House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence – Submission by Prof Toby Walsh.

Written Submission to
House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence
Prof. Toby Walsh FAA, FAAAI, FEurAI.
1. Pace of technological change.
Recent advances in AI are being driven by four rapid changes: the doubling of processing power every two years (aka Moore’s Law), the doubling of data storage also every two years (aka Kryder’s Law), significant improvements is AI algorithms especially in the area of Machine Learning, and a doubling of funding into the field also roughly every two years. This has enabled significant progress to be made on a number of aspects of AI, especially in areas like image processing, speech recognition and machine translation. Nevertheless many barriers remain to building machines that match the breadth of human cognitive capabilities. A recent survey I conducted of hundreds of members of the public and as well as experts in the field ( reveals that experts are significantly more cautious about the challenges remaining.
2. Impact on society.
Education is likely the best tool to prepare the public for the changes that AI will bring to almost every aspects of our lives. An informed society is one that will best be able to make good choices so we all share the benefits. Life-long education will be the key to keeping ahead of the machines as many jobs start to be displaced by automation. Regarding the skills of the future, STEM is not the answer. The population does need to be computationally literate so the new technologies are not magic. But the most valued skills will be those that make us most human: skills like emotional and social intelligence, adaptability, and creativity.
3. Public perception.
The public’s perception is driven more by Hollywood than reality. This has focused attention on very distant threats (like the fear that the machines are about to take over) distracting concern about very real and immediate problems (like the fact that we’re already giving responsibility to stupid algorithms with potentially drastic consequences on society).
4. Industry.
The large technology companies look set to benefit most from the AI revolution. These tend to be winner-take-all markets, with immense network effects. We only need and want one search engine, one social network, one messaging app, one car-sharing service, etc. These companies can use their immense wealth and access to data to buy out or squash any startup looking to innovate. Like any industry that has become rather too powerful, big tech will need to be regulated more strongly by government so it remains competitive and acting in the public good. The technology industry can no longer be left to regulate itself. It creates markets which are immensely distorted. It is not possible to compete against companies like Uber because they don’t care if they lose money. Uber also often doesn’t care if it breaks the law. As to fears that regulation will stifle innovation, we only need look at the telecommunications industry in the US to see that regulation can result in much greater innovation as it permits competition. Competition is rapidly disappearing out of the technology industry as power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few natural monopolies who pay little tax and act in their own, supra-national interests. For example, wouldn’t it likely be a better, more open and competitive market place if we all owned our own social media and not Facebook?
5. Ethics.
There will be immense ethical consequences to handing over many of the decisions in our lives to machines, especially when these machines start to have the autonomy to act in our world (on the battlefield, on the roads, etc.). This promises to be a golden age for philosophy as we will be need to make very precise the ethical choices we make as a society, precisely enough that we can write computer code to execute these decisions. We do not know today how, for example, to build autonomous weapons that can behave ethically and follow international humanitarian law. The UK therefore should be supporting the 19 nations that have called for a pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous weapons at the CCW in the UN. More generally, we will need to follow the lead being taken at EU on updating legislation to ensure we do not sacrifice rights like the right to avoid discrimination on the grounds of race, age, or sex to machines that cannot explain their decision making. Finally, just as we have strict controls in place to ensure money cannot be used to influence elections, we need strict controls in place to limit the already visible and corrosive effect of algorithms on political debate. Elections should be won by the best ideas and not the best algorithms.
6. Conclusions:
The UK is one of the birthplaces of AI. Alan Turing helped invent the computer and dreamt of how, by now, we would be talking of machines that think. The UK therefore has the opportunity and responsibility to take a lead in ensuring that AI improves all our lives. There are a number of actions needed today. The UK Government needs to reverse its position in the ongoing discussions around fully autonomous weapons, and support the introduction of regulation to control the use and proliferation of such weapons. Like any technology, AI and Robotics are morally neutral. It can be used for good or for bad. However, the market and existing rules cannot alone decide how AI and Robotics are used. Government has a vital responsibility to ensure the public good. This will require greater regulation of the natural monopolies developing in the technology sector to ensure competition, to ensure privacy and to ensure that all of society benefits from the technological changes underway.


Toby Walsh is Scientia Professor of AI at the University of New South Wales. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and received his Masters and PhD from the Dept. of AI at the University of Edinburgh. He has been elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and the European Association for Artificial Intelligence. He is currently Guest Professor at TU Berlin. His latest book, “Android Dreams: The Past, Present, and Future of Artificial Intelligence” is published in the UK on 7 th September 2017. 5 September 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s