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Mike Wooldridge speaks on AI at The House of Lords

Professor Michael Wooldridge describes his experience giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), and in particular the subfield of AI known as machine learning (ML), are very big news these days.

There has been genuinely rapid development in ML over the past decade, prompted in part by scientific breakthroughs, but also by the availability of large amounts of data with which to 'train' ML programs, and the availability of cheap computer processing power. Just as important to the growth in interest has been the dire predictions made in the press from high profile commentators about the risks that AI might ultimately pose to humanity.

In 2017, the UK government responded to the AI boom by organising an All-Party Parliamentary Group on AI starting in April, and launching in October a House of Lords Select Committee on AI led by Lord Tim Clement-Jones. Select committees work by first calling for written evidence (which anyone can submit), and then using these as the basis to structure a series of evidence sessions, which take place over several months.

On the basis of my written evidence, I was called to the first session on 10 October 2017. The other witnesses in my session were Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and Oxford's Professor Nick Bostrom, author of the New York Times bestseller, Superintelligence.

The chair, Lord Clement-Jones, was friendly and welcoming, but as the session began, I discovered to my horror that a pen I had been nervously playing with had exploded, covering my hands in black ink. (If you watch the video of the session you can see my inky hands and my attempts to keep them out of sight.)

The session began with brief statements from the witnesses, and then moved briskly into the question and answer session. I was enjoying myself enormously: it is tremendously rewarding talking about a subject that you are passionate about in such a high-profile venue, and having senior members of our government listen attentively to your answers. The questions ranged from highly practical to rather philosophical.

I aimed at being enthusiastic about AI, but cautiously measured about what is likely to be possible, and to dispel some of the crazier ideas circulating. The main messages I wanted to put across were:

  • There have been genuine and exciting developments in AI recently, which will provide opportunities for new AI-based products and services, but these advances have been confined to very narrow domains - the Hollywood dream of conscious machines is not imminent, and indeed I see no path taking us there.
  • The UK is well placed to benefit from the AI boom with truly world-class AI expertise at many UK universities (notably Oxford), a vibrant start-up scene in London, and the presence of DeepMind. However, the UK's position is fragile, made more so by the uncertainty of Brexit, because it is essential to attract the best talent internationally to succeed in this field.
  • To nurture the field, we need advanced skills - not just in programming, but MScs/DPhils. Advanced skills in AI are in desperately short supply - people with them are able to command startling salaries. A concerted investment in MSc/DPhil training would be highly desirable.
  • Knee-jerk legislation about AI is not likely to be appropriate. I think it would be more useful to focus on specific areas such as health, insurance and finance, and think about whether specific legislation is needed in those areas to cope not just with AI, but with our digital future in general.
  • My main concerns about AI in the short to medium term are related to unemployment and privacy, plus the implications of autonomous weaponry.

The event attracted a lot of press coverage. Some reports presented my contributions as uncritical flag waving for AI, which I didn’t intend and find hard to see in the transcript. Don’t take my word for it. Why not watch the video yourself. Feel free to enjoy the sight of me squirming as I realise my hands are covered in black ink, just as I am about to give evidence in the House or Lords. The video is at:

Mike will be speaking at Oxford's AI Expo on 27 March 2018.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Inspired Research.