Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Photo by Jackson So on Unsplash

By James Carson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computer pioneer Alan Turing first considered the notion of ‘thinking machines’ in the 1950s. More than half a century later, advances such as natural language processing and translation, and facial recognition have taken AI out of the computer lab and onto our smartphones. Meanwhile, faster computers and large datasets have enabled machine learning, where a computer imitates the way that humans learn.

AI has already had important impacts on how we live and work: in healthcare, it’s helping to enhance diagnosis of disease; in financial services AI is being deployed to spot trends that can’t be easily picked up by conventional reporting methods; and in education, AI can provide learning, testing and feedback, with benefits both to students and teachers. And now, intelligent automation is being adopted by local government.

AI goes local

A decade of austerity has left local councils struggling to ‘do more with less’. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, but has also accelerated efforts by local government to find digital solutions.

AI offers local authorities the benefits of streamlining routine tasks and processes, freeing up staff to focus on higher value activities which deliver better services and outcomes to citizens. Intelligent automation could also have important economic impacts. IPPR has estimated that AI could save councils up to £6bn in social care costs.

When it comes to system and data updating, intelligent automation really comes into its own. From managing council tax payments to issuing parking permits, there are now digital solutions to the many task-driven processes that are such a major part of local government’s work.

Many local councils are also exploring the application of chatbots or virtual assistants. These technologies enable customer services to provide automated, human-like answers to frequently asked questions on subjects as varied as waste management, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. The time and cost savings from this kind of digital solution can be substantial. Newham Council in London deployed a multilingual chatbot to answer residents’ questions. Within six months, the technology had answered 10,000 questions, saved 84 hours of call time and generated cost savings of £40,000.

The challenges of AI in local government: getting it right

Earlier this year, a report from the Oxford Commission on AI and Good Governance identified the major challenges facing local authorities when considering AI.

Inaccurate or incomplete data can delay or derail an AI project, so it’s vital that data quality issues are addressed early on. The report highlighted a project where one local authority explored how predictive analytics might be used to help prioritize inspections of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Predictive analytics involves the use of historic data to predict new instances. But in this case the challenges of cleaning, processing and merging the data proved too intractable to produce successful predictions.

Another important step for local authorities is to clearly define the objectives of an AI project, providing a clear vision of the outcomes, while managing expectations among all affected stakeholders – especially senior managers. The report points to a successful project implemented by Manchester City Council which developed an integrated database that allowed them to automate record searches and build predictive tools. The project had a clearly stated aim of identifying troubled families to participate in the government’s payment-by-results programme. This approach gave the project a specific focus and an easily measurable assessment of success.

It’s also important for local councils and technology suppliers to work together, ensuring that suppliers are aware of local contexts, existing data and processes. At the same time, making full use of in-house expertise can help AI technologies work better in a local government setting. The Oxford Commission report explains that after the disappointing results from the previously mentioned HMOs project, in-house data scientists working in one of the participating local authorities developed their own solution.

Sometimes, councils will discover that AI is a good fit in some parts of their work, but doesn’t work in others. In 2019, Oxford City Council explored whether chatbots could help solve design problems in some of their services. The council found that, while waste and recycling enquiries could be easily handled by a chatbot, the complex nature of the planning service would have made it difficult to remove humans from the conversations taking place in this setting. That said, another council has found it possible to develop a chatbot for its planning applications.

At the same time, digitalisation is compelling councils to adjust to new ways of working, something discussed in a Local Government Association presentation by Aylesbury Vale District Council.

The future of AI in local government

Since we last looked at this subject, local government involvement in AI has increased. But there are still important governance and ethical arrangements to consider so that AI technologies in public services can achieve benefits that citizens can trust.

The Oxford Commission report set out a number of recommendations, including:

  • minimum mandatory data standards and dedicated resources for the maintenance of data quality;
  • minimum mandatory guidance for problem definition and project progress monitoring;
  • dedicated resources to ensure that local authorities can be intelligent consumers and capable developers of AI;
  • a platform to compile all relevant information about information technology projects in local authorities.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, MJ magazine described AI as a ‘game-changer’ for local government. The potential benefits are clear. AI can generate labour and cost savings, but also offers the promise of reducing carbon footprints and optimizing energy usage. But while residents may welcome greater efficiency in their local councils, many will have concerns about data privacy, digital inclusion and trust in the use of public data.

