Is this the most exciting area for AI right now?
Yes, probably. In this sphere there’s also huge potential for AI to analyse a lot of data and look for new ways and drugs to treat people, and this would hopefully have good results for society as a whole.
What worries you about AI right now?
One of my biggest worries is the impact AI can have on the surveillance of people by private companies using things such as facial recognition. I’d also be concerned about employees having their productivity analysed by AI systems, or anyone working remotely and having AI software that checks on their behaviour. We’re seeing this sort of thing happen already without AI. AI could supercharge the process with its ability to crunch data and really limit our potential to live privately.
What’s the solution? Is it regulation and control again?
With facial recognition, there are lots of ideas about individuals, for example, wearing t-shirts or face paint that can confuse AI cameras, but these are really just sticking plasters on a much bigger problem. Handling the wider issue of how these systems are used by companies and governments does come back to regulation and control.
With contact tracing apps and vaccine passports, perhaps the pandemic has shown us how new types of technology can help us, but also shown us that we need to think about how we look at technology as a solution to our problems. With a lot of the bigger problems we face as a society, technology is not going to give us an easy, single answer. You need to consider these problems from the perspectives of as many different groups as possible. Any group that’s going to be affected should be involved in the discussion
Where do you reckon AI might be in five years’ time?
I'm hopeful it’ll be having a good and positive impact on our working lives. There’s a lot it can do to make our jobs better. It can automate some of the most boring tedious processes we have to go through, potentially allowing us in office-based roles to focus on things like interpersonal connections and creativity.
So AI doesn’t mean robots taking our jobs and mass redundancies?
The world of work is going to change a lot, but I don’t think it’ll be a case of lots of robots coming to take our jobs. We’ll mostly work collaboratively with AI. For example, employment lawyers in London are now using AI to scan contracts for clauses like NDAs. The contracts still go to humans for review, but the AI saves us the drudgery of a lawyer having to sit and read hundreds of pages of contracts. That’s a pretty good vision of how AI and humans can work together. There will be some job displacement – for example in the delivery industry when AI self-driving vehicles arrive – but AI is a chance to reshape work so we can free up some of our time and focus on more creative things, for example.
But some jobs could be at risk?
AI’s going to have different impacts on different industries. For now, I’d say AI is not in widespread use and, where it has been deployed, it’s been in limited use cases and it’s not ready to replace human workers. The goal of creating an AI that can do every single task a job role requires without being taught and trained each time is still quite a long way off. For example, ‘bringing context’ is something that’s very human about the way we work. AI’s at the moment are self-contained and have very little awareness of the world around them. For example, if you had an AI system that was stock picking in a warehouse, it might be good at finding the right item but it would only really understand what was in its field of view. If its human supervisor had to go for a toilet break or something like that and disappeared, it wouldn’t really understand that. I’ve also seen research showing that a lot of businesses that have deployed AI to this point have failed to see any sort of real-world return on their investment.