How the UK public sector can lead the fourth industrial revolution


Job security, a visit from Klaus Schwab and not a killer robot in sight – but can AI overcome its image problem with the public?

Alan Mak MP speaking at Think AI for Public Sector 2017

Artificial intelligence (AI) heralds a new era for human reliance on technology, and it’s one that the UK government is determined not to get left behind on.

At the Think AI for Public Sector conference in Westminster this week, Alan Mak MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, explained why he’s so enthused about the potential of AI for the UK, and outlined the work in progress to ensure the nation leads the rest of the world in its development.

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) might be a relatively new phenomenon within UK government, but momentum is certainly growing. Parliament held its first ever debate on the topic a year ago, and shortly afterwards, Mak released a report featuring 20 policy recommendations – Masters of the Revolution: Why the Fourth Industrial Revolution should be at the heart of Britain’s new Industrial Strategy.

The parliamentary group was launched in March by the chancellor, and the government is set to launch its formal white paper at the end of this year or in early 2018 detailing its plans for the next industrial revolution.

Plans are now underway to host a series of events to engage and educate government and MPs, and the group is working to raise the profile of 4IR in Westminster and Whitehall. Mak explained:

We have lots of ministers, top business leaders coming. The chancellor himself launched it, the business secretary is going to do an event with us next year. This has support at the very highest level. It’s driven by a recognition that we do need to make sure that those who are making the decisions, especially where it’s a policy-intensive area, do need to be equipped with the tools and knowledge to make it a success.

As well as counting high-profile ministers and the Institute of Directors among its backers, the group is getting a visit next month from Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, who has literally written the book on 4IR. Mak added:

There’s a recognition that parliamentarian policy makers don’t have enough knowledge. It is by definition a new phenomenon. That’s why I’m aiming to bring the top people to parliament – that’s why it’s Klaus Schwab, not just anyone at the World Economic Forum. He’s the founder and the leader of it.

A message that resonates clearly is that the potential for AI and its impact requires the involvement of everyone, regardless of political party, geographical location, age, or private or public sector. Mak advised:

Everyone needs to know about what it is and how we will be changed by it and how we can lead and shape it.

Personalising public services

One of the core benefits Mak is anticipating from 4IR is an improvement in public services and communications. AI offers the potential for a more informed, personalised service and better decision-making, by freeing up public sector workers to do more people-oriented roles and a lot less of the grunt work. However, he noted that the AI debate is often focused on its use across the private sector.

The potential for AI to transform the public sector is enormous and I think that should be an important part of our thinking. We want people to be speaking to residents, talking to customers, helping the elderly, doing all those compassionate, emotionally needy jobs that machines can’t and shouldn’t do.

It’s only by adopting technology that you actually adapt to technology. If we want to lead the world in 4IR, we need to make sure that the public sector is as progressive and involved in the 4IR as the private sector.

There are already examples of public sector use of AI dotted around the UK: Enfield council has its Amelia AI assistant for planning permission queries; the Serious Fraud Office uses AI to sift through mountains of data, and the technology played a key role in its investigation of Rolls Royce; while Liverpool City Region has its LCR 4.0 initiative, offering funding and advice to organisations and entrepreneurs who want to start a business, grow their existing business, upskill their workforce or invest in capital machinery to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution. Mak said:

In the public sector, those data-heavy organisations may be the first to try and use AI to cut through the mass of information that’s available. But eventually I want it to be on the frontline of service delivery, to help give people a more personalised service and free up people to work on more personalised interventions.

Promoting the benefits

But AI currently has an image problem, something that needs to be overcome to enable widespread uptake. More reasoned experts might espouse the role the technology could play in freeing us humans to focus on more skilled tasks; however, most of the headlines around AI favour the ‘robots are going to take all our jobs’ angle. Mak can see a definite need to more clearly explain the benefits of AI and take a very gradual approach.

The UK is very used to technology and innovation, we obviously aspire to have a very dynamic, e-commerce economy, with superfast broadband, digital infrastructure, making sure that more and more parts of the country are connected together. We have a very strong foundation on which to build.

But as with all change generally – technological, social or economic – explaining the benefit is always important, rebutting some of the myths is very important. It is getting away from that sci-fi robot autonomous killer machine vision. Whereas AI at its most simplest, we use it every day with Siri. Predictive text is essentially a form of basic AI. It’s really explaining how that works and the benefits of it, and if we do that competently and gradually, we’ll experience a lot less resistance.

Creating the right regulatory landscape is an area the UK needs to focus on to ensure AI benefits everyone, not just the privileged few. As Mak noted, it is often the oldest, poorest and sickest people who rely on public services the most, and this must be reflected in the nation’s 4IR strategy.

Technology has the great potential to transform people’s lives around the world, whether it’s in developing countries or industrialised economies. I think it will, as in this very collaborative, open-source age it’s very difficult to horde technology. It has to be applied and commercialised and consumerised to be able to make returns for businesses, so I don’t see it being hoarded by one or two companies.

What we can do in the UK, is make sure we have the right regulatory framework to ensure that it doesn’t increase inequality, it’s not used for pernicious purposes, that we can use it as a force for good rather than as a dystopian tool.

The upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which becomes UK law next May, will be helpful in regulating the use of data in the context of 4IR and AI. Mak believes that as the sector is a nascent one, it will have no problem responding to new regulations.

Data is one of the raw materials of the fourth industrial revolution and GDPR plays an important role in framing how that can be used, stored and kept secure. I think this is something that can be very easily priced into business models, and it’s something that should be.

This new regulation is actually arriving at a useful and important time. People’s data is an important commodity in the 21st century and should be respected as such.

For now, if any of our readers has strong opinions on 4IR or AI technology, Mak [] is keen to hear from businesses, local authorities and academia for ideas and suggestions.

Image credit - Images free for commercial use

Disclosure - diginomica works in partnership with Think Digital Partners, the creators of the Think AI for Public Sector event.

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