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

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

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Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:19 pm, 19th November 2018

My Lords, I start by offering my sympathy to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for the state of his voice. I think mine might be in the same state. It would be nice if all these scientists in AI, life sciences or wherever could do something for the common cold—I think that is a plea that many of us would put forward.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and congratulate him on his report. I am trying to think of the right word to use about being invited to appear in front of his committee with my right honourable friend Matt Hancock, who has since been promoted twice, whereas I have not. We were in a state of awe but thrilled to be asked to give evidence, and I hope that we helped.

The report has been a very useful part of the general discussion that we have had in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, said it would be rash to predict what is going to happen over the next 20 years. However, as the report makes clear in its title, AI in the UK: Ready, Willing and Able?, it is important that we get ourselves in a position to be ready, not for exactly what is going to happen but for a whole range of possibilities as to how things will develop over the next 20, 30 or whatever years. That is why, back in early 2017, as part of the beginning of the industrial strategy and the UK Digital Strategy, the Government commissioned their independent review. I am sure that that is why this House took the decision to establish the committee that the noble Lord so skilfully chaired—I offer my congratulations again to him and all those who served on it—to look at the economic, ethical and social implications of advancing in ethical science.

The independent review that we then commissioned under Professor Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti published its evidence in October of last year. Our industrial strategy came out in November, almost a year ago. In April of this year the noble Lord published his committee’s report, and within the appropriate number of weeks we published our response to it, in June 2018. As the noble Lord put it, he gave us a mixed scorecard but said it was a good start. I hope that since then we have done quite a lot more and are now making progress. We have announced the chairmanship of the AI council, which will go on to be set up.

In his speech the noble Lord set out five threads as a way of putting his speech together, the fifth being the unifying thread dealing with ethical development, and five suggested principles. I was finding it quite difficult to decide exactly what the best way of responding to a debate of this sort would be in terms of trying to bring together the vast range of different suggestions. Obviously I will not be able to answer every point that has been put to me in the course of the debate.

I thought that I might take not those five threads but instead the four core recommendations set out in the Hall/Pesenti review. The recommendations addressed improving access to data and dealing with the question of trust; skills, another issue that many noble Lords have dealt with; how we can maximise help for UK AI research; and support, by government and others, for the uptake of AI, which comes on to the questions of governance, ethics and so on. So I hope that with those four major groupings I will be able to deal with a number of questions that were put by noble Lords in the course of the debate.

I start with my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond, who talked about the need to make people feel part of the AI revolution and how we could, as he put it, avoid it being the next GM—something that should develop but to which some people have taken a rather negative approach. We agree that it is crucial that we engage with the public along with the new technology. I believe that the chilling effects, such as those referenced for GM, could limit the economic and social benefits. Public engagement should be a core function of the recently established Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, about which I will say a little more later, along with the understanding that public perception and public acceptability will be core to the centre’s function to enable the maximisation of the benefits for all.

I turn to the question of the importance of skills. This issue was first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, but in moving on to the health service the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, continued the point. It is important to improve access to skills. The changing nature of jobs is going to have an effect on other jobs as those jobs disappear. As some will be aware, a Deloitte analysis published in September last year found that we are in fact already adapting quite well to the effect of automation: from 2001 to 2015 there was a higher growth of jobs at low risk of automation than among those at high risk. Each new low-risk job pays considerably more on average than the high-risk job that it replaced, and that has added considerable funds —Deloitte estimated the figure at some £140 billion— to the UK economy.

AI is a new factor of production that could be used for labour substitution where labour is scarce, or to complement labour to produce higher-quality output. Obviously there will be a large number of professions and jobs that will need to evolve, while others could remain at high risk of displacement if they retain a high component of routine. That applies, as some noble Lords put it, to a number of professional jobs. Whether people are in the law or insurance, they will all need to change and adapt.

The Government are already offering a whole spectrum of skills packages, from the development of lifelong digital skills training plans through the Digital Skills Partnership to a revamped computer science curriculum in schools. Both my own department, BEIS, and the DCMS plan to work across the industry sector to support businesses to use AI more effectively and, in addition, to make the case for more flexible careers being more likely and beneficial to personal development.

I believe that in this area we can also compete internationally where it is necessary to bring in elements from abroad to accelerate innovation and advance the progress of AI. There are two very recent examples of that. First, at Davos my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced a new partnership with the World Economic Forum on developing a framework for responsible procurement of AI in the public sector.

Secondly, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced with Prime Minister Modi the new UK-India tech partnership to identify and pair businesses, venture capital, universities and others to provide access routes to markets for British and Indian entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises.

Turning to migration issues, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, who asked about the number of tech visas. I give an assurance that we have doubled the number to about 2,000. That will certainly bring more into this country, but it will be kept under review by the Home Office.

On funding for research, the Government responded in some detail in paragraph 53 to recommendations 31 and 32. We made it clear that the artificial intelligence sector deal was just the first commitment from the Government to realise the technology’s potential, outlining a package of almost £0.95 billion for the sector. Further research funding of £1.6 billion for R&D, not all in AI, was announced in the recent Budget, helping us to meet our commitment to get R&D expenditure up to the level set out in the industrial strategy a little over a year ago.

We are confident that our strategy is building on a very strong baseline. We were recently ranked first in the Oxford Insights government AI readiness index, measuring innovation, availability of data, skills and regulatory landscape. We are already home to some of the biggest names in the business, such as DeepMind, which has been mentioned. We are certainly looking for more investment, but we are seeing a great deal of it. In the sector deal, we announced the investment, but future investment was announced in the recent Budget.

I turn to the question of ethics in AI, particularly in health, raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Reid, my noble friend Lady Rock and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. The crucial question is how we will address liability, including in health. We recognise the need to move forward on AI in an ethical and responsible manner. That is why we are establishing the centre for data ethics and innovation to advise on the governance of data and AI and to work with civil society, industry, the regulators and the public sector to strengthen their governance.

As noble Lords will be aware, we have closed our consultation on the scope for the centre and will shortly be publishing our response. We expect the centre to publish its operating strategy some time next spring. This will set out the themes and priorities for the centre. A core part of its remit will be to consider and scan the current regulatory landscape and advise the Government on gaps and improvements in data and AI.

In a rapidly changing industry and world, one must be aware of the danger of getting these things wrong. One is reminded of the introduction of the motor car, when Governments felt that they ought to regulate, thinking it best to put a man with a red flag walking in front of the motor car. Governments rapidly realised that that did not work and was rather impeding the development of that industry, and removed the man with the red flag. I hope that we can get the regulation, the ethics and everything else right. As the centre begins its work programme, we expect it to consider such issues and take them forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, asked whether the recently published code of conduct should be made mandatory and how it should be taken forward. We launched it in September, and it is building on the Government’s data ethics framework. It is currently voluntary, with an ambition for companies to co-design the code. In parallel, the Government are keeping the regulatory landscape under review and will further consider the future of the code and how to enforce it as it progresses.

In the time available to me I am not sure that I can deal with many more questions. I want to answer the call of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, for the Government to launch an inquiry, in line with the report, into autonomous weapons. We continue to engage across government and internationally. At this stage, I would not want to go much further than that. I note what he says—I think he said that there would be an opportunity to discuss it later this week. I am sure that my right honourable friends in the Foreign Office will take note of that.

As I said in my opening remarks, it is very difficult to do justice to a report such as this in the short time I have. I think that the Government got five or six out of 10—or perhaps a little more, because the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is fairly generous—for our response to the report. We very much welcome the report, and I hope that he will welcome that response.

As I have set out, a great deal is happening at government and other levels. It is difficult to know quite how to respond on these occasions, but we have all reflected on how far we have come since the report was published in April. I believe wholeheartedly that we are on the cusp of an AI and data revolution that will change all our lives. Like my noble friend Lady Rock, I am one of the eternal optimists. I think it will change all our lives and communities for the better, and that this country is likely to be home to a thriving and vibrant AI sector, realising the vision that we have set out in the sector deal and in our response to the committee’s report—both encouraging investment and attracting the brightest minds.

Our ambition will not stop with that sector deal: it is only the beginning of the United Kingdom’s plans to be recognised as a place where ingenuity and entrepreneurship can continue to flourish, where technology follows the highest ethical standards and where the transformative potential of that technology is spread across the UK economy as widely as possible. With that, I thank the noble Lord for his report.