The Spectator

Where is Artificial Intelligence taking us?

Where is Artificial Intelligence taking us?
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Recently, The Spectator, in association with NatWest, brought together leading entrepreneurs, MPs and technology writers to discuss where Artificial Intelligence (AI) – or the fourth industrial revolution as it is often termed – is taking us. Guests included: Simon McNamara , group CAO of NatWest, Damian Collins MP, Tugce Bulut, CEO of Streetbees, Nathan Gralton, MD of Scopesuite, Rob O'Donovan, CEO of Charlie HR, Jesse Lozano, CEO of Pi-Top, Charles Arthur, former tech editor for The Guardian and Independent, Alan Mak MP, Sarah Drinkwater, head of Campus London for Google, Rory Cellen-Jones, BBC technology correspondent, Kevin Hanley, director of innovation for NatWest, Leigh Renders, Senior Public Affairs Manager for NatWest and Lesley Smith, UK Director of Public Policy for Amazon. Fraser Nelson chaired the discussion. A podcast was recorded on the same day, which can be played above.

NatWest recently opened its own innovation centre, Open Experience, at its HQ at Gogarburn in Edinburgh and the bank is set to replicate this hub in London next month. From there, scouting teams are being sent around the world to look for promising technologies which could transform finance and customer interaction with the banking industry.

We are forever being spun a negative story about AI: that it will cost us our jobs: 40 per cent of all jobs according to one oft-quoted statistic. Not everyone, however, is so pessimistic. The OECD has analysed, task by task, what it considers to be the potential of AI and concluded that it is more like eight per cent of current jobs which are at risk. There is a long history of forecasting employment doom from technology: it was predicted long ago that the accountancy profession would be broadly usurped by computers, yet it has continued to grow. What has tended to happen in the past, in all areas of the economy, is that technology takes over lower quality, routine jobs – jobs which, argues Sarah Drinkwater, head of Google’s Campus London, are ‘dehumanising’ in some respects – while generating parallel growth in higher-value jobs. Overall, employment has never been higher.

The replacement of jobs by technology is, after all, the means by which productivity improves and societies become richer. In many respects it is not happening fast enough – productivity has been flat in recent years in spite of the rapid development of AI. While we experiment with driverless cars, for example, trains are mostly still driven by humans – in spite of this form of transport being far easier to automate and the fact that the technology to do so has been around for decades. In Britain, there is a delay in automation thanks to the availability of low-cost migrant labour since 2004. In many areas of the economy, automation is already in process but it will take time before it really becomes good enough to replace humans. When it does so, there will be a step change in the nature of the employment market.

Jesse Lozano, co-founder Pi-Top, which manufactures modular computers focused on project based learning and supplies them to schools, is more pessimistic about jobs than most. “The time line is moving much more quickly than in the past,” he says. “Then, we had jobs replacing jobs, now we have technology replacing jobs”. Already, there are factories where 800 people have been replaced by 20 higher-skilled people. Moreover, AI will cut into the professions, where technological advance has previously left untouched. According to Tugce Bulut, CEO of global intelligence platform Streetbees, her company used to work with 100 translators. Now, it is only necessary to work with one translator for each language in which the company operates.

There is also a danger of an imbalanced effect across the economy, with a gap opening up between London and the rest of the country according to Conservative MP Alan Mak, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the fourth industrial revolution. Yet his colleague Damian Collins sees a form of advantage to the UK economy: AI will allow manufacturers to relocate factories back in Britain, closer to markets they serve.

Whatever happens, it is inevitable that the jobs market will look very different and we need to be prepared for it. Our education system is not yet aligned with the change. Not enough teachers are qualified to teach coding – the language of the fourth industrial revolution. We are still teaching children to memorise information like robots – a skill at which they will easily be outperformed by the robots themselves. What we need now is education based more on analytical skills. “The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be people who can’t read,” says Jesse Lozano. “It will be people who cannot learn, relearn and apply.”

One thing which distinguishes the 4th industrial revolution is how it is being driven by large numbers of tiny start-ups. Tech companies often require very small amounts of capital compared with industries in the past: Tulge Bulut says she began Streetbees with just £5000 worth of funding, relying on free services on the internet. Previously, companies tended to be started by people whose own parents were entrepreneurs; now a spirit of enterprise is much more widespread. There is a lot of emphasis in government on encouraging entrepreneurship, in the belief that the future economy will be driven by companies like Google, which began in a garage and then grew explosively. The funding available for start-up enterprises has been transformative. But there is a danger of putting too much emphasis on start-ups, says Rob O’ Donovan, CEO of human resource management firm CharlieHR – we might be better offering a bit more help to companies which already exist but which need a little help to get to the next stage of their development. In some ways it is too easy to start companies and then to run away from them onto the next thing.

What government does not need to do, though, is to try and push young people into any particular industries. Governments have had a poor record in the past of trying to pick winners in industry – bestowing favour on particular companies and technologies only to see them wilt at a later stage. The same mistake does not need to be made in future, by pushing young people into particular careers. “Young people are very good at discovering job opportunities,” says Lesley Smith of Amazon. Moreover, technology will help to solve issues of equality which government is now struggling hard to tackle. Using machine-learning in recruitment is helping to remove unconscious human bias.

At Open Experience, NatWest has already passed one marker which would have been unthinkable in the world of computers and technology until recently: its graduate and apprentice recruits this year are split 50-50 between male and female. “People told us it couldn’t be done,” says Simon McNamara.