Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to completely change how we live and work but the UK government is totally unprepared, MPs have warned.
The Science and Technology Committee released a report on Wednesday warning that the UK government "does not yet have a strategy" for equipping citizens with the skills they need to flourish in a world where AI is more prevalent.
It also has no strategy for dealing with the social and ethical dilemmas that AI advances present, according to the report.
Acting chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Dr Tania Mathias MP, said in a statement: "Artificial intelligence has some way to go before we see systems and robots as portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars. At present, 'AI machines' have narrow and specific roles, such as in voice-recognition or playing the board game 'Go'.
"But science fiction is slowly becoming science fact, and robotics and AI look destined to play an increasing role in our lives over the coming decades. It is too soon to set down sector-wide regulations for this nascent field but it is vital that careful scrutiny of the ethical, legal and societal ramifications of artificially intelligent systems begins now."
The Committee — comprised of 14 MPs appointed by the House of Commons — pointed out that AI systems are already starting to transform our everyday lives, calling out driverless cars and computers that can help doctors to diagnose patients as examples.
But advances in AI raise a host of questions for society, according to the Committee, particularly around ethics, transparency, and privacy.
As a result, the Committee is calling on the government to create a new "Commission on Artificial Intelligence" at the Alan Turing Institute, headquartered at the British Library in London, to examine the social, ethical, and legal implications of recent and potential developments in AI.
UK is well-placed to lead on AI
The UK is poised to become a world leader in this type of "intellectual leadership" on AI, the Committee said, adding that UK engineers have developed improved automated voice recognition software, predictive text keyboards on smartphones, and autonomous vehicles.
While UK AI startups like DeepMind (acquired by Google for a reported £400 million) and Magic Pony Technologies (acquired by Twitter for a reported (£122 million) often punch above their weight, the UK government is failing to deliver leadership in the field of AI, according to the Committee.
"Government leadership in the fields of robotics and AI has been lacking. Some major technology companies — including Google and Amazon — have recently come together to form the 'Partnership on AI'," said Mathias. "While it is encouraging that the sector is thinking about the risks and benefits of AI, this does not absolve the government of its responsibilities. It should establish a 'Commission on Artificial Intelligence' to identify principles for governing the development and application of AI, and to foster public debate."
In terms of robots taking people's jobs, there are conflicting views, the Committee says. However, despite the differing views, the Committee believes that "a much greater focus" is needed on adjusting the UK's education and training systems to deliver the skills that will enable people to adapt and thrive as the new technology comes to fruition.
Rob McCargow, artificial intelligence leader at PwC, hailed the report as "the first step in the right direction."
He added: "We need to ensure all parties come together to develop the necessary regulation for building trusted and transparent AI systems to support future economic growth. Having the right standards in place is essential to take advantage of AI for the good of human kind, but we can't just think about this from a UK point of view - AI has no regard for international borders so we need a coherent global approach to regulation."
McCargow stressed that the UK must prioritise funding for R&D in the field of AI, especially after Brexit happens.
"Developing the right skills to ensure we can continue to innovate is important," said McCargow. "One school of thought is to equip the workforce of the future purely with digital skills, but because AI has the potential to democratise access to technology and code for us, humans will need to focus on creativity and critical thinking."
On AI ethics, McCargow said: "We need to ensure there is diversity in the field at the point of technology creation. If the workforce creating these first forays into AI systems isn't representative of the population, how can we ensure we're creating unbiased products that are relevant to everyone?"
TechUK, the trade body that represents UK technology companies, also welcomed the report.
"Like all new powerful technologies, robotics and AI will bring great changes, and it is essential that they are used in a way that enhances the lives of ordinary people and strengthens the society that we live in," said Sue Daley, head of big data and analytics at TechUK.
"Business, academia, citizens and government all have a role to play in ensuring we have an informed and balanced debate about the potential impact of these new technologies and how we can ensure we all benefit from their development and use."