“Sometimes artificial intelligence can provide a black box which you don’t quite know the workings of,” says Sir Mark Walport, Britain’s Chief Scientific Advisor.

We know that AI is working, but we can’t be totally sure how. Take the AI behind DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which beat the world champion at a Korean board game recently. “If you actually ask anyone at DeepMind, ‘how did the computer beat the Go champion’, then no one can actually explain quite how it was done,” Walport says.

Part of Walport’s job is “demystifying technology for policymakers”. He sat down with GovInsider to talk AI, Blockchain, and why governments must hire more designers.

Unboxing AI

Artificial intelligence is “extremely important” and “advancing very fast”, Walport says. But it has limitations on how it can be used by governments.

AI is good at predictions, but not at explaining how or why its prediction will happen. This is a big barrier for governments looking to use the technology to make decisions concerning citizens’ health, education and money.

“Policymakers always need to be able to explain the basis of their decisions,” Walport says. This means that the “best possible way” to use artificial intelligence is as an advisor, he adds. “It is not a substitute for humans,” he says, but adds that “this is a technology that’s evolving very fast”.

The mistake we make with emerging technologies, like AI, is to have high hopes in the short term, but not see what’s coming 10 or 20 years down the road, Walport adds. “People tend to overpredict what will happen in the short term and underpredict what will happen in the long term”.

The internet is a good example as a tool that has become extremely powerful, he says. “It’s provided knowledge which is important to citizens around the world, but it also creates new vulnerabilities because we know that there are cyber security issues,” he explains. “None of that, I think, was an issue predicted when the internet was first developed,” he adds.

Restructuring government

There are three things governments can do to tackle these biases. First, “it’s important when you consider technologies, to consider both the benefits they bring and the risks they carry as well,” Walport says.

Next, “one has to talk about technologies in a very specific question” when weighing the benefits and risks, he says. Take Blockchain – or distributed ledgers – for instance. People often ask whether it’s a good or bad thing. “That’s not a very sensible question”, Walport says. “The question is always how are you using it, for what purpose, in what context.”

To answer some of these questions, “the UK Government is starting to do rather small trials at the moment” on distributed ledgers, he says. In a report published last year, Walport recommended using Blockchain to distribute welfare funds and register small businesses. He also proposed that it be used to store patients’ hospital records.

The welfare testbed quickly proved controversial, however. Many questioned why government would use a technology that stores someone’s spending data for all time without the ability to amend it, especially when it relates to vulnerable people who are reliant upon the state.

“It’s important to try things out, to use test beds”, Walport says. This will allow governments to see the risks in the specific user context and iron them out before full roll out. “Government can’t afford to implement systems that aren’t completely reliable,” he adds.

Government needs more designers

More broadly, government needs designers when considering how to implement emerging technologies. “It’s the design of the smartphone that makes it so powerful; the fact that it’s so easy to use”, Walport says.

So while many governments are driving skills in STEM, Walport believes there’s something missing. “We should probably talk about STEAM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics,” he explains.

This is a trend that some governments around the world are picking up. The UK Government now has about 500 designers. Bandung City’s architect-turned-Mayor has set up a new design department. Meanwhile, Seoul was the first city in the world to set up public design guidelines, which it believes directly relate to citizens’ satisfaction.

Apart from designers, governments need to hire a mix of generalists and experts in technology, Walport says. “We need to have a mixture of people that have fairly deep knowledge of the technology, working alongside of people that think about different domains in which it could be applied,” he explains.

And if governments have trouble hiring designers, perhaps AI can advise on recruitment?

Sir Mark Walport was in Singapore for the Commonwealth Science Conference, held on 13-16 June 2017 and organised by The Royal Society and the National Research Foundation of Singapore.

Image copyright UK Government