Will robots one day grow more intelligent than us and proceed to take over the world? Or is the rise of Artifical Intelligence (AI) only a positive thing? Whatever your beliefs, you may be interested to hear that the British Academy is hosting an event at UWE on 1 March 2017 to ask: Does AI pose a threat to society?

Don’t worry, Alan Winfield (pictured above), a Professor of Robot Ethics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, assures us this is no conspiracy scare-mongering event: “I hope we can dispel some myths about AI. I mean AI is not going to take over the world, we can be sure of that.”

“If the AI is driving your car and makes a decision and the car crashes, you certainly want an explanation”


This panel-led debate will take place as part of the Robotics, AI and Society based events the British Academy is hosting to get people talking about something that will be a huge part of our everyday life very imminently.

Being such a popular subject, unsurprisingly the event has already sold out, but you can still sign up to the waiting list to try and bag yourself a spot.

In case spaces don’t clear up, though, Alan gave TechSPARK a little insight into what will be discussed on the day. “I’m going to say that we don’t have to fear AI but I’m also going to say that there are issues,” Alan explains. “There are safety and ethical concerns with AI that we do need to be aware of.”

Robots have issues too

samantha-payne-open-bionics-spark-skillsWe also caught up with Samantha Payne, the co-founder of Open Bionics (pictured left) who is on the panel for British Academy’s event. She says, “Artificial intelligence will affect all of us. It’s important we begin discussions about possible futures now so that we are not caught off-guard and we are prepared to deal with the progress of AI and the effects it will have on jobs, politics, and society.”

Dismissal of this discussion is no longer sustainable as AI is unavoidably entering all of our lives. It has a strong potential to improve the quality of life for many, but we shouldn’t ignore people’s concerns.

Samantha explains, “As the appetite for automation grows it’s prudent to begin planning for a future where it is a pervasive part of our daily lives. Robots will help to look after the elderly, will serve us food and drinks, will deliver our mail, and will work across all industries.

“A perfect example of this growth is Amazon. The number of robots in Amazon warehouses: 2013: 1K, 2014: 15K, 2015: 30K, 2016: 45K. Who holds responsibility for employees affected by this job loss? I don’t have the answer, but I know we need to think about it and start working on solutions now.”

Robots ‘stealing’ our jobs is a central point for opposers of AI. As Samantha explains, “We’ve just seen how the promise of jobs can affect an election. But, the promise of jobs is a bit of a fallacy. Sure, factories can be great again, but the jobs will be fulfilled by robots rather than voters. Do voters know this?”

Some argue the use of collaborative robots, AI that works harmoniously alongside humans, dispels this fear, as does the notion that new robot factories would also create more jobs for people.

AI standards needed?

Alan tells us he is particularly keen to discuss the issue of lucidity within AI. He explains, “I’m now chairing a new standards group within the IEEE which is going to be drafting a new standard on transparency. It’s calling for a higher level of this, which traditionally we’ve not had in autonomous systems, especially in AI.”

This is a hot topic at the moment, especially since talk of a new European law set to be passed in 2018 will give people the right to an explanation when AI has made a certain decision which affects you.

“It’s truly a transformative technology so we’re going to be hearing about it a lot more”


Alan backs plans for this. He says, “Imagine the AI has made a decision about your loan application or a medical diagnosis; if that affects you, then you should have the right to an explanation. It could be even more critical, I mean if the AI is driving your car and makes a decision and the car crashes, you certainly want an explanation.”

He adds, “AI is promising to be such a pervasive technology that we need to regulate it. I think regulation is important. At the moment it’s very difficult to prove these systems always make the right decision and, more fundamentally, are safe.”

Genuine intelligence

The threat of AI is a highly prevalent discussion at the moment, so there’s no shortage of things to get involved in. While the British Academy is holding a series of like-minded events across the country, there are other ways to be a part of the discussion closer to home. You can sign up to the South West Futurists meetup group that addresses AI, ethics and behaviour and Samantha also tells us: “Bristol Girl Geek Dinners often have talks including AI, robotics, and programming.”

She adds, “There’s an artificial intelligence reading group based at UWE and most robotics/ tech events will now have speakers on AI. It’s truly a transformative technology so we’re going to be hearing about it a lot more.”

Thanks to Alan and Samantha for taking the time to talk to us. You can sign up to the waiting list for Does AI pose a threat to society here and you can follow the organisers on Twitter here: @britac_news @UWEBristol.