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Exclusive: “It’s time parliamentarians got to grips with AI,” says chair of new Lords committee

Tim Clement-Jones, the chair of the new Lords AI select committee, is sitting in an oak-panelled meeting room in Westminster’s Millbank House. Like many rooms across the parliamentary estate, tech is conspicuous by its absence. But the Lib Dem peer is hoping to put AI firmly on the agenda of parliament’s second chamber.

“Artificial intelligence is one of the most important issues of the age,” he tells NS Tech. “It’s time that parliamentarians got to grips with it.”

Unlike some of his contemporaries in industry and academia, Lord Clement-Jones isn’t a doomsayer about the burgeoning sector, but he’s urging politicians to take stock of its potential impact on society.

“If you get it right, for instance if you get the right anonymity of health data, the benefits of AI […] could be fantastic,” he says. “But if you don’t get the ethics right, you have a great revolt against it, which is completely counterproductive.”

Lord Clement-Jones’ remarks come as the select committee launches its call for evidence about the social, ethical and economic implications of AI.

One of the issues under the spotlight is the rise of tech giants. “How can the data-based monopolies of some large corporations, and the ‘winner-takes-all’ economics associated with them, be addressed?” the call asks.

The lawyer and former Lib Dem president is hoping to deliver concrete recommendations to government when the committee’s report is published in March next year.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to say to government: ‘You must regulate; you must legislate’,” he says. “But I think what we want to deliver is some kind of policy framework that we think government should work within.”

“That could be suggestions to industry for voluntary action,” he adds.

The sector is prompting alarm, even within its own ranks. Elon Musk, whose automaker Tesla is pushing the boundaries of autonomous driving, warned this week that without proactive regulation AI poses “an existential threat”.

Lord Clement-Jones offers a brighter outlook: “I know that there are a lot of pessimists, but I believe that the human being is a creative creature and will have an advantage through their creativity and spontaneity. At the end of the day, human qualities will still be important.”

Raising public awareness of the ways in which AI could transform society is one of the committee’s key aims.

“The lack of understanding amongst the public about where we are headed technologically and the implications of AI is enormous,” said Lord Clement-Jones. “There are many people who fear for the future. We can help engage with them and allay some of those fears.”

The deadline for submissions to the committee is 6 September 2017.

The call’s questions:

  • Is the current level of excitement surrounding artificial intelligence warranted?
  • How can the general public best be prepared for more widespread use of artificial intelligence?
  • Who in society is gaining the most from the development and use of artificial intelligence? Who is gaining the least?
  • Should the public’s understanding of, and engagement with, artificial intelligence be improved?
  • What are the key industry sectors that stand to benefit from the development and use of artificial intelligence?
  • How can the data-based monopolies of some large corporations, and the ‘winner-takes-all’ economics associated with them, be addressed?
  • What are the ethical implications of the development and use of artificial intelligence?
  • In what situations is a relative lack of transparency in artificial intelligence systems (so-called ‘black boxing’) acceptable?
  • What role should the government take in the development and use of artificial intelligence in the UK?
  • Should artificial intelligence be regulated?