We have five years to prepare for the huge changes AI will bring to Wales
Keith Darlington, retired university lecturer in AI
I have been involved in AI for about 30 years through teaching the subject at university and research activity.
But when I started AI was virtually unknown – very few had heard of AI. Nowadays, I rarely meet anyone who has not heard of AI.
I was always fascinated with the idea of machine intelligence, but I never expected to see what is now coming in my lifetime.
I had many interesting discussions with colleagues along the lines of “Can a machine think?” or “Can a machine ever display human-level intelligence?”, and so on.
But it all seemed somewhat academic, because the general consensus, at the time, was that machines exhibiting human-level intelligence was, at best, centuries away.
Some even thought that it could never happen.
How different it is today. Hardly a week now goes by without major announcements on AI technology being used in driverless cars, robotics, and other innovate uses.
Why is AI making such an impact now?
The main reason is the software (i.e. programs) used in AI have gone through a quantum leap improvement in the last five years.
I’ll avoid technicalities. But, in essence, the old AI tried to mimic thinking through logic and cognitive modelling. The old AI had successes but its major drawback was its difficulty in learning.
The new AI uses deep neural networks that mimic the way that biological neurons in the brain work. The big advantage that they have over the old AI is their ability to learn.
Indeed, this new generation of AI, in some cases, produces stunning results in learning without requiring human intervention or supervision.
The implications for Wales
Of particular importance to Wales over the next 5 – 10 years is the economy and employment.
There is broad agreement that AI and robotics are likely to transform the workplace, making huge numbers of even middle-ranking jobs redundant.
Any work task that is conducive to automation is vulnerable because robots don’t get paid, don’t get tired, and don’t demand better working conditions.
This means that there are millions of robots likely to take the place of factory workers in the future.
For example, Foxconn, a company that assembles Apple iPhone parts is replacing 60,000 workers with robots.
These are not the kind of dumb robots that have been used in car plants to perform repetitive single task activities.
They are more mobile and capable of more general multiple tasks which make the former look primitive. They will also rapidly improve in the next decade.
These changes will hit millions of workers very hard with some analysts forecasting 30% job losses in the UK alone over the next 15 years.
Of course, there will be jobs created but it will still lead to massive disruption because businesses will always seek efficient ways of working.
The huge sums of money now being spent on AI investment and research makes this outcome inevitable .
Politicians will need to consider the consequence of AI on employment.
Some proposals for adapting to the age of AI have already been considered.
One possible suggestion, is that AI is going to generate massive wealth and the tax receipts and these can partly be used to create a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all citizens of working age.
The concept of UBI has some appeal to both sides of the political divide. On the Left, by reducing poverty; on the Right because it is less bureaucratic and should remove the disincentive to work.
The reasoning behind this assumption is that welfare claimants would no longer receive payments that working people don’t get – they would all get UBI.
UBI has already been trialed in both Canada and Finland. In both cases, the trials were very short – many said too short.
UBI is costly. However, for the reasons given above, this could all change in an era of high-automation AI.
UBI could be particularly important in Wales where average wages are low and poverty levels higher than many other parts of the UK.
It is also predicted that AI will also improve the UK and Welsh economy with GDP likely to be about 10% higher in 2030 and extra spending power per household of over £1,800 in Wales.
However, the impact of AI reaches far beyond the economy, with healthcare, education, and virtually every sphere of human activity being affected.
For example, in healthcare, there are several innovative AI-based technologies currently being used by the NHS including diagnostic systems, virtual assistants, drug discovery, and much more.
AI Technology is likely to have a huge impact on our lives in the future – with or without the influence of politicians and government in Cardiff Bay and elsewhere.
But the changes are likely to be rapid and it is important that our politicians stay ahead of the game where possible.
They need to use the tools they have at their disposal to mitigate the social impact of AI, and make the most of opportunities should they arise.
To date, I have not heard our politicians say much about AI. But I expect that to change in the near future.