intelligence has revolutionised old industries and created new ones. As the Industrial Revolution transformed the nature of manual work, so AI is set to change dramatically the nature of white-collar workers and the service industry, from chatbots replacing call centres, to those who make decisions on credit and even accountants—and, with the emergence of autonomous cars, truck drivers—being replaced. This confluence of change means that AI has reached a flashover point, with computer power, the availability of huge volumes of data and the fact that digital channels for interacting with businesses and citizens are now preferable.

Apart from the oral and written evidence, we were fortunate to visit Google DeepMind, the Microsoft research laboratories in Cambridge and the Alan Turing Institute, as well as techUK. My noble friend Lord Kakkar spoke most eloquently about chapter 7 of our report. This details the huge benefits that AI can deliver to healthcare, particularly in the National Health Service. This could include more effective detection of diseases, management of chronic conditions, drug discovery and, of course, delivery of more efficient health services. We are increasingly moving from a world of reactive medicine to one of proactive medicine.

However, one of the potential drawbacks in the National Health Service is the fact that that there is no centralised database, resulting in most data being kept in unrelated silos. While keeping data isolated made sense historically as a security measure, the data-driven world in which we operate demands greater visibility and consolidation. Machine learning provides unique value in being able effectively to remove the manual processing of data, thus significantly reducing back-end operating expenses.

Clearly, the management of data in the NHS requires strict adherence to data privacy—there are concerns about the criminal misuse of AI and data—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid, mentioned, respect needs to be given to data ethics and accountability. Concerns have been raised about the risk of abuse of AI and breaches not just of public trust but of data security.

Many fear that the merger of infotech and biotech could push many hundreds of thousands of people out of the job market, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hollick. Yes, there will be masses of job losses but, equally, replacement jobs will be created.

As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, there are concerns also that big data could create digital dictatorships. Our report covered the need for reasonable access to data, particularly for SMEs. While several are sceptical about the effective use of AI in the UK, our report sought to focus on the positive contribution that it can make to our lives in many different ways. One industry not mentioned in the report but to which the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, may refer is the agricultural sector, where AI can have a huge impact. We now have precision agriculture, where farmers are able to utilise drones in the sky, connected with the help of big data to sensors in the fields.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, said, it was encouraging that the Government mentioned in their industrial strategy that AI and data capture need to be identified as one of the four grand challenges in which the UK can lead the world for years to come. To maximise this opportunity, we need more qualified data scientists who are able to use algorithms to sort through enormous databases, combining profiles, eliminating duplicates and thereby providing a complete and unified set of data. What plans do the Department for Education and other departments have to provide students with training to more effectively prepare them to embrace data scientific skills?

Trustworthiness underpins public support for data innovation. I have already referred to the benefits in healthcare and agriculture, but there are huge benefit also in the financial services sector and autonomous systems. Lessons have been learned from the fiasco of data breaches at Cambridge Analytica.

I want to make brief mention of the opportunities of blockchain technology, which is not just about cryptocurrencies but is more a transformational tool and game-changer for the future. Distributed ledgers can be created which will form a significant part of future databases, providing greater transparency and accountability to both the public and private sector.

There is no doubt that AI presents a significant opportunity to solve complex problems, boost productivity and accelerate innovation. We need to shift legacy mindsets to embrace new ideas. AI and machine learning need to be embraced while respecting privacy, ethics, transparency and good governance. I wholeheartedly embrace all the recommendations of our report and trust that the United Kingdom can consolidate and thrive as a global leader in the development of artificial intelligence.