Artificial Intelligence (AI) promises an even bigger revolution than the internet yet could be stifled in the UK by a fear-driven public backlash, according to a leading scientist and broadcaster.
Physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili, incoming president of the British Science Association, warns that without greater transparency and public engagement the full potential of AI may not be realised.
In the absence of concerted action by academics, the Government and industry, the rapidly advancing technology could end up “uncontrolled and unregulated” in the hands of a few supremely powerful companies, he says.
Previewing his presidential address at this year’s British Science Festival in Hull, which begins next week, Prof Al-Khalili spoke of the dream and dangers of AI.
He pointed out that the UK was at the forefront of the technology, which is predicted to contribute up to 15 trillion US dollars (£11.7 trillion) to the global economy by 2030.
But there was a risk of AI going the same way as GM (genetic modification) and being seen as frightening and sinister by members of the public and a “poison chalice” by politicians.
Prof Al-Khalili said: “There’s a real danger of a public backlash against AI potentially similar to the one we had with GM back in the early days of the millennium.
“If the public become disengaged our leaders will see it as less of a priority. Regulations will need to be in place and they may come too late.
“At the very least this will result in the technology not being used to its full potential in the public sector, potentially leading to an increase in inequality in society.”
He wanted to see AI included in the school curriculum, even though that would be like “shifting a giant tanker in the middle of the ocean”, and the focus of myth-dispelling public education programmes.
While AI was often seen as science fiction, it was already becoming part of daily life, Prof Al-Khalili said.
AI manifested itself in virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa, as well as the “almost psychic awareness” of Google, Facebook and Amazon.
In future, the technology could completely reshape society.
“AI is going to transform our lives in the coming decades even more than the internet has over the last few decades,” said Prof Al-Khalili. “Let’s make sure we’re ready for it.”
Prof Al-Khalili’s new documentary “The Joy of AI” was launched on Tuesday, September 4, on BBC4.