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Is that really a general election issue?

“AI and robotics. Is that really a general election issue, Matt?”

My friend had asked a genuine question but my response seemed somewhat flippant. They knew of my involvement in the public policy scene and with a sudden general election on the horizon they wanted to hear what I thought were the important issues to consider, aside from the infamous B word. Pithy jibes followed about Westminster already being filled with enough robots who don’t do as they’re told, before quickly returning to the serious question in hand: important issues to raise with candidates standing for election.

But I wasn’t playing the fool. AI and robotics should be among one of the important topics parliamentary candidates ought to be facing up to. Ten years ago, policy makers may have had a reasonable excuse for filing it under ‘future issues’, but in that relatively short space of time the pace of change and advance in AI technology has been significant. To some extent, AI has always been with us in some form (think: an autopilot on an aeroplane or even the lift you use every day at work or home) but it has come of age more recently, from online banking to social media to Skype to Uber to Google and being able to summon a vast amount of information at the click of a button.

Research indicates modern computers are one trillion times as powerful as the most powerful computers in the world around in the year 1960. Our ability to make these super-intelligent machines even smarter increases as they become smaller and cheaper to produce. As they get smarter, they also become just a little more like us. Whilst we are a long way off seeing them do everything that humans can, they can already do some of what we do better than us.

So what about government? The challenge has always been that as technology moves fast, governments tend to always move very slowly. What does prompt action from governments are issues that galvanise a strong response from people, for example climate change, GM food and healthcare. On a topic such as AI and robots the jury is still out. Governments are more likely to ‘wait and see’ what happens before making any decisive moves.

Yet government attention is attracted by talk of technology innovation as it often heralds exciting prospects for the economy. Innovative technological solutions often yield new markets and job opportunities. But AI and robotic innovations are likely to present us with something more ‘disruptive’.

Today’s high-tech companies are become less interested in hiring more people to work for them, precisely because they are using more robots to do the work. Even if they are not actually making robots, companies are deploying robots to do the work commonly undertaken by humans. With Christmas just around the corner you might give thought to who or what will actually help to process and package up your Amazon order. In the not too distant future, could a robot really take your job?

AI presents many new dimensions for us to consider. It is handing enormous power to a small number of huge companies who scoop up data about us and use if for business purposes. It’s also giving more and more power to governments. Design and delivery of more ‘personalised’ services informed by data analytics of our personal lives is one thing, but where does privacy end and surveillance begin? What about using robots to take on care of our old people? And to act as nannies to our children? What about robots making decisions that have huge results – like driving cars and lorries that could get into accidents? What about robots designed for sex? Or, more subtly, robots designed to be friends and companions and take the place of human friends and companions for people who prefer their relationships easy and under their control?

No one, not least a politician, wants to be labelled a luddite. They want to be on the side of progress and championing a future full of new and exciting opportunities. But just how to resolve the tension between embracing new technologies whilst still championing the wonder that is humanity?

This is the key reason why the challenges posed by AI and robotics need to be front and centre of any new government. These questions require our attention now in order to shape the future for the better. Thinking and debate around these issues are taking place within boardrooms up and down the country as well as around the world. Clear leadership from government needs to align with this activity in order to bring much needed perspective in terms of agenda setting and policy formation for tomorrow … because it’s closer than we think.

Let me assure you, as I did my friend, the arrival of AI and robotics really is a general election issue.

Matt James

CARE’s Bioethics Consultant