Introducing Rules, Innovation, and New Opportunities for AI

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Mar 08, 2019
by Lucy Browett and Maryam Ghaddar
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Introducing Rules, Innovation, and New Opportunities for AI

Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta anticipates the gains and challenges from artificial intelligence (AI) and how Salzburg Global can help curate the debate Geoff Mulgan speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar in June 2018

“I think that someone of his age should be both hugely optimistic and hugely fearful.”

That’s what Nesta CEO Geoff Mulgan said about his son’s generation concerning the onslaught of the fourth industrial revolution, in a lecture delivered at Salzburg Global Seminar last year.

The lecture was part of the schedule at the Board of Directors Weekend: Who's Afraid of Artificial Intelligence? Mulgan sought to explain Nesta’s work into finding innovative solutions around AI, his hopes and fears for the technology, as well as addressing the future of intelligence as a whole in society.

Nesta is a global innovation foundation which works in many fields, from health and education to the arts. In relation to AI, they have invested in early-stage companies, published research, convened gatherings and proposed models of laws and regulations.

Mulgan highlights some of the discussion points which he believes are missing from the overall AI debate. Speaking with Salzburg Global, he expressed concerns about where AI research has been directed thus far. He said, “For the last 50 years, funding was dominated by the military. Better, more efficient ways of killing people.  More recently there has been huge commercial investment - but more often for maximizing click-throughs rather than meeting needs.”

That needs to change he argues. “Much less has been invested in using AI to solve real problems in health, education, jobs or disability.” He added, “I think it’s a big issue in every country in the world to try and ensure the direction of research and development is shifted towards real needs rather than applications which are either harmful or useless.”

A key aspect of Nesta’s work relates to the rules and regulations surrounding AI. “This is an incredibly powerful family of technologies. How do we make sure there are the right rules, the right accountability for decisions being made?”

In the lecture, Mulgan made a comparison between AI and the advent of the car at the turn of the 20th century. Laws on speed, road signs, drink-driving, and many other regulations were put in place to manage the use of the new technology, joined later by things like emissions rules and speed bumps. We will need a comparable array of rules to get the best out of AI.

He said, “At the moment, there are literally no institutions charged with regulating AI, and the most important breakthroughs in AI have almost no accountability to the public they’re meant to serve.”

Mulgan makes another comparison with past industrial revolutions, to gauge how to shape the debate around AI. He said, “One of the fascinating lessons of history is that every past industrial revolution was followed sooner or later by a profound pressure to redesign institutions… so that more people could benefit from the key technologies.”

To manage the fourth industrial revolution, Mulgan believes involving the public in the debate, ascertaining what they require from AI research and development, will reduce the stigma of fear that people may have about the technology.

He said, “At the moment the AI conversation is all happening at tech conferences and is dominated by a very small minority of people with the rest essentially just observers.”

Nesta also works in the development of collective intelligence (CI) research, which is when the knowledge of many individuals is mobilized systematically, often helped by digital technologies.  CI is becoming much more prominent in fields like science, healthcare, and even democracy.  But it’s had much less attention and funding than AI.

He said, "I don’t think we can solve any other problems of the world without first solving the collective intelligence problem. And that’s why I’m actually quite skeptical of the search for one-off solutions to global problems. They never work unless they’re put in a systemic context, so we need to think systems; we need to think AI plus CI as the precondition then for a smarter world.”

How can Salzburg Global make an impact in this challenging field? Mulgan said, “The role for an institution like Salzburg [Global] is to advocate so that more global institutions see it as their job to be curators of collective intelligence, orchestrating data, knowledge, and experience so that the world really can think and act at a global scale.”


Geoff Mulgan’s book, ‘Big Mind: How collective intelligence can change our world’ is published by Princeton University Press. For more information, please click here.