Clever computers that learn on the job could recast Britain’s job market – for better or worse. What are the parties vying for power in the general election saying on the subject?
Twenty-nine-year-old Lee Hayhow is the third generation of his family to work as a lorry driver, following his father and grandfather.
He is proud of his job.
“I’ve always enjoyed lorries and driving. I trained as a professional driver. It is a profession.
“You’re almost your own boss – in charge of that vehicle. I always do it to the best of my ability. It’s a good feeling.”
He estimates it costs £3,000 to train as a heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) driver. Mr Hayhow’s employer, O’Donovan Waste Disposal, paid for this, but not all firms do, he says.
And he would be delighted to see the next generation of Hayhows – his two young daughters – follow his career path.
But by then, the decision may not be theirs to take.
Call centres to catering
Lorry driving, like many other jobs that help power the British economy, could be facing a huge shake-up.
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) – a field of computer science in which machines are taught to carry out tasks that require human traits of thought or intelligence – have led some to predict a knock-on catastrophe for jobs.
Nowhere is the exponential growth of AI more apparent than in the race towards self-driving vehicles.
But AI doesn’t stop at transport. There have been stark warnings about its impact on the jobs market as computer programs are honed to perform a number of roles, including call centre work, banking and paralegal responsibilities, retail and catering tasks, and journalism.
Up to 46% of jobs in Scotland could be at risk within the next decade, the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland recently claimed. Accountancy firm PwC predicted 30% of existing jobs in the UK could be “at high risk of automation” by the 2030s.
Calum Chace, author of Surviving AI and the Economic Singularity, foresees “quite a lot” of unemployment caused by the takeover of technology “in a decade and a lot in two decades”.
“The industrial revolution was mechanisation and humans had something else to offer – cognitive skills. This time around machines are coming for our cognitive jobs,” said Mr Chace.
Others, though, predict a huge economic dividend. Consultants Accenture estimated AI could add about of £654bn to the UK economy by 2035.
One influential voice talks of old jobs making way for new ones. But these new occupations cannot be taken for granted.
“The absolute nightmare for me would be that we’re applying this technology, we’re displacing jobs as a result of it – which will happen – but what we’re not doing at the same time is creating all the jobs in computer science, in data analytics, in software code writing,” said Juergen Maier, chief executive of Siemens UK, in an interview with the Guardian.
All of which leaves Britain’s next government with a quandary – continue to invest heavily to support Britain’s fledgling AI industries, in the belief they will foster greater efficiency and productivity, and new jobs, or safeguard the rights of existing workers?
Thanks to the general election manifestos of those vying to take power on 8 June, it’s possible to get an idea of how primed our politicians are for the AI future.
In its 2017 manifesto the Conservative Party asserts Britain is “leading the world in preparing for autonomous vehicles,” although in reality others are further ahead.
The Lib Dems note the “advent of robotics and increasing artificial intelligence will also change the nature of work for many people”. They say the government “needs to act now to ensure this technological march can benefit everyone and that no areas are left in technology’s wake”.
Its solution is to provide more support for digital skills training and businesses/tech hubs in the sector.
Industry in denial
The Conservatives also commit to establishing “institutes of technology” and pledge to a long-term goal of investing 3% of the UK’s GDP in research and development.
Labour’s Tom Watson, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture and Media, told the BBC there is “no doubt” automation and AI will “change most people’s jobs”.
In response, he has set up an independent Future of Work Commission which is due to report in the autumn.
“We want to understand the implications of new technology on work and make achievable recommendations about the most pressing challenges and opportunities of the future,” he said.
UKIP’s manifesto doesn’t mention AI or automation, although it has pledged to scrap tuition fees for degrees in technology, engineering and mathematics. The SNP’s manifesto had not been published at time of writing and it did not respond to a request for comment.
However there is considerable denial about the AI revolution among some of the workers potentially on the frontline – not least the lorry drivers.
Despite the apparent success of the European Truck Platooning Challenge in March last year, in which convoys of automated lorries (with humans on board just in case) drove from Sweden, Germany and Belgium to Rotterdam in Holland, the Road Haulage Association said its members were “deeply sceptical” about whether driverless lorries would arrive on the roads in the next 10 years.
Despite this, Jack Semple, director of policy, admitted “if it works, particularly in HGVs, there is huge potential for savings.
“You eliminate not only driver costs but also the restrictions on vehicle movement that come from drivers’ hours regulations.”
Lee Hayhow isn’t concerned.
“It’s too intricate, the job that we do,” he said.
