Is AI a big opportunity or merely Big Brother?

By Michael Burton | 21 November 2018

Artificial intelligence could streamline the delivery of council services but are local authorities or indeed their residents ready for such change? A recent round table debate hosted by The MJ and Zurich Municipal examined these key questions as Michael Burton reports

Some of us recall 25 years ago attending seminars to be told about a new technology called ‘the internet’ and wondering what on earth it was and little realising how it would completely transform our lives both at home and work. Now we are on the verge of another industrial revolution, led by artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and wondering how this might equally change the lives of citizens. At a round table debate organised by Zurich Municipal at last month’s Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) conference a group of local authority chief executives and directors grappled with the implications and the risks of AI for their organisations and their residents.

The dictionary definition of AI is ‘the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages’. Robotics is defined as ‘the branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, and application of robots.’ Sooner, rather than later, AI and robotics will be transforming public services. Local authorities have a dual role with AI; understanding how it will affect their own organisations and helping residents to adapt to the changes.

A YouGov survey commissioned recently by Zurich Municipal found that 43% of respondents from the general public either knew nothing or very little about AI while 36% believed their council was not using AI in any of its decision-making while 46% simply had no idea. Almost half thought the public sector should wait until AI was ‘better understood’. The lack of knowledge probably explains why an overwhelming 74% of the poll thought it unlikely they would lose their jobs because of AI.

All the round table delegates believed A1 will transform public services and none argued it must, or indeed could or should, be resisted. One said: ‘It’s something we should embrace and recognise its benefits to the community.’

Another added: ‘If it overtakes us we can’t influence where it goes. The way we live and work will be significantly different,’ while one delegate said: ‘We can’t avoid AI. The question is who leads it?’ A further comment was: ‘The challenge is the risk of not doing robotics. We need to be in this space to shape the values we hold.’

There was however considerable apprehension about just what AI and robotics might mean summed up by one participant who commented: ‘We’re not playing Luddites but we are playing with new toys. There are questions about oversight, accountability.’ Another added: ‘I’m passionate about this. A year ago I didn’t know what blockchain was or what a futurologist did. But I’m as equally alarmed about AI as I am excited.’ One delegate said: ‘There’s huge opportunity but also risk’ while another commented ‘We’re living with uncertainty but going into this world regardless.’

There was concern about governance in an AI-enabled world. Some routine tasks could be turned over to robots but the idea that children’s services might be handled by machines was regarded with scepticism. One said: ‘We don’t want reckless disruption. Governance is important. AI and robotics have a place in the business process but it’s not a judgement call at the end of that process. I’m not comfortable with judgement calls in social care being made by a machine.’

The idea of disruptive technology creating winners and losers was all very well but local authorities still have regulators to deal with. As one debater said: ‘It’s all very well talking about digital disruption but then what about Ofsted? We can’t just focus on disruption.’ Another added: ‘We don’t even know where our data really sits and if we then add in robotics that’s scary,’ while another mentioned the lack of oversight of new technology, commenting: ‘The insurance and risk industry has lot to catch up on in managing digital and data.’ One participant said his authority was already looking at creating an ethics committee saying: ‘Governance is essential. We’ve started looking at ethics asking whether we should have an independent ethics committee.’

The YouGov survey tended to back their view about sensitive services being unsuitable for AI when it found that respondents saw traffic management and infrastructure planning as the most likely areas for AI but only 16% named adult care and 9% children’s services. When asked whether they would be happy with AI systems making decisions about eligibility for benefits or housing, 45% said they would not be and 42% were concerned that the process would ‘lack emotional reasoning.’

But when it comes to AI, will the local authority be the leader or the follower? Will technological change be driven by the public or the public sector? Or is the role of the council to promote AI and allay the public’s concerns about a new wave of disruptive change? One round table delegate said: ‘The public is nervous about new technology in public bodies like AI. I would argue they don’t have a choice. You can’t switch your local authority like a bank so it has to get it right.’ One participant said ‘The discussion should be around what communities need, not what software we want’ while another warned not to spend too much time reinventing the wheel, saying: ‘We talk a lot. Let’s not do this 400 times over.’

Overall delegates felt AI was an opportunity which local government should seize and promote to its residents. One said: ‘There’s huge opportunity but also risk. We should be talking to five and ten-year-olds as they’ll be thinking of careers in a decade.’ But as another commented: ‘You’ve got to convince communities that this is the right thing to do otherwise there’s a danger of a backlash against Big Brother.’

Round table participants

Allen Graham – Chief executive, Rushcliffe BC

Andy Ferrier – Corporate director, Test Valley BC

Anne-Marie O’Donnell – Chief executive, Glasgow City Council

Chris Bally – Director of corporate services/deputy chief executive, Suffolk CC

Joyce White – Chief executive, West Dunbartonshire Council

Mark Hynes – Director of governance and law, Waltham Forest LBC

Natalie Brahma-Pearl – Chief executive, Crawley BC

William Benson – Chief executive, Tunbridge Wells BC

Heather Jameson – Editor, The MJ (Chair)

David Forster – Zurich Municipal

Rod Penman – Zurich Municipal

Martyna Stepien – Zurich Municipal

Leezil Rossi – Zurich Municipal

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