Opinion: by Ismael Kherroubi Garcia
The UK government has consistently made the case in recent years for promoting innovation through the investment in, and development and deployment of, artificial intelligence (AI) research and systems. However, the government has not made any significant headway in filling the need for the skills and knowledge required to make such an AI-driven economy sustainable.
In this post, I suggest that a narrow focus on AI innovations poses a risk to the UK’s democracy and people’s livelihoods. At We and AI, we urge the government to promote the skills and knowledge necessary for the general public to meaningfully engage and critique AI advancements for the betterment of society.
AI systems encompass a wide range of computational tools and techniques, used for things such as calculating the quickest route in a GPS, recommending music, and summarising texts. Advancements in AI have naturally been a source of excitement for many people around the world, including government officials. Acknowledging the potential for AI technologies, the UK published the National AI Strategy in 2021. Amongst other things, the Strategy set out how the UK plans to promote AI-related innovations and discoveries through regulation and investment.
Regarding regulation, the Strategy makes clear the government’s “intention to build the most pro-innovation regulatory environment in the world.” This has been reinforced through policy papers in July 2022, and March 2023, both advocating for a “pro-innovation approach to AI regulation.” Regarding investment, the Strategy celebrated the UK government’s investment of over £2.3 billion since 2014, and national AI-related businesses raising over £1.5 billion in funds in 2020. In November 2023, we saw this focus on investment exemplified by the Technology Secretary’s announcement to invest to make “British AI supercomputing 30 times more powerful.”
Pro-innovation policies entail significant social impacts. But what do those impacts look like? In particular, what does the government’s focus on AI mean for the people? How will the inhabitants of the UK be affected by a government that promotes technological advancement to such an extent?
There are at least two implications the government’s pro-AI policies may entail. The first concerns the skills and knowledge required by a future-ready workforce. Whilst this need is acknowledged by the National AI Strategy, it is only accompanied by a one-page compilation of resources for people wondering “Where can I learn more about AI?” The compilation targets university graduates, workers, parents, teachers and the general public. The general public are suggested free online courses by organisations such as Google, Microsoft and FutureLearn. However, the one-pager does not suggest content for younger students. The resources are targeted at upskilling the current and short-term workforce, but not those who will be joining the workforce further down the line.
The second impact relates to democratic values. The UK government is a parliamentary democracy, with an executive accountable to a parliament whose members are appointed by the public. The government’s policies and legislation proposals must be understood by the general population for the democratic process to be meaningful, and for the government to effectively reflect the nation’s values. The key here is that those policies must be understood. Any governmental policy that cannot be scrutinised by the electorate does not straightforwardly protect people’s interests. National regulation and investment decisions that are opaque undermine our democracy.
AI tools – recommending travel routes, music and so on – directly impact people’s experience and understanding of the world. AI does not only encompass a wide range of technologies, but also tangible effects on individuals and society. The UK’s future will see AI tools and systems deeply intertwined with people’s everyday lives – more so, even, than today. These technologies must bolster and celebrate – not undermine – the people’s diverse values and experiences. And we can achieve this through thoughtful and nuanced policy.
As it stands, the UK government is driving the nation towards an “AI economy” wherein AI-related initiatives are prioritised through regulatory and investment decisions. Without adequate training on the complex sociotechnical nature of AI, the general population is at the mercy of an elite few: big tech firms and ill-informed policy-makers.
The government’s pro-innovation agenda can become unsustainable and undermine the UK’s democratic values. Assuming that technological innovation will remain a cornerstone of the UK’s future, it is crucial that we promote AI literacy – the critical thinking skills necessary to use, evaluate and build AI tools and systems for the betterment of society. It is crucial that our democracy not be eroded due to the mindless pursuit of overhyped technological capabilities.
Image by: Jamillah Knowles & Reset.Tech Australia / Better Images of AI / People with phones / CC-BY 4.0