At its best, artificial intelligence will complement the services provided by local authorities, while ensuring that the all-important element of human intelligence remains at the heart of local government.


Further reading: more on digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Keeping our finger on the pulse: recent additions to our collection across health

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The health and care landscape has been changed in unprecedented ways over the past year. The coronavirus pandemic has not only highlighted strains within the system and required a response to a public health emergency unlike anything else that has been seen for decades, it has also provided an opportunity to push innovation in areas like digital infrastructure and partnership working, and encouraged decision makers to look at public health as an essential part of policy making in all areas.

The Knowledge Exchange database is full of reports, articles and documents which offer insight into these themes, published by organisations from across the heath and social care landscape. In this blog post, we’re highlighting some recent additions to our collection and some of the big themes being discussed within the sector.

Covid-19, “building back better” and a “health in all policies” approach

In March 2021 think tank IPPR published their report State of health and care: the NHS Long Term Plan after Covid-19. The recommendations form a £12 billion blueprint to ‘build back better’ in health and care and the report calls for an adaptation of the NHS Long Term Plan published in 2019 focusing on cancer, mental health, cardiovascular disease and multimorbidity. The authors believe the Long Term Plan needs to change to ‘build back better’ health and care post-pandemic, in relation to: ensuring a sustainable workforce; resourcing the NHS to deliver transformation; empowering integration; upgrading the digital NHS; funding and reforming social care; and levelling up the nation’s health.

Another report, from the Local Government Association (LGA), published in September 2020, provides specific guidance to local authority councillors on ways to improve the approach to population health and use of public health resources in dealing with the pandemic, highlighting the Health in All Policies (HiAP) approach to addressing health inequalities and improving wellbeing. There are a number of other resources which look at public health approaches to tackling other areas of policy such as youth violence and urban regeneration.

Build back fairer: the Covid-19 Marmot Review: the pandemic, socioeconomic and health inequalities in England, published by the Health Foundation and the Institute of Health Equity examines inequalities in coronavirus mortality, looks at the effects that the pandemic, and the societal response, have had on social and economic inequalities, the effects on mental and physical health, and the likely effects on health inequalities in the future. The report assesses the inequalities in the risk of COVID-19 and mortality and explores the impact of containment on inequalities in the social determinants of health, in terms of: early life; education; children and young people; employment and working conditions; a healthy standard of living; healthy and sustainable places and communities; and healthy behaviours.

Mental health

Mental health services have been under significant pressure in the UK for a number of years now, with children’s services (CAMHS) particularly stretched as the number of specialist practitioners is limited. The coronavirus pandemic has, according to many specialists, exacerbated existing pressures and placed even more demand on services. In April 2021 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood published a report: The COVID generation: a mental health pandemic in the making – the impact on the mental health of children and young people during and after the COVID-19 pandemic  which explores a range of themes in relation to the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people. The report presents evidence from a range of sources on the potential implications of the pandemic on young people’s mental health and discusses the impact of school closures on children’s future health and well-being.

The Children’s Commissioner for England recently published a report  which looks at the progress made in improving children’s mental health services in England, and  the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children. The report also examines the provision and accessibility of children’s mental health services in 2019/20, finding that access is still not adequate and not improving as quickly as expected.          

The other pandemic: the impact of Covid-19 on Britain’s mental health  explores how the mental health of people in the UK has been affected by the pandemic, drawing on a survey of over 4000 people. It describes the different experiences of groups across society and the highlights the disproportionate mental health impact on people who are exposed to higher levels of social deprivation, as well as on women, younger people and those who live alone.

Photo by George Morina on Pexels.com

Structural reform

In August 2020 the Health Devolution Commission launched its final report, Building back health and prosperity. Among other themes, such as taking a “health in all policies approach”, the report found that devolving accountability and power to a more local level creates the potential to understand communities and places better, and to meet their needs.

One of the main focuses of the health and social care white paper published in February 2021 is around developing an integrated health and social care system and taking a ‘population health’ preventative approach to healthcare, while a report from the NHS confederation recommends a reformation of the framework for elective care and increased healthcare funding.

Digital transformation

Even before the pandemic, The King’s Fund was publishing widely on digital transformation. But their recent report Understanding factors that enabled digital service change in general practice during the Covid-19 pandemic  looks specifically at the impact of the pandemic on accelerating the transformation of the delivery of some services by GPs to focus more on digital delivery and whether this change can (or should) be sustained once the pandemic is over. It explores the challenges around trust, staff and patient digital literacy and the evaluation of digital tools in practice. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) published their own review of AI and healthcare , providing an overview of AI in the healthcare system and its potential impacts on the cost and quality of healthcare, and on the workforce.

Final thoughts

The landscape of health and care is changing. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on a system which was already facing significant challenges. While in some instances this has led to innovation and accelerated the pace of change, it has also exposed some of the significant weaknesses of the system.

This blog highlights some of the big topics the sector is currently grappling with, but there is more available for TKE members on our database. Members can also sign up to receive our health Topic Update, which will provide fortnightly email updates of items recently added to the collection in health, easily allowing you to stay up to date.

If your organisation is not a member of the Knowledge Exchange and you would like more information, please contact us.


If you liked this article you may also be interested in reading:

A nudge in the right direction? Using behavioural insights in health

Virtual reality: a game changer for mental health treatment?

Devolving health and social care in England: an opportunity to transform how we approach health and care?

Cross-border handshakes: what’s next for digital contact tracing?

Five blog posts that told the story of 2019

As the old year makes way for the new, it’s time to reflect on some of the topics we’ve been covering on The Knowledge Exchange blog over the past twelve months. We’ve published over 70 blog posts in 2019, covering everything from smart canals and perinatal mental health to digital prescribing and citizens’ assemblies. We can’t revisit them all, but here’s a quick look back at some of the stories that shaped our year.

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Tomorrow’s world today

Artificial Intelligence was once confined to the realms of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but it’s already beginning to have a very real impact on our personal and working lives. In February, we looked at the pioneering local authorities that are dipping a toe into the world of AI:

“In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services.”

However, the post went on to highlight concerns about the future impact of AI on employment:

“PwC’s 2018 UK Economic Outlook suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although it’s likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Tackling violent crime

One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the rise in violent crime. Figures released in January found overall violent crime in England and Wales had risen by 19% on the previous year.

As our blog reported in March, police forces around the country, along with health services, local government, education and the private sector have been paying close attention to the experience of Glasgow in tackling violent crime.

Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was launched in 2005, and from the start it set out to treat knife crime not just as a policing matter, but as a public health issue. In its first ten years, the VRU helped to halve the number of homicides in the city, with further progress in subsequent years.

In March, our blog explained that the VRU takes a holistic approach to its work:

“…staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.”

 Protecting the blue planet

Environmental issues have always featured strongly in our blog, and in a year when people in larger numbers than ever have taken to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, we’ve reported on topics such as low emission zones, electric vehicles and deposit return schemes.

In August, we focused on the blue economy. The world’s oceans and seas are hugely important to the life of the planet, not least because they are home to an astonishing variety of biodiversity. In addition, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. But they are also a source of food, jobs and water – an estimated 3 billion people around the world rely on the seas and oceans for their livelihood.

Pollution is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, and, as our blog reported, governments are finally waking up to the need for action:

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships. 

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of place

The ties that bind environmental factors, health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. This was underlined at an international conference in June on the importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities.

One of the speakers was Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde. His research supports the idea that poverty is not the result of bad choices, but rather the absence of a sense of coherence and purpose that people need to make good choices:

“People who have a sense of purpose, control and self-esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices. Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that”.

Celebrating diversity

While it sometimes seems as if our society has made great strides in stamping out prejudice and supporting minority groups, at other times the stark reality of discrimination can shine a light on how far we still have to go.

In June, we marked Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month with two blog posts that aimed to raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today:

“Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults. There is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.”

But our blog also highlighted work being done to address these issues and to spread the word about GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage:

“Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller MovementFriends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community. The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making.”

 Back to the future

Since first launching in 2014, The Knowledge Exchange blog has published more than 700 posts, covering topics as varied as health and planning, education and digital, the arts, disabilities, work and transport.

The key issues of our times – climate change, Brexit and the economy haven’t been neglected by our blog, but we’ve looked at them in the context of specific topics such as air pollution, higher education and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we head into a new year, the aims of The Knowledge Exchange blog remain: to raise awareness of issues, problems, solutions and research in public policy and practice.

We wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2020.

How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer Martyn Wallace spoke to the CIO UK podcast and highlighted that in 2019 local government must take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better outcomes for citizens. He explained:

“I think in the public sector we have to see AI as a way to deliver better outcomes and what I mean by that is giving the bots the grunt work – as one coworker called it, ‘shuffling spreadsheets’ – and then we can release staff to do the more complex, human-touch things.”

To date, very few councils have felt brave enough to invest in AI. However, the mood is slowly starting to change and there are several examples in the UK and abroad that show artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword, but a genuine enabler of change.

In December, Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak announced the first round of winners from a £7.5million digital innovation fund. The 16 winning projects, from 57 councils working in collaborative teams, were awarded grants of up to £100,000 to explore the use of a variety of digital technologies, from Amazon Alexa style virtual assistants to support people living in care, to the use of data analytics to improve education plans for children with special needs.

These projects are still in their infancy, but there are councils who are further along with artificial intelligence, and have already learned lessons and had measurable successes. For instance, Milton Keynes Council have developed a virtual assistant (or chatbot) to help respond to planning-related queries. Although still at the ‘beta’ stage, trials have shown that the virtual assistant is better able to validate major applications, as these are often based on industry standards, rather than household applications, which tend to be more wide-ranging.

Chief planner, Brett Leahy, suggests that introducing AI will help planners focus more on substantive planning issues, such as community engagement, and let AI “take care of the constant flow of queries and questions”.

In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services. Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, reports that the new system is identifying 10 or 20 families a month that might be of future concern. As a result, early intervention measures have already been introduced.

In the US, the University of Chicago’s initiative ‘Data Science for Social Good’ has been using machine learning (a form of AI) to help a variety of social-purpose organisations. This has included helping the City of Rotterdam to understand their rooftop usage – a key step in their goal to address challenges with water storage, green spaces and energy generation. In addition, they’ve also helped the City of Memphis to map properties in need of repair, enabling the city to create more effective economic development initiatives.

Yet, like most new technologies, there has been some resistance to AI. In December 2017, plans by Ofsted to use machine learning tools to identify poorly performing schools were heavily criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers. In their view, Ofsted should move away from a data-led approach to inspection and argued that it was important that the “whole process is transparent and that schools can understand and learn from any assessment.”

Further, hyperbole-filled media reports have led to a general unease that introducing AI could lead to a reduction in the workforce. For example, PwC’s 2018 ‘UK Economic Outlook’ suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although its likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Should local government investment in AI?

In the next few years, it’s important that local government not only considers the clear benefits of AI, but also addresses the public concerns. Many citizens will be in favour of seeing their taxes go further and improvements in local services – but not if this infringes on their privacy or reduces transparency. Pilot projects, therefore, which provide the opportunity to test the latest technologies, work through common concerns, and raise awareness among the public, are the best starting point for local councils looking to move forward with this potentially transformative technology.


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Robot cities: three urban prototypes for future living

This guest blog was written by Mateja Kovacic, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield.

Before I started working on real-world robots, I wrote about their fictional and historical ancestors. This isn’t so far removed from what I do now. In factories, labs, and of course science fiction, imaginary robots keep fuelling our imagination about artificial humans and autonomous machines.

Real-world robots remain surprisingly dysfunctional, although they are steadily infiltrating urban areas across the globe. This fourth industrial revolution driven by robots is shaping urban spaces and urban life in response to opportunities and challenges in economic, social, political and healthcare domains. Our cities are becoming too big for humans to manage.

Good city governance enables and maintains smooth flow of things, data, and people. These include public services, traffic, and delivery services. Long queues in hospitals and banks imply poor management. Traffic congestion demonstrates that roads and traffic systems are inadequate. Goods that we increasingly order online don’t arrive fast enough. And the wi-fi often fails our 24/7 digital needs. In sum, urban life, characterised by environmental pollution, speedy life, traffic congestion, connectivity and increased consumption, needs robotic solutions – or so we are lead to believe.

In the past five years, national governments have started to see automation as the key to (better) urban futures. Many cities are becoming test beds for national and local governments for experimenting with robots in social spaces, where robots have both practical purpose (to facilitate everyday life) and a very symbolic role (to demonstrate good city governance). Whether through autonomous cars, automated pharmacists, service robots in local stores, or autonomous drones delivering Amazon parcels, cities are being automated at a steady pace.

Many large cities (Seoul, Tokyo, Shenzhen, Singapore, Dubai, London, San Francisco) serve as test beds for autonomous vehicle trials in a competitive race to develop “self-driving” cars. Automated ports and warehouses are also increasingly automated and robotised. Testing of delivery robots and drones is gathering pace beyond the warehouse gates. Automated control systems are monitoring, regulating and optimising traffic flows. Automated vertical farms are innovating production of food in “non-agricultural” urban areas around the world. New mobile health technologies carry promise of healthcare “beyond the hospital”. Social robots in many guises – from police officers to restaurant waiters – are appearing in urban public and commercial spaces.

As these examples show, urban automation is taking place in fits and starts, ignoring some areas and racing ahead in others. But as yet, no one seems to be taking account of all of these various and interconnected developments. So how are we to forecast our cities of the future? Only a broad view allows us to do this. To give a sense, here are three examples: Tokyo, Dubai and Singapore.

Tokyo

Currently preparing to host the Olympics 2020, Japan’s government also plans to use the event to showcase many new robotic technologies. Tokyo is therefore becoming an urban living lab. The institution in charge is the Robot Revolution Realisation Council, established in 2014 by the government of Japan.

Tokyo: city of the future (Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock CC)

The main objectives of Japan’s robotisation are economic reinvigoration, cultural branding and international demonstration. In line with this, the Olympics will be used to introduce and influence global technology trajectories. In the government’s vision for the Olympics, robot taxis transport tourists across the city, smart wheelchairs greet Paralympians at the airport, ubiquitous service robots greet customers in 20-plus languages, and interactively augmented foreigners speak with the local population in Japanese.

Tokyo shows us what the process of state-controlled creation of a robotic city looks like.

Singapore

Singapore, on the other hand, is a “smart city”. Its government is experimenting with robots with a different objective: as physical extensions of existing systems to improve management and control of the city.

In Singapore, the techno-futuristic national narrative sees robots and automated systems as a “natural” extension of the existing smart urban ecosystem. This vision is unfolding through autonomous delivery robots (the Singapore Post’s delivery drone trials in partnership with AirBus helicopters) and driverless bus shuttles from Easymile, EZ10.

Meanwhile, Singapore hotels are employing state-subsidised service robots to clean rooms and deliver linen and supplies and robots for early childhood education have been piloted to understand how robots can be used in pre-schools in the future. Health and social care is one of the fastest growing industries for robots and automation in Singapore and globally.

Dubai

Dubai is another emerging prototype of a state-controlled smart city. But rather than seeing robotisation simply as a way to improve the running of systems, Dubai is intensively robotising public services with the aim of creating the “happiest city on Earth”. Urban robot experimentation in Dubai reveals that authoritarian state regimes are finding innovative ways to use robots in public services, transportation, policing and surveillance.

National governments are in competition to position themselves on the global politico-economic landscape through robotics, and they are also striving to position themselves as regional leaders. This was the thinking behind the city’s September 2017 test flight of a flying taxi developed by the German drone firm Volocopter – staged to “lead the Arab world in innovation”. Dubai’s objective is to automate 25% of its transport system by 2030.

It is currently also experimenting with Barcelona-based PAL Robotics’ humanoid police officer and Singapore-based vehicle OUTSAW. If the experiments are successful, the government has announced it will robotise 25% of the police force by 2030.

While imaginary robots are fuelling our imagination more than ever – from Ghost in the Shell to Blade Runner 2049 – real-world robots make us rethink our urban lives.

These three urban robotic living labs – Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai – help us gauge what kind of future is being created, and by whom. From hyper-robotised Tokyo to smartest Singapore and happy, crime free Dubai, these three comparisons show that, no matter what the context, robots are perceived as means to achieve global futures based on a specific national imagination. Just like the films, they demonstrate the role of the state in envisioning and creating that future.


Mateja Kovacic is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Who’s afraid of the big, bad robot? Preparing the labour market for a future with AI

massive production

By Heather Cameron

Science fiction is slowly becoming science fact”. This is what the interim Chair of the government’s Science and Technology Committee said in their recently published report on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

While admitting there is still some way to go before we witness systems and robots like those portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars and Ex Machina, the report noted that there have been a series of recent advances across these fields that are beginning to have transformational impacts.

But just what will these impacts look like, particularly in relation to the labour market?

‘Transformational impacts’

Driverless cars and supercomputers that assist with medical diagnoses are highlighted as some of the transformational impacts of AI that have already arrived.  Others include improved automated voice recognition software and predictive text.

The increase in processing power, the wealth of data and the development of techniques such as ‘deep learning’ have all contributed to the recent progress.

However, the report also notes that such advances raise a number of social, ethical and legal questions that require consideration. These include issues about the transparency of AI decision-making as well as privacy and safety.

And while there is much excitement about the potential of AI to improve and enhance our lives, there is also widespread concern over the potential impact of increasing automation on the workplace.

Implications for employment

Fears over increased unemployment as a result of increasing automation are longstanding. The inquiry found conflicting views over the potential impact to the workforce, with some predicting a rise in unemployment, while others anticipate a transformation in the type of employment available.

It is likely that some occupations will become obsolete. Deloitte has warned that 11 million jobs across the UK economy are at high risk of being automated by 2036, with the retail and transport sectors most vulnerable. The research also indicated that almost 750,000 net jobs had been lost in manufacturing since the turn of the millennium, while the wholesale and retail sector saw net job losses of 338,000.

However, it was noted that millions of new roles had also been created in order to meet changing demand. So perhaps it is adaptation within the workforce that is needed.

Indeed, the Committee’s report highlights a need to focus on delivering the skills needed for people to adapt and thrive as new technology continues to emerge. It has been argued elsewhere that cognitive and social and behavioural skills should be made a priority in any skills strategy for the 21st century to “make workers more resilient to technology-driven labor market shocks like automation.”

And of course some sectors may be more susceptible than others.

Recent research by McKinsey suggests that the impact of automation differs dramatically across sectors and activities. It found that:

While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail. Automation, now going beyond routine manufacturing activities, has the potential, as least with regard to its technical feasibility, to transform sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work.”

Another common theme highlighted throughout the inquiry was that robotics and AI could increase productivity and efficiency. One recent study estimated that ‘£1.24bn in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5bn over the next decade’.

Future

There are clearly many debates about the potential impact of robots and AI, but it is not yet clear what the actual impact of advances in these fields will be on the labour market.

What is clear is that there is a need for skills to be developed for a world where AI is more prevalent.

But as the inquiry highlighted, the government doesn’t yet have a strategy for developing these new skills or responding to the social and ethical issues it poses. The report therefore recommends that “the government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.”

Perhaps the future will be similar to the past, as written evidence to the inquiry suggests:

During the industrial revolution, mechanisation did not change long-run equilibrium employment because new jobs emerged which were unimaginable at that time. Similarly, jobs lost to automation today might be replaced by jobs we cannot yet imagine.


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