Is the UK ready, willing and able for AI? The Government responds to the Lords’ report

by Scarlet George

In May, we gave you our take on the report on AI in the UK presented by the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, ‘AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?’. Now, the UK Government has responded.

Our previous blog outlined topics in the Lords’ report which we thought needed further examination: education, accountability and engagement. Here, we look at the Government’s take on these key topics, and what areas still need to be addressed.

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1. Education: the Government is not doing enough to promote the value of human specialties (such as emotional intelligence) in the AI economy

The Lords’ Report recommended that the Government focus on a few key areas in terms of AI education. The first was that public sector, civil society and private organisations need to work together to ‘improve digital understanding and data literacy’. This led into their next recommendation, that school curriculums need to be adjusted to account for a lack of those skills. The Lords made the final point that a new curriculum must focus on the ‘wider social and ethical aspects of computer science and artificial intelligence’.

In their response, the Government has explained how they aim to educate students at both primary and secondary level and increase teacher knowledge of computer science generally. As recommended in the House of Lords report, the Government aims to educate children and teachers not only on how to use these new technologies, but also on the ethical questions behind their applications and potential risks. £84 million of new funds are set to be injected into the system, some of which will be used to upskill up to 8,000 computer science teachers.

However, as we gain a better sense of what an AI-driven world will look like experts agree that school curriculums should incorporate a greater focus on emotional and communication skills alongside computer science and STEM subjects. Neither the House of Lords’ nor the Government’s reports acknowledge the need to prepare for a new world where human specialties such as emotional intelligence are becoming increasingly important. This is an area that is already being explored by governments in other countries, such as the New South Wales Department of Education.

One option the Government could take would be to create new primary and secondary curriculums that actively teach human specialties. AI is already affecting the way we work. Therefore, the Government must rethink how, when and where we learn. Involving students in collaborative learning projects, ensuring that they learn skills ranging from the scientific to the emotional it necessary to help them grow up to become part of an active citizenry.

2. Accountability: the Government’s response is not clear about who will be responsible for AI and the decisions it makes

The key question here is: who will be responsible if AI tools go wrong? The Lords’ report directed the Government to ensure that there is a legal framework to protect citizens from the potential malfunction of AI systems, and from the decisions they make. The report questioned whether it is necessary to create new legal mechanisms, or whether existing ones could be used.

The government’s response has not provided much more clarity. They have confirmed that the Office for Artificial Intelligence, Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and the AI Council will focus on the question of who will be held accountable, but we still don’t know what direction they will take. We do know that regulating AI and creating legislation to govern new technology is not an easy task, given the complexity of the technologies involved and the speed at which they are developing.

A proper conversation about the creation of a regulatory framework that also fosters innovation is necessary. The Lords’ report and Government response would have benefitted from a more specific approach to the issue by tackling concerns about privacy and consent and how these can be regulated. The international community is already discussing how this can be done. The UK Government needs to take a more concrete approach to this issue if the country is to be a global leader in the development of AI.

3. Engagement: the government is making positive steps towards ensuring the general public is informed and consulted on AI

The Lords’ report addressed the need to establish ‘public trust and confidence in how to use artificial intelligence, as well as explain the risks’. However, the report also notes that it is not the role of the government to intervene and prevent the media from sensationalising the topic.

The government directly responds to the issue of media sensationalism by explicitly addressing it on page six. The report states that further communication needs to be led by experts (including government bodies) in the field, to ensure that the benefits and risks of AI are effectively communicated to the public and businesses. An important aim mentioned in the government's report is to ‘ensure debate and policy-making are sufficiently evidence-based and informed by convening experts across sectors’. This gives a clear indication that the government plans to form policy around AI and aims to work with all relevant stakeholders, including the public.

It is crucial that citizens are not afraid of these new technologies without having a real sense of how they work or what they do. Therefore, the government needs to continue engaging with citizens and actively educating people on the pertinent issues: the risks, AI’s use, and what the future may hold.

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Less than three months after the Lords gave their recommendations on how the UK can be a global leader in developing AI, the government has responded. Their response gives clear direction in terms of education around AI, and demonstrates the Government’s aims to seek counsel from public opinion and experts in the field. While some responses were explicit in their aims, others left us with more questions than answers. We are eager see more concrete steps being taken so the public and private sectors understand what to expect and can more easily give their input as the UK’s AI industry develops. To ensure that all stakeholders are involved, the Government needs to map out an engagement strategy that encourages all voices to be heard and demonstrates how the Government will report their findings.  

Scarlet George