AI for All: Deploying AI without Leaving Behind Communities and Places

By Zulfikar Dinar Wahidayat Putra

“The Terminator” is a film that was first created in 1984 and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent back in time by a tech company from 2029. It is interesting how people represented and projected Artificial Intelligence (AI) around 40 years ago. In that film, AI is described as a humanoid who delivers a special mission, whatever it takes. It can drive a bike, hit doors, and even wear glass. Can we develop AI to benefit society, similar to how people in 1984 imagined it would exist in 2029, which is only seven years from now? To answer this, let us reflect on the current situation of AI in the United Kingdom (UK).

According to a recent study by McKinsey, the UK is one of the top quartile countries in AI readiness[i]. It refers to the number of activities related to AI research, startup investment, automation, digital absorption, the innovation foundation, human capital, and ICT connectedness. It is represented by the current landscape of UK AI, which consists of more than 2,500 companies supported by more than 150 hub institutions across different sectors, including marketing, fintech, healthcare, and more[ii]. In terms of technologies, it ranges from data analytics, machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision to robotics[iii]. A UK company has even successfully produced “Ameca”, a humanoid that can mimic the human mind and move[iv]. Furthermore, it is predicted that 90% of the UK’s large-scale businesses will adopt AI, and the number will grow over time. From the technological advancement side, many AI technologies are already embedded in the UK and the world. It seems we can have a perfect humanoid AI in 2029, just like the sci-fi films show.

However, from a geosocial perspective, deploying AI in society is more complicated. There has been doubled investment growth in AI in the UK since 2010[v] spreading across government, businesses, and industries. If we look at the distribution of AI companies in the UK[vi], almost 60% of them are based in London. It is not shocking that London has a big cluster of AI companies as it has established infrastructures for these companies to flourish. But what does this mean for the AI deployment in the rest of UK?

AI Companies Distribution Across the UK. Source: https://thedatacity.com/insight/uk-artificial-intelligence-analysis-2020/

There is inequality in high skills job distribution across the UK[vii]. It is concentrated in either large cities or cities with advanced higher education centres. At the same time, the UK government intends to roll out high-skills training to level up communities across the UK while also improving left-behind places through their levelling-up agenda[viii]. It is critical to evenly distribute AI jobs across the UK regions equally to prevent people moving out of their region due to a lack of high skill jobs opportunities in the area. Otherwise, the UK risks perpetuating the findings of a study by Swinney and Thomas in 2015[ix], that UK cities that were poor in 1911 are still poor in 2011. This is because the more prosperous cities have quickly embraced a more advanced economy than poor cities, and have the existing infrastructure to support newer technologies. They suggested that it is essential that the left-behind cities transform their economy, and so an equal distribution of AI companies and skills by considering local characteristics is crucial in deploying AI to spread its benefits fairly to all communities and places.

Distribution of graduates in highly skilled jobs. Source: Adapted from https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/place-matters-inequality-employment-and-the-role-of-higher-education/

To go back to our initial question, is it possible to develop a Terminator soon to benefit society? I think, from the technological perspective, it is likely that we will have a perfect digital system and autonomous robotics that represent the overall outcome of AI. However, from a societal standpoint, there is a long way to go to mainstream AI for all types of communities and places equally. It is crucial, therefore, for all stakeholders to not only focus on the technical aspects but also on preparing AI deployment to communities across places.

UCL, through its breadth of research across technology, skills and education and social sciences, can contribute further to discussion and policy development to seeking solutions in deploying equal AI jobs and skills to communities and places across the UK.

Let us imagine a future for the UK not as the film “Upside Down”[x] portrays; a two-class segregated apart, the rich and the poor; the better and the worst; the human and the machine. Instead, we hope that the UK will be a world where humans and machines can interact harmoniously in all communities and places. All communities across the UK regions can benefit from the AI technologies directly and indirectly. This will only be achieved with a just and equal AI deployment policy and strategy, and with community interests at the centre.

More about the author

Zulfikar is a PhD candidate at the Bartlett Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), UCL and co-ordinated a UCL Public Policy roundtable on AI, Work and Place in partnership with the British Academy and Institute for Community Studies in July 2022.

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