Have the machines taken over?

A video of my conversation with Stuart Russell in Westminster Abbey on 20th November 2018:


Trust is Britain’s secret weapon in the battle to be a world leader in AI

From self-driving cars to new drug discoveries and devices which know what you want before you do, AI has the potential to transform our lives as fundamentally as the printing press and electricity.

It is estimated AI could add $15.7 trillion to global GDP by 2030. No surprise then that the UK government’s industrial strategy identified it as one of four areas where Britain can lead the world.

But this looks at best optimistic when Britain is a minor player in an AI arms race dominated by the US and China. China is now second behind the US in AI patent filings and is home to three of the seven biggest AI companies in the world: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. No prizes for guessing where the other four are based.

Their vast number of users means the tech giants in both countries have an ocean of data on which to train the computer algorithms which drive artificial intelligence. Every day Google processes around 3.5bn searches while around 83% of Chinese smartphone users now use Tencent’s WeChat platform for everything from messaging friends to booking medical appointments.

We can’t compete on talent either. Google alone has spent almost $4bn acquiring AI related businesses including the British AI startup DeepMind.  The UK has always punched above its weight in research and ideas. But in an era of open source innovation, intellectual property is hard to protect.

Yet there is one important area where Britain does lead and that is trust. Our justice system is regarded as the world’s best. Our professional services power our national exports. Political corruption barely registers next to other countries. And our universities rank among the world’s elite.

It is certainly a commodity in short supply elsewhere. With the notable exception of Apple, US companies have traded their users’ privacy for convenience. While they have protested the sharing of their information with governments, they have systematically used people’s personal information for their own profits. Chinese tech companies work so closely with their government that citizens can have little trust that their private activities will remain hidden from state censure.

So here is Britain’s opportunity.

The establishment by the UK government of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to advise on the ethics of AI, promises to be unique in the world. Not just because it is asking the questions about transparency and accountability but because it will have the ability to ensure we reach answers that will sustain public trust. By developing world leading standards of governance and an ethical approach towards AI we can help our technology firms stand apart.

Some might argue that by holding our AI companies to stricter standards than their rivals we risk strangling innovation. But that’s like arguing that a train is constrained just because it runs on rails. Only within these constraints will this technology fulfil its potential.

Public trust in AI will be crucial in a world where algorithms increasingly control many aspects of our lives. This is Britain’s chance to lead and we should grab it with both hands.

AI Ethics: send money, guns & lawyers

Photo of Westminster Abbey taken by Iulian Ursu
Photo: Iulian Ursu (cc)

My speech notes, for a talk given to the Westminster Abbey Institute on 31 May 2018

This evening I’d like to present a problem within what I believe to be the most transformative technology of our lives: artificial intelligence. I’ll suggest why I think that problem will involve some colossal rows involving money, guns, and lawyers. And as well as explaining the problem, I’d like your help to find the right way for us to respond professionally and personally, so I look forward to the discussion afterwards. Continue reading

Freedom to flounder

“To food, friends, and freedom.” My traditional toast at dinner is usually readily echoed, whoever happens to be at our table. Yet if I were to substitute Freedom for a more specific word that historically has had much of the same meaning – salvation – then many of our guests might choke on their brussel sprouts.

Over the last century, the West has rightly pursued the ideal of freedom from external constraint, whether legal, social or political. The effect has thankfully given greater liberty (if not yet equality) to individuals, and particularly women, and minorities. Yet, we now face a host of social challenges from having forgotten the second kind of freedom: freedom from internal obstacles; salvation from ourselves and from our fathomless ability to screw things up. The notion of salvation promises freedom from the less beautiful chambers of our hearts; but sounds alien to modern ears because we too easily forget our own human frailties.

In an age where almost everything is permitted, our leaders and commentators have lost the moral courage to articulate how we can be saved from our instinctive choices. Poor diets have created an epidemic of diabetes. Poor financial discipline contributes to debt. Lack of community commitment has led to epic levels of loneliness. How many couples get help to navigate the useful constraints of marriage? How many of us feel confident to justify our own conception of virtue in an age of cultural relativism? Collectively, an excess of freedom has left us floundering.

Faith in Action – Episode 10

James Perry – Faith in Business


Hello. I’m Richard Sargeant, and this is Faith in Action, a podcast about how faith affects the way we live and work today.

What difference does faith make in business? With me to explore faith in business is James Perry, co-founder of the ready meal company COOK, and also the director of B Lab UK, which is a support organisation for B corporations.

James, welcome. What are B corporations? Why do they matter? Continue reading