Calum Chace fears that people who share Mr Hayhow’s views are in for a shock.
“When they start seeing cars driving around with no one driving them, people will realise how impressive computers are,” he said.
Reality Check: What laws stop terror suspects travelling?
BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale said Mrs May had met the French president Emmanuel Macron at the summit and both agreed that the recent attacks in Manchester and Paris showed the need for greater cooperation.
Mrs May warned that fighters returning to their home countries from countries like Iraq and Syria posed a new terrorist threat and urged G7 members to work with “our partners in the region to step up returns and prosecutions of foreign fighters.
“This means improving intelligence sharing, evidence gathering and bolstering countries’ police and legal processes,” she said.
G7 members needed to be able to share data securely in order to track fighters as they cross borders and make decisions about whether to prosecute them, she said.
The PM also sought common ground on tackling online extremism as she chaired a counter-terrorism session at the summit in Italy, looking at how countries could work together to prevent online plotting of terrorist attacks and to stop the spread of extremist ideology.
The prime minister argued that, as IS militants lose ground in the Middle East, the threat was “evolving rather than disappearing” and that the industry had a “social responsibility” to do more to take down harmful content, arguing it had taken some action but had not gone far enough.
‘Lift the lid’
She wants an international forum to develop the means of intervening where danger is detected, and for companies to develop tools which automatically identify and remove harmful material based on what it contains and who posted it.
French President Emmanuel Macron vowed France’s total support for Britain’s fight against terrorism as he met Mrs May at the summit.
“We will be here to cooperate and do everything we can in order to increase this cooperation at the European level, in order to do more from a bilateral point of view against terrorism,” he told her, in their first formal meeting since he took office.
Security minister Ben Wallace told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that the use of online communications was “one of the biggest challenges” in the fight against terrorism, with encryption making it “almost impossible for us to actually lift the lid on these people”.
“And the scale of it is not just the UK, it is across the whole of Europe, across the world.”
He said the giant American tech companies like Facebook and Google could be doing more.
“We are determined to not let these people off the hook with the responsibility they have in broadcasting some horrendous [material], not only manuals about how to make bombs, but also grooming materials,” he said.
“We all think they could all do more… we need to have the tools to make them, where we need to, remove material quicker.”
Google said it was committed to creating an international forum designed to tackle extreme content online, to make sure “terrorists do not have a voice online”.
“We employ thousands of people and invest hundreds of millions of pounds to fight abuse on our platforms, and will continue investing and adapting to ensure we are part of the solution to addressing these challenges,” it added.
Three employees of the Russian postal service claim that it was hit by this month’s Wannacry global ransomware attack and is still experiencing problems, according to Reuters.
The trio claim some of the computers at the state-owned Russian Post are still down, but the service says none of them was infected by the worm.
It just says that some terminals were switched off as a precaution.
The Interior Ministry and state railway were affected by the cyber-attack.
A worker at a branch in Moscow told Reuters: “The head guys rang… and said we had to turn off the terminals immediately. They said this extortion virus had infected them.
“They rang again and said we could turn them back on. We did that but you can see they still don’t work.”
Initially it was thought that the systems most affected by WannaCry were those running Windows XP – which Microsoft stopped supporting in 2014 – although some security experts now think it was the newer Windows 7 system that was hit hardest.
The worm started spreading in mid-May and has so far infected 300,000 computers around the world – 20% of which are believed to have been in Russia.
The malware quickly spread across 150 countries, taking over files before demanding $300 (£230) to restore them. It is not thought that many ransoms were paid with the majority of users restoring systems via back-ups.
Russia President Vladimir Putin rushed to deny his country had any part to play in the attack.
Investigators suggest that the criminal authors of the attack are likely to have used a hacking tool built by the US National Security Agency and leaked online in April.
Some experts now point the finger at a hacking group known as Lazarus, which the FBI has previously linked with the North Korean regime.
Others think it could have been put together by far less experienced hackers.
Prof Alan Woodward, a computer scientist from Surrey University, wrote in his blog: “It may have been some group of script kiddies who tried to cobble together the WannaCry payload with the Eternalblue worm and ended up with something far more virulent than they ever imagined.”
The UK must keep its doors open to top talent from around the world if its technology firms are to thrive, Apple’s chief designer has told the BBC.
Sir Jonathan Ive, who has just been appointed Chancellor of the Royal College of Art, also said that technology hubs like Silicon Valley had a “tremendous cultural diversity”.
The iPhone designer did not comment on efforts to curb UK immigration.
Some technology firms fear they may lose access to talent after Brexit.
