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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 19th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:07 pm, 19th November 2018

My Lords, I thank the committee very much for its report. From the debate today, it sounds as if it was a good event in itself. When it was meeting, I would quite often see what I now know were members of the committee in the corner discussing arcane issues about artificial intelligence. That is something you do not often find in your Lordships’ House but it was refreshing and welcome, although the technology sometimes left me a bit lost. This is a good report, with nearly 80 detailed recommendations. Such productivity is not often matched around the wider economy but obviously we can do here what others are not able to do. It demanded a high-level response from the Government but, as others have said, their response does not quite match up to the quality of the report.

I am sure I am not the only person present today who was extremely pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, did a rather brilliant précis of the report in his opening speech. Obviously, as a lawyer he is used to this kind of thing—gathering together ridiculous facts, bringing them together in a convincing narrative and winning us over with the skill of his language and the brilliance of his metaphors—but I am sure the reality is that others must have experienced the report as I did. I rather struggled with it and certainly struggled with the evidence, some of which was way out of my league. But when the noble Lord finished and sat down, I felt that I had been there and owned it.

I thank all speakers who have contributed. It is interesting to note that 13 of the 20 speakers before me were not involved directly in the committee. That is unusual and worth remarking on. Normally these committee reports, good and worthy though they are, tend to be restricted to those who have been through the pain of the events and want to get it out of their system by speaking in the debate. To get so many external speakers wanting to contribute to this debate is a very good test of this report reaching out. It has generated a very good debate, one of the best of its type. Committees are the gold standard of our work, and their reports are very important. They travel out and do the job of explaining to people what we do. It is in the best traditions of the House to make sure that we issue reports and discuss them. It is good that the Government were able to respond quickly enough for the report at least to be within recent memory. Like the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, I think it is nice to be talking about something real and not related to B-R-E-X-I-T—or not particularly.

There were many good speeches so I shall not select any to make particular points and I am not going to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, in going through them. I want to mention two contributions which for me marked out this debate: my noble friends Lord Reid and Lord Browne pulled off the rather difficult trick of opening up a much wider perspective about some of the issues that were raised in the report. One of them spoke on the ethical and philosophical issue, which was very interesting and reached out to everyone here, and one of them spoke on a very pragmatic and potentially dangerous issue. Both of them were talking outside the box.

I shall very quickly cover some individual points that the Government should respond to and have not done so well in response to the report. Our whole approach to AI and our ability to make it one of our winning combinations in this country will not happen unless there is proper physical infrastructure. The report states:

“We welcome the Government’s intentions to upgrade the nation’s digital infrastructure as far as they go”.

I think that is the point. The report goes on:

“However, we are concerned that it does not have enough impetus behind it to ensure that the digital foundations of the country are in place in time to take advantage of the potential artificial intelligence offers”.

This takes us back to issues that were discussed in other places and also raises a question about the responsibility in government for this. The Government’s response, although perfectly adequate, is just a list of announcements that they have previously made about money. It does not pick up the issues that underlie what I think the report is about: we do not think hard about what is ahead of us, what facilities are going to be required for mobile, fibre to the home rather than to the cabinet, and the 5G revolution that is with us. We are not going to be ready to take advantage of any of the stuff that should be coming down the track. What are the Government doing about this? Is it not time to get away from the ridiculously unachieving universal service obligation and replace it with something that takes us to the 1-Gig economy so that we are talking about a standard which will allow those who wish to participate, whether they are SMEs or big companies, in the city or rural, to have the coverage, contention ratios and competition driving the rollout of this technology that will really make a difference? I look forward to hearing the Government’s response.

