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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 19th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 5:21 pm, 19th November 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to the committee for its excellent report. I am also grateful, in the main, for the Government’s response. I must confess that I could not say that about their response to the committee’s concern about inequality, which was dismissed in two sentences, virtually. When we look at what has happened in the past 50 years and how we have changed fundamentally on the issue of equality, as well as the concerns that may come with these changes, we cannot dismiss that issue so lightly.

I particularly want to speak about the impact on the labour market, whence I originate. In recommendation 39, the committee rightly states:

“There is an urgent need to analyse or assess, on an ongoing basis, the evolution of AI in the UK, and develop policy responses”.

Clearly, there will be changes in the labour market on a scale that we have never witnessed. A lot of people are expressing worrying and alarmist reports about the likely consequences; we have heard a variety of figures today about the number of jobs that may disappear. I am one of those who believes that new technology creates additional jobs, although in different places. That comes from experience as a trade union official over the years. However, it does not necessarily follow that this will run for ever, given that the pace and depth of technology may be on a different scale to what we have experienced.

One of the problems we have found with many of the recent changes is that new jobs have been created on a big scale but they have been of extraordinarily low quality and exceptionally low pay. The result is that our workforce is far from happy, compared with the satisfaction that people had in work 40 or 50 years ago. What is created is very important. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rees, I see this growth as an opportunity for many more people working in the public sector. That then raises the question of how we can raise the money to pay for more people in the public sector.

I suggest to the Minister—this was looked at lightly by the committee—that we should look at the possibility that people might not want to work and that as AI develops we might move to a stage where a question mark arises over the joint policy being pursued by political parties that we should seek full employment. Will it be justifiable in the longer term to pursue such a course? Is it not a possibility that many people will not want to work and might look for a different way of relating to the state and other people than we have had in the past? Some countries are already starting to explore the possibility of minimum incomes being provided for all citizens. This was run recently in Italy and I think was quickly dismissed there, but the OECD has done some work and has been reasonably positive in suggesting that it should not be dismissed totally out of hand and is worth pursuing.

My question on employment to the Minister is, as I am sure he will be continuing to keep the numbers under review, whether some thought might be given in the longer term to an alternative system of rewarding people who do not go to work. In part, we are already rewarding people who work with subsidies from the state using tax credits, which Gordon Brown introduced. They have grown and grown. The question for those people, who are doing low-quality jobs for low pay, is whether there might not be something better for them to do in society than they are doing at the moment. This will not happen overnight and neither will many of these changes, but is the Minister’s department doing some longer-term thinking about it? Is it looking at what some other countries are doing and examining what research is being undertaken by organisations such as the OECD? Is this a backstop that we ought to be thinking about in the longer term?

Labour’s view is that we should reduce the length of the working week. This was announced recently. Whether or not people want that I am not entirely sure. Given a choice between having more freedom to do different things and having a routine job for shorter hours they might opt for something quite different. However, the Government’s position on this is relatively unclear, so I would be grateful if the Minister could give us some explanation.

I came to this debate having led a debate in September on trends and changes in addiction. I was drawn to it particularly by the concerns that are increasingly being expressed about children and the internet. I was also involved in the House of Lords inquiry into information technology years ago. We never foresaw for one moment the changes that would come with hand-held mobiles and the changes affecting children. I suspect, with respect, that even much of this report might be overtaken very quickly in other areas that we never foresaw.

Last week we had a very good debate in this House on social media services, in which the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Grender, and my noble friend Lord Stevenson, who led the debate, highlighted some of the particular problems arising that will have a major impact on the way society is developing. I have also read an outline of some of the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Rees, on the future prospects for humanity. He did not say a great deal on that today, but I tend to share some of his views that some changes are more negative than positive.

I come back to addiction and look at what is happening in China, where sex dolls are being produced. As recently as a month ago a major exhibition was held about them. The police are having to impound imported child sex dolls—in the past two years, they have been taken at the ports. We see a range of dolls being offered to adults. The face of an individual can be replicated; they have material that almost replicates flesh. One can get a doll that speaks or responds to whatever one wants. These are major changes.

I look to the Church in particular to see the challenges brought to bear when people spend so much of their lives on their own, perhaps in their bedrooms. They do not want to communicate with other people; they can only communicate online. The skills for connecting with others have gone, yet what will happen if they stay there and what problems will arise? I think that AI will lead to a major growth in the incidence of mental health problems, as we are now detecting in many areas. That is where extra work will have to be done and where the human factor will come to bear, hopefully in helping one another. These are big issues and we are only scratching the surface.