“That general principle [on access] is terribly important for creating a context for multiple companies to grow and in a healthy way explore and develop new products and new product types,” Sir Jonathan told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme.
The Briton has led Apple’s design team since 1996 and is responsible for the look and feel of its devices such as the iPhone and iPod.
Sir Jonathan said the UK had a “fabulous tradition of design education”, but that it needed to do more to become a technology hub on a par with Silicon Valley in California, where the likes of Apple, Facebook and Google are based.
“I think Silicon Valley has infrastructures to support start-up companies … ranging from technological support through to funding,” he said.
“And there is the sense that failure isn’t irreversible, so very often people will work on an idea, and there isn’t the same sense of stigma when one idea and perhaps one company doesn’t work out.”
The region also prided itself on its diversity, allowing “like-minded” people from around the world to join forces to create new products.
“I think at Apple we’ve been very clear on how important it is that we have a diverse pool of talent that we can hire from,” Sir Jonathan said.
Some UK technology firms have warned that they could lose access to the international talent they need after Britain leaves the European Union.
Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo artificial intelligence has defeated the world’s number one Go player Ke Jie.
AlphaGo secured the victory after winning the second game in a three-part match.
DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis said Ke Jie had played “perfectly” and “pushed AlphaGo right to the limit”.
Following the defeat, Ke Jie told reporters: “I’m a little bit sad, it’s a bit of a regret because I think I played pretty well.”
In Go, players take turns placing stones on a 19-by-19 grid, competing to take control of the most territory.
It is considered to be one of the world’s most complex games, and is much more challenging for computers than chess.
AlphaGo has built up its expertise by studying older matches and playing thousands of games against itself.
The company says the eventual plan is to deploy its artificial intelligence “in areas of medicine and science”.
Prof Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist at Sheffield University, said it is still a long way from creating a general intelligence.
“It is an incredible achievement and most experts thought an AI winning at Go was 20 years away so DeepMind is leading the field but this AI doesn’t have general intelligence. It doesn’t know that is playing a game and it can’t make you a cup of tea afterwards.”
Prof Nello Cristianini, from Bristol University, added: “This is machine learning in action and it proves that machines are very capable but it is not general intelligence. No-one has built that yet.”
The types of intelligence exhibited by machines that are good at playing games are seen as very narrow. While they may produce algorithms that are useful in other fields, few think they are close to the all-purpose problem solving abilities of humans that can come up with good solutions to almost any problem they encounter.
Prof Cristianini added that while competition at a gaming level is fine, it should not govern how we view our relationship with intelligent machines going forward.
“We should focus on the good things that we can get out of them and be careful not to create situations in which we put ourselves in direct competition with machines.”
Both experts agreed that such algorithms could be adapted to other fields, such as health care.
DeepMind has already begun working with the UK’s national health service to develop apps and other tools for diagnosis.
Google DeepMind’s AI system, AlphaGo, has won the first of three matches it is playing against the world’s number one Go player, Ke Jie.
It follows its historic win against Lee Se-dol last year, described by experts as a breakthrough moment for AI.
The AI won by just half a point in its latest match.
Ke Jie described the AI as “like a god of Go players”, while DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis thanked him for a hard-fought match.
“It was a such close game, an exciting game and showed how much work Ke Jie put into preparing for the match,” said Mr Hassabis in a post-match press conference.
“It was interesting for us to see him using moves from AlphaGo’s previous games, and we were intrigued to see how AlphaGo deals with its own strategies used – huge respect to Ke Jie for pushing AlphaGo to its limits.”
He added that the ultimate plan for AlphaGo was a wider deployment “in areas of medicine and science”.
Thousands of rabbits have been “culled” in the Second Life virtual world.
The web server sustaining them has been deactivated after a legal threat from a company claiming to have designed them.
Added to Second Life in 2010, Ozimals bunnies were collectible pets that players could breed.
Some owners had secured an “everlasting timepiece”, giving their pets eternal life but preventing them from breeding. But the remaining rabbits entered “permanent hibernation” on Saturday.
They were designed to communicate with a web server to ensure they had not been tampered with, but the company that created them closed in 2016.
Since then, the server sustaining them has been run by a volunteer known by the pseudonym Malkavyn Eldritch.
On Tuesday, Eldritch said he had received a cease-and-desist letter, demanding he “cease all use of Ozimals intellectual property” from a company claiming to have designed the rabbits’ “visual assets”.
“I do not have the means to fight this in court, therefore I have no choice but to comply,” said Eldritch.
“It was never my intention for the time we’ve all spent with the bunnies… to end like this.”