Will computers make humans redundant? It might be the biggest question of our time. Last night Spectator Events, in partnership with Microsoft, hosted a panel discussion to answer the question ‘Will Artificial Intelligence put my job at risk?’ A fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about the technological revolution ensued.

The Spectator’s chairman Andrew Neil was joined by Microsoft’s Laboratory Director Professor Andrew Blake, journalist Bryan Appleyard, the TUC’s Nicola Smith and Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Professor Andrew Blake, up first, sounded an evangelical note, emphasising the positives of technological change. A distinguished scientist himself, Blake argued that artificial intelligence is already transforming our lives — at Microsoft HQ in Seattle, he revealed, they have an automated lift that senses where you want to go and a robot receptionist — and he pointed towards radical advances such as simulated language programming and driverless cars. ‘There is no doubt about it; work is going to be quite different from the way we have known it,’ he said. ‘We have something of a new industrial revolution coming our way… This technology is really here and it’s approaching commodity availability.’

Bryan Appleyard then took to the stage to denounce the very term artificial intelligence. Taking issue with Professor Blake, he said that AI didn’t exist and wouldn’t exist for the foreseeable future. He dismissed it as ‘a marketing slogan which is intended to make the subject sound more exciting.’ However, Appleyard stressed that ever more powerful computing really does pose a threat to jobs and human happiness. ‘We should unplug them at once,’ he said at one point.

Next, the TUC’s Head of Economic and Social Affairs, Nicola Smith, examined the threat AI poses to the labour market. ‘The key point is that technology can lead to enormous advances and to employment gains, but it doesn’t mean that the rewards will be shared fairly across the population.’ Government, she said, should not be ‘passive observers’ of technological revolutions; Britain should take the initiative by establishing a policy framework to protect workers from being marginalised by machines. Smith was not entirely pessimistic, however: she said that the state should embrace the technological revolution and use it to generate ‘good quality jobs in green energy, IT and creative industