The Future’s Bright - The Week in AI

Written by Dominic Weeks, Head of Technology

There were some brilliant events hosted across the capital this week, stimulating more debate and enthusiasm for developing AI as a major part of our economy and society in the UK.

At CogX, CognitionX’s flagship event under the glorious sunshine at Tobacco Dock, there were some fascinating discussions and exciting companies showcasing their innovations. From psychographic recruitment tools like Arctic Shores that can reduce implicit bias, to SeeFashion, an analytics platform that helps retailers better understand customer intent, the show floor was full of technologies that offered substantial improvements to how we do business. Bridging the Uncanny Valley of companionship, Tony Prescott and his team from Consequential Robotics demonstrated MiRo – a companion robot development kit in canine form. Positive applications of artificial intelligence were everywhere to be seen.

The next day, the AI Summit kicked off at the ExCel with an array of big name speakers. Uber’s Chief Scientist Zoubin Ghahramani suggested a mind shift was needed to stop thinking of AI as always inspired by or replicating the human brain just because that’s where neural networks have their inspiration. It is perhaps a limiting assumption given that the human brain cannot actually store very much information at all, and it perhaps exacerbates fears of replacement. Instead, he highlighted exciting areas where AI can augment our own capabilities and experiences.

Norm Judah from Microsoft highlighted the differences between open and closed loop AI (such as autonomous vehicles), pinpointing the former as a great stream for creating augmented experiences for people, conquering “analogue hot spots” and powering digital transformation.

The Government voice was there to be heard too. Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for DCMS, used his appearance at the AI Summit to announce a new startup visa with a Dragons Den approach. He also pronounced that the current pace of change we are witnessing is the slowest we will see in our lifetime, precisely because AI is compound, not simply additive. Business secretary Greg Clark celebrated the density and close connections of our universities and tech businesses, and called for further collaboration to power AI innovation. He also asked the audience to take another look at history and reconsider the Luddites as “skilled artisans, ordinary people frightened for their future place in society” before underlining the importance of winning, maintaining and deserving public trust in AI.

The suits were not about to have the final word, however. Nesta hosted a fascinating FutureFest Forward event on Thursday evening which examined the impact of AI on art and creativity. Alphr features editor Thomas McMullen highlighted some huge leaps made with AI that are already enhancing the creativity of gaming. Yuli Levrov, Director at Reactify, questioned the concerns about human authorship, introducing a small slice of Barthesian theory into the AI discussion. UCLA professor and media artist Victoria Vesna shared a great machine learning research/installation example where humans mimicked bird song and both the system recording and the human participants learned and changed behaviour over time.

All panellists agreed on the almost limitless potential for human creativity in new and exciting areas thanks to automation, and the evolving definition of what creativity is. Vesna underlined the importance of maintaining our off grid skills and building that resilience into the education system.

Analysis

It is refreshing to take a step beyond the news pages which, needs must, often play to our fears about the loss of our place in the world caused by AI development, from the erosion of our faculties as sentient beings, to the destruction of our earnings potential as workers.

From the discussions to the demonstrations, this week’s events painted a bright picture of our future living side by side with artificial intelligence. The positivity on display perhaps explains why public sentiment is shifting. An ARM survey found that 60 percent of people (globally) felt that AI will make society better, with just 22 percent feeling it would be made worse.

It would be a mistake for industry and government to rest on their laurels though. Huge barriers still exist to the implementation of certain technologies and ethical concerns were certainly a top area of debate this week. Furthermore, disruption will cause uncertainty and pain for people as the business secretary underlined, and it is critical that everything is done to reduce that friction and also balance the debate with the positives on display.

In addition, as can be seen from our weekly news in brief section, the headline news often focuses on the more terrifying aspects. The fourth estate should absolutely be keeping these questions alive and investigating troubling ethical quandaries associated with technology development. It is down to the sector to also promote the positive vision.

News in Brief