UK govt opens inquiry into AI's societal impacts

To consider the black box of AI systems, data-based monopolies and required regulation

The UK government has opened an inquiry into artificial intelligence that will assess the economic, ethical and social implications of advances in the field.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence on Wednesday put out a call for experts and members of the public to share their views on AI as well as “pragmatic solutions to the issues presented”.

The questions include one on the “data-based monopolies of some large corporations, and the ‘winner-takes-all’ economies associated with them”, another on whether the public’s understanding of AI should be improved, and one asking if the government should play a role in regulating the systems.

The inquiry will also consider the opacity of AI systems, asking: “In what situations is a relative lack of transparency in artificial intelligence systems (so-called ‘black boxing’) acceptable? When should it not be permissible?”

"This inquiry comes at a time when artificial intelligence is increasingly seizing the attention of industry, policymakers and the general public. The Committee wants to use this inquiry to understand what opportunities exist for society in the development and use of artificial intelligence, as well as what risks there might be,” chairman of the committee, Lord Timothy Clement-Jones said.

“There are significant questions to address relevant to both the present and the future, and we want to help inform the answers to them.”

The committee will take evidence until September, and present its findings by March next year.

Scrutiny 'begins now'

The UK government is taking a keen interest in AI and its place in society. Last year a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry examined the “prospective problems, and adverse consequences” of artificial intelligence and robotics.

"While it is too soon to set down sector-wide regulations for this nascent field, it is vital that careful scrutiny of the ethical, legal and societal dimensions of artificially intelligent systems begins now,” the committee said in its report, published in October last year.

Recommendations included establishing a Commission on Artificial Intelligence to govern the development and application of AI techniques and advise on regulation.

The UK Government funded Royal Society in April published its study on the "power and promise" of machine learning, with particular reference to its "social consequences". It recommended "careful stewardship" of the technology to ensure benefits are shared across society.

Despite the repeated recommendations to approach AI with care and attention, earlier this month the UK’s information commissioner ruled a Google DeepMind trial that used NHS data had run afoul of the country’s privacy laws. Incidentally, the Science and Technology Committee visited DeepMind’s London headquarters in June last year as part of its inquiry.

Australia to assess the impacts

While AI has not yet been debated by Australian parliamentarians, the federal government is backing a research study through the Australian Research Council (ARC) into the “social consequences of robotics and artificial intelligence”.

The project – Enhanced Humans, Robotics and the Future of Work – is being carried out by researchers from the University of South Australia, The Australian National University and the University of Wollongong and has received $429,400 in funding from the ARC.

“The key aim of the project is to assess the impacts that advances in robotic and AI technologies are having on society. The project will do this by exploring the sociological impacts of the current seismic shifts in automation, robotics and AI and how demand is created for digital skills around mobility and mobile technology,” the researchers said.

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