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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 19th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Janvrin Lord Janvrin Crossbench 5:47 pm, 19th November 2018

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for instigating this debate. I congratulate him and his colleagues, their advisers and staff on their excellent report. It is clear, comprehensive and very thought-provoking. The Government have rightly taken it seriously as an important contribution to the realisation of their industrial strategy, one that sets artificial intelligence and the data revolution as one of the four grand challenges to be addressed in shaping the future of this country.

The report gives us plenty to chew on among 74 recommendations under 26 sub-headings in eight substantive chapters. At this stage of the debate brevity is at a premium, but I do want to flag three areas: skills, governance and a subject mentioned right at the start of the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes—public engagement. Under the heading of skills I want to address two separate issues. The first is the need to ensure that we have the highly skilled AI developers this country needs to allow us to be at the forefront of this revolution. The second, a point made by many speakers in the debate, is the need to address and reskill those whose jobs are put at risk by the new technologies such as AI.

On the first point, the report rightly devotes a number of recommendations to this crucial issue, particularly around increased funding for postgraduate studies, what I would call the diversity and inclusion imperative, and the expansion of the visa regime to attract the best talent from overseas to work in this country. I also strongly support the report’s recommendation for short postgraduate conversion courses, perhaps developed by the Alan Turing Institute, to allow students from other disciplines to have a grounding in the application of AI. AI is not an end in itself but a means to an end in other fields, as we have heard, such as medicine, law or the creative industries. The fourth industrial revolution is about the blurring of lines between disciplines. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on plans to address what I would call the interdisciplinary challenge; for example, through conversion courses.

On my second skills point—the need to reskill those whose jobs are lost through technological disruption—this was a major recommendation in the digital skills report of 2015, and it was good to see the Government picking this up in their plans for a national retraining scheme announced in the Autumn Budget last year. It is essential to ensure that the private sector plays an active part in funding these programmes, with collaboration at the local and regional as well as national level. I ask the Minister to confirm that industry is fully involved in the plans for retraining and lifelong learning that have been mentioned so often in the debate.

The second general area raised by the report is the question of effective AI governance. This is well covered in chapter 9—“Shaping artificial intelligence”—and covers government engagement, ethics and regulation. I note that the government response is in the name of two government departments—BEIS and DCMS—as well as the Office for Artificial Intelligence. We also have the AI council to give strategic oversight, the Alan Turing Institute leading on research, and the new centre for data ethics and innovation advising on how data and AI are used and regulated. We are told that AI policy-making will be part of the existing industrial strategy governance and decision-making processes. I agree with the committee that it needs to be clear who is driving policy in this area, both at Cabinet level and below, and how the roles and remits of these various bodies are defined. Clarity is crucial to allow government, industry and the academic world to collaborate effectively. It is vital when it comes to funding, accountability and evaluating success.

I also share the committee’s view, endorsed frequently in the debate, about the importance of an ethical framework for AI policy-making. As we have heard, there are general ethical implications around liability, responsibility, fairness and transparency to be thought through. The whole area of ethics, regulation and defining standards is one in which the UK has often been at the forefront and I hope that that will continue to be the case in this area. The new centre for data ethics and innovation will have an important part to play in this.

My third and final general point is about ensuring that there is wide public understanding of the implications of AI, as we have heard frequently in the debate. The report draws attention to this area in a number of its recommendations. The challenge is to build public trust in a technology where—to repeat the word used in the report—“explainability” is at a premium. There is a job to be done, led by the Government, to ensure public engagement with regard to the risks and rewards of AI and data analytics. Much of the work may well be around reassuring the public on how data is used, as we have heard. Here I draw attention to the work of Professor Wendy Hall and her proposals concerning the importance of data trusts in the future. I ask the Minister: who in government will co-ordinate the public engagement programme that has been referred to so frequently today?

In conclusion, I thank again the committee and its staff for this report—and, indeed, the Government for finding time to debate it. One of the many disturbing features of our present politics is its ability to suck the life out of debates on other long-term challenges facing this country. It is refreshing to be talking about one of those challenges today.