As for who drives this policy, the issue is the confusion of bodies that seem to be being set up. There is an AI council, an AI department, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the GovTech Catalyst team and the new Alan Turing Institute. I could not make out from the government response where they all sit. I think the committee was urging the Government to try to be proactive in policy to harness the potential and to mitigate the risk, but it also points out that they will not do that unless there is clearly leadership at the top. Many other noble Lords mentioned this point. If there is to be a national policy framework for AI to be in lockstep with the industrial strategy, it is surely not sufficient simply to say that we have an industrial strategy and that will do it. We are saying that AI is the key to lots of things within the industrial strategy and it needs to be given its own responsibilities and arrangements to take it forward. It is important that the Government own this as a separate part of that activity. We need to think further about which departments are involved, which Cabinet committees will be responsible for it and how the various elements between DCMS, BEIS, health and other departments are going to be handled. Where does this co-ordination take place and how will that be taken forward?

On the question of an AI code, the recommendations again are to be supported. It needs to be something that will give guidance and regulatory security to the companies that want to become involved. The debate today has highlighted the needs here. The Government’s response just states:

“There are a number of high level themes emerging around the ethical and innovative uses of data … some of which are highlighted within the Committee’s report”,

and that some of them are not very new. I do not think that is getting behind what the recommendation was trying to do, which is to say that there will be a competitive advantage for the companies involved and for the country if we have a clear statement of what is expected of them and how this will be taken forward.

Who will review the policy and how will it be done in a way which will be a feedback loop? The committee’s report states:

“For the UK to be able to realise the benefits of AI, the Government’s policies, underpinned by a co-ordinated approach, must be closely monitored and react to feedback from academia and industry where appropriate”.

I do not see where that is going to happen in the structures that are in the Government’s response. Will the Minister respond on that point in particular?

Enough people have talked about the problems about DeepMind and Google to ensure that the Government will respond on that, and I look forward to it. They are clearly examples that should send shivers through all the work that is currently going on, all the discussions we had during the passage of the Data Protection Bill and all the thinking that has been done since then about how data is to be organised and made secure, how personal data is to be protected and how the value in that data is to be unlocked in an effective and efficient way. This links into a section in the report about data trusts which was very interesting, but to which the Government’s response again did not match up. Will the Minister explain the thinking a bit more? The issues are well discussed, the balance between the practical issues and the ethics is rehearsed, but the idea that this will be a solution to all the problems that companies and individuals will have in their data being used is naive. It is very important that AI systems are trusted and used, but they will not be unless we can make sure that those who have responsibility for the data and those who own the data are able to get the satisfaction they need out of that. This goes back to discussions we had during the passage of the Data Protection Bill on whether there would be copyright in individuals’ data. I will be interested to know whether the Government have anything to say on that and on whether it is possible for an individual who has personal data to be a data controller for that. Both those solutions have a lot of advantages in relation to data trusts and how they might be used, and I will be interested to know whether there is any further information.

That links into data monopolies and who owns the data once it has been given into a system, whether or not those who have given it know that they are doing so. If that is the case, do we have the regulatory authority to make sure that the monopolies that will emerge can be controlled effectively? Others have spoken about that.

On autonomous weapons, I do not think there is anything more to say from the Dispatch Box in relation to my noble friend Lord Browne’s comments. The Government might wish to come back to this because it seriously worries a lot of people and should be dealt with.

On the related issues about the impact on the labour market and the need for much more work, I do not think the Government’s response is up to it. On the impact on social and political cohesion, there are too many issues to be raised specifically, but again, to rely on a digital charter is not going to get the answer to the questions that people have been raising here today.

Finally, there is the question of inequality. There is always concern about those who have public office and concern about that was specially brought out by the report in terms of the risk that greater societal and regional inequalities will emerge as a consequence of the operation of AI. That was not dealt with by the Government’s response.

This is a very good report and it was matched by a very good debate. There are issues that need to infuse virtually all aspects of what we do in the industrial strategy, but they go much wider than that and deal with personal and ethical issues which also have to be looked at. The Government said in their response that they broadly accept the principles in the report. The sad thing is that there are very few examples of actions that have been taken to deliver them.