Today we are debating a subject that is already having a profound impact on our all our lives, our society and economy
And that is right now, right across the world being hotly debated due to its potential future implications for our planet and humanity.
Rapid progress in the development of Artificial Intelligence and the prospect of it becoming more and more advanced and powerful is leading to some hard questions for the world.
Indeed, this debate takes place against a backdrop of international authorities scrambling to respond to the fast evolution of AI with EU and US lawmakers meeting just this week to discuss what level of regulation may be required to address the risks.
And while recent days have witnessed big personalities in the tech world including AI pioneers warning of existential threats that could arise in the future including even a threat to humanity itself, others are more optimistic and are pointing to the benefits for the world, for our economies, productivity, healthcare, education and general quality of life where for instance mundane tasks are carried out by AI, allowing citizens to focus on more fulfilling work or leisure activities.
And it’s our duty as parliamentarians to try and navigate the risks and opportunities and consider the consequences of AI that probably no-one anywhere fully understands including even those who have built the technology.
AI has been with us for a long time. More recently, we have all become familiar with voice recognition and facial recognition.
And further major strides forward are underway.
The public release of so-called “generative AI” tools, such as ChatGPT – which I’ve not used for my speech - means that cutting-edge AI is now at the fingertips of everyone who wants to use it.
And it is spreading fast.
It took three and a half years for Netflix to get a million users.
For Instagram, it took two and a half months.
For ChatGPT, it took five days.
And it’s this that’s triggered a heated worldwide debate on how we maximise the benefits of this technology while managing its risks.
In the last year or so, researchers have found that just by making these AI models bigger they become able to generate answers to many questions in a way that resembles a human.
But this is not just harmless fun.
These tools, known as “Generative AI”, will have an impact on jobs.
For instance, they could automate many of the tasks in the creative industries – not to mention the fact that they were trained on billions of images from the internet with little regard paid to the intellectual property and livelihood of their human creators.
This applies to other professions, for example, OpenAI claims that GPT-4 can achieve the same as a top 10% law student in bar exams.
Generative AI tools will also require re-think of education assessment methods, as they can write essays on a wide range of topics.
There is also a more sinister aspect of AI, as these tools will make it much easier to spread large amounts of false but convincing information, which could undermine democracy, and will also facilitate cybercrime and potentially other types of crime as well.
AI is powered by data, and the Tech Giants from Silicon Valleys have been fined again and again for failing to respect people’s privacy and data rights.
But it is important to not lose perspective on AI.
Most experts do not believe AI will be able to supersede human intelligence without several new breakthroughs, and no one knows if or when those will happen.
At the moment, talk of an impending “singularity” which means machines thinking for themselves without needing humans still involves a large dose of fiction.
Essentially, for now at least, AI is just a tool.
An important, but disruptive tool, that many compare with the invention of the steam engine, and it’s up to us as society, as a country, to use it for good.
As in all previous technological and industrial revolutions, there are always winners and losers, and it is the job of democratic governments to ensure that the benefits are spread as fairly as possible, and the risks controlled.
AI is with us and can’t be uninvented, so this needs to happen now.
Well-publicised calls for governments to pay attention to the long-term, hypothetical risks of AI, shouldn’t distract us from the very real risks of AI today, such as discrimination because of bias, the negative impact on certain jobs if those professions do not evolve, or election manipulation, to give another example.
It is clear intervention is needed.
Even the tech giants who have made AI what it is today, are now calling for government to intervene, even if there is a suspicion some may be doing that to pull the ladder up behind them.
In the midst of this worldwide debate and uncertainty and disagreements and fears, it is important to understand that fortunately Scotland is not just suddenly waking up to AI, and starts from a solid base to make the right choices and reap the benefits of AI while controlling its risks.
Our universities’ AI research and teaching has been ranked as world-class since the beginning of the topic.
And data released last month by Beauhurst showed that Edinburgh is the top start-up city in the UK outside London, with 12.3 per cent of companies working in AI, digital security, and financial technology.
We have long recognised the importance of AI.
In 2019 we committed to creating an AI strategy for our country and presented and debated that here in the chamber.
Our 2021 strategy laid out a clear path for Scotland to shape the development and use of AI in a way that is Trustworthy, Ethical and Inclusive.
To deliver that vision, we set up the Scottish AI Alliance, a partnership between the Scottish Government and the Data Lab, which is Scotland’s Innovation Centre for Data and AI.
The Alliance provides a focus for dialogue and action with industry, innovators and educators to build the best environment to encourage growth and investment.
It plays a key role in enabling a meaningful, two-way dialogue with our citizens to ensure that we build an AI economy and society that protects their rights, and where no one is left behind, where everyone can benefit from and contribute towards AI.
Specifically, the Alliance are developing a range of tools that not only help inform people and educate our citizens, but actively seek their input.
For example, the recently launched Scottish AI Register offers a simple and effective platform for the public to both understand and have a say in how AI is used to make decisions and deliver public services.
We are also delivering an AI and Children’s Rights programme, in partnership with The Children’s Parliament.
We are working hard to ensure that our workforce has the skills required to power a thriving, AI-enabled, Digital economy.
In the latest ScotlandIS Technology Industry Survey, Scottish companies continue to see AI in their top three greatest opportunities, whilst 46% of businesses indicate that they need additional AI skills to grow.
An important element of our work is the Digital Economy Skills Action Plan, recently published by Skills Development Scotland.
We have to continue to address these gaps.
We will ensure that we equip our citizens and workers not only with technical skills, but with the broader commercial, ethical and human skills needed to make AI a success.
We also tackle the lack of diversity in the AI workforce.
As an example, we will support The Data Kirk's Scottish Black Talent Summit this year.
And to help raise awareness of AI across the whole nation, the AI Alliance will launch later this year a free online course called “Living with AI”.
We do need to embrace the unprecedented economic opportunities, as we did for previous scientific and industrial revolutions.
We are doing this by making strategic investments in Scotland, like £24 million of investment in the Data Lab, our Innovation Centre for Data and AI. which is an extended network of over 1,500 companies.
We have Scottish company Trade in Space using space data and AI, to inform and facilitate the trade of agricultural commodities.
And IRT are a Dundee based organisation who make use of thermal imaging to help housing associations and developers to identify heat loss in homes.
We have also invested over £19 million in CENSIS, Scotland's Innovation Centre for sensing, imaging and Internet of Things (IoT), which will all need AI to be fully utilised.
We have invested £1.4 million in the National Robotarium, home to world-leading experts in robotics and AI.
We have companies like Crover, a new tenant of the Robotarium, which is developing a robot that moves through grain to help ensure it is stored at the correct temperature and moisture levels. That helps reduce wastage due to mould or insect infestations, which currently account for around 30% of commodity grain being lost every year in Scotland.
Following the recommendations of Mark Logan’s review of Scotland’s Technology Ecosystem, we have invested up to £42 million to establish seven new tech scaler hubs across Scotland.
We have recently invested a further £59m in CivTech, a world-class R&D and procurement scheme that enables the Scottish public sector to work with the most innovative businesses on solving the most difficult problems we face.
And health is another sector where Scotland has a proud, centuries-long record of innovation, which continues to the present day.
For example, health boards including NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and NHS Grampian are currently considering the use of AI to help identify signs of lung cancer on patient X-rays, and breast cancer cases from mammogram scans.
NHS Forth Valley, in collaboration with the Scottish Health and Industry Partnership and the West of Scotland Innovation Hub, are currently running a project to use AI to detect skin cancer in the primary care environment in under 25 minutes by 2025.
We have a vision to make Scotland a leader in the development and use of AI in a way which is Trustworthy, Ethical and Inclusive.
We need government leadership and regulatory action is required.
Most of the regulatory levers for AI are currently controlled by the UK Government.
Data protection, consumer protection, equality and human rights, employment regulations, medical devices regulation, telecommunications, financial services, self-driving cars – these are all reserved matters to the UK Government.
We are a bit concerned that current UK government plans for hands-off, non-statutory regulation of AI, will not meet Scotland’s needs and it seems to be in contrast to the responses from other countries.
We don’t want to create unnecessary red tape, but we do have a duty to create the right supportive environment for businesses to thrive and citizens to be protected.
Therefore, I will write next week to the UK Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, to request an intensified dialogue between the UK Government and Devolved Administrations, to ensure that UK Government regulation of and support for AI works for Scotland.
To kick-start that process, I am proposing that we have a Four Nations Summit on the implications of AI, to be held as soon as possible.
We also want to make sure that Scotland’s AI Strategy needs to evolve to keep up with the accelerating pace of change in AI.
Therefore, I am also commissioning the Scottish AI Alliance to lead an independent review setting out what Scotland needs to do now to maximise the benefits of AI while we control the risks at the same time. They will come back to us with recommendations in due course.
This is a debate without motion so that, as a parliament, we can debate the future of our country, our planet, and the role that AI can play.
I’m sure there will be a lot of consensus and I look forward to hearing members’ contributions, to help us navigate what is a complex journey, so that we can get AI right for our citizens, for our economy and for the country as a whole.
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