The last decade has brought huge advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), with academic research, billions of pounds in investment and rapid business adoption. Unfortunately, this rise is increasingly met with doom and gloom. Expert warnings focus on job losses, with as many as 40 per cent of jobs estimated to be at high risk of automation. Celebrity tech leaders like the late Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have even cautioned us to prepare for a wider existential threat to humanity. Our current pandemic-driven economic woes will only intensify this alarmism.
The reality is that AI has huge potential to transform our lives for the better, and in many areas is already helping. One software solution I worked on first-hand is now improving anti-money laundering checks at several banks, combatting organised crime. Elsewhere we all use AI daily to access more personalised entertainment, especially now we are stuck at home. AI is also critical to new innovations, from accelerating the discovery of new vaccines, to the development of driverless cars, both of which could save millions of lives.
As for the impact on jobs, the most likely outcome is positive. In the new report released by the Adam Smith Institute, “These are the droids you’re looking for”, I critically examined the forecasts and make the case for optimism. The “expert” projections can seem highly precise when expressed numerically and reported as fact, but they vary dramatically. Small tweaks to many of these models can produce wildly different results. Some academics have even felt it necessary to respond to exaggerated headlines, clarifying that their analysis doesn’t necessarily translate to job losses nor provides timelines.
There have been concerns about the impact of new technology on jobs for centuries. Yet automation has typically created more jobs than it destroyed, boosted productivity and increased our purchasing power. Many are guilty of the Luddite fallacy: assuming that robots and workers are competing for a fixed number of jobs in a static economy. The reality is that innovation drives economic growth and new, usually better, jobs are created.
Rather than blocking progress, we should position to become world leaders in AI, boosting our economic recovery in the process. As for jobs, we should focus our attention on proactively helping out those who lose out or are otherwise displaced. This is the official strategy of most governments in the developed world, but vague pronouncements and half measures will not deliver the goods. Fortunately the 2020 Global AI index being launched next week shows the UK punching above its weight in third place, but they warn that our lead is slipping.
For all his controversy, Dominic Cummings understood the importance of AI and was a proponent of developing the UK’s tech ecosystem. One hopes his departure will not dilute No10’s resolve. The UK needs a joined-up and radical programme extending across regulation, research and development, welfare and taxation.
The Government’s announcement last week of a dedicated AI centre is positive, but there is more work to be done. Our report recommends that the Government set up a £5 million “Office for Removing Barriers to Artificial Intelligence” (ORBI). The Office would remove impediments to artificial intelligence and make permissionless innovation the legal default. In an environment that helps facilitate entrepreneurship, regulation should address harms (protect data, maintain privacy, stop discrimination, etc.) but always be guided by balanced cost-benefit analysis.
The Department Work & Pensions should also set aside £1 billion from its £175 billion budget to fund policy experiments, so we can help those genuinely in need. We need to find better solutions for sustained joblessness, regardless of AI’s impact. We could test policies like Finland’s proposal for a lifelong learning voucher scheme or conduct trials of a Negative Income Tax, enhancing the current system of benefits provided under Universal Credit.
Populist policies like Robot taxes and draconian prohibitions should be rejected. They are poorly conceived, would hinder progress, and would be ineffective in a globalised economy where others are hungry to embrace the rewards of technology.
Change can be scary and it is important we address the public’s legitimate concerns. The path to prosperity gives confidence about jobs, preventing a misguided backlash, while also providing the environment in which positive innovation can flourish.
James Lawson is a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute