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We must embrace the AI revolution

Its risks are serious, but its uses could be miraculous

Artillery Row

We’re living through the start of a new industrial revolution. AI is about to reshape our society in the way the printing press, the camera, the radio, the cinema and the television did. To get the benefits of this new technology, it needs to be regulated properly. Many people inside AI development are concerned about the safety of this new technology. Some take the view that it could result in the extinction of humanity, and they have said we should pause all further development. The US now requires the companies developing the most powerful AI to share the results of its safety tests with the government. Rules are also being developed about the engineering of dangerous biological materials.

Safety concerns have to be addressed if we are going to get the benefit of this new technology: not least because, if they aren’t, the public will be deeply sceptical and heavy-handed regulation will follow, crushing the industry. Few think AI should be entirely unregulated, but we must remember that the slower the West becomes on development, the more space we leave to other countries like China to overtake us.

55 per cent of the public have never tried using ChatGPT

Paradoxically, therefore, accelerated but sensibly regulated development of this new technology is probably the way to make it safe and reliable. The AI safety summit being hosted in the UK is a sign of British leadership in this important area. Matt Clifford, the Prime Minister’s representative at the AI summit, understands this delicate position. He told Politico, “AI is not very popular with the public. Therefore talking about safety is not to scare the public: it’s actually to reassure them so that we can capture the benefit.”

AI does have amazing potential. Already it gives patients better medical diagnoses. It helps children learn maths and foreign languages. It reduces business overheads, and it improves process performance. It protects your bank account from fraud and processes your car insurance claims. Yet, rather than embracing this new technology, the British public seems to be ambivalent about it.

A new poll shows that 64 per cent of the public thinks the government should prevent jobs being lost to AI. You may or may not think that is a reasonable position to take — but consider that 55 per cent have never tried using ChatGPT, the new AI technology that has over one hundred million users worldwide. Everyone can use GPT for free, right now. It can be used to help you understand books and academic papers; it can write software code or children’s stories; it can tutor you. It writes marketing plans, changes the tone of your emails, and produces the slides for your work presentations.

The poll was commissioned by Jimmy McLoughlin, a former Downing Street advisor who now runs a podcast about the future of work. As he says, “How many people in the year 2000 would have not tried Google?” Anecdotally, I recently spoke to a therapist and an art teacher who had neither heard of nor used AI, despite the fact that their patients and pupils are certainly using it as supplementary therapist and tutor.

The public is not so badly informed as all of this makes them seem. A poll by Public First found that over two-thirds of people expect TV and movie scenes to be made entirely by AI in the next five years and cars to be manufactured entirely by robots. YouGov finds that half the public thinks AI will be more intelligent than we are in the future.

They are not enthusiastic, though. People want AI use restricted in schools, worrying it will prevent children from learning how to do things on their own. Only 42 per cent trust an AI to review their medical scans. A survey in July found that only eight per cent of people have used generative AI at work, and most of them thought their employer would disapprove. One area where there is enthusiasm involves identifying passengers who are posing a threat on a train so the police can be alerted.

The overall feeling is of indifference. Another survey found that only 26 per cent of adults in the UK had used AI at all. Ipsos reported 46 per cent of people in the USA, UK and Australia had used AI at work, but they think it will be helpful for mundane tasks such as note taking.

The history of technology is the history of resistance to the unfamiliar

AI is more than a note-taking app: it is, as the economist Tyler Cowen said, a new sort of computer. Nvidia is working on technology that will be able to predict the weather far more effectively than current models. It might sound mundane to know if it will rain two weeks from today, but this is how we will start to be able to predict extreme weather events and save many lives. Other AI technology is enabling fusion energy reactors and discovering new antibiotics. AI has also been used to develop a new sort of catheter, one in which bacteria does not float upstream and cause infections.

Next month Google is releasing Gemini, its competitor to ChatGPT, which is expected to be five times as powerful as GPT4. A new wonder of the world is at hand.

Public ambivalence shouldn’t be a surprise. The history of technology is the history of resistance to the unfamiliar and the untraditional. In all the Wonders of the Modern World articles I’ve written so far, we’ve seen how the technology we take for granted, as essential to civilised living, was once denounced and decried. When we embanked rivers, people broke sluice gates and hounded the Dutch immigrants who built them. When we invented bicycles, patriarchs thought they were an affront to the system of gender relations. Even today, many people would rather not build anything new than develop green concrete. We’ve even seen people who prefer to wash their dishes by hand.

Sometimes this resistance to technology is a way of trying to behave morally — as with the campaign against plastic straws, a sadly misguided effort. More often than not, resistance to technology is based on fear of the unknown.

As Britain rightly takes the lead on the future of AI at the safety summit this week, let’s hope the importance of showing the public the benefits of this new technology is paramount. AI is inevitable. Its uses can be miraculous. We cannot assume that other countries will use AI with good intentions — nor will they be very interested in how many jobs the British public wants us to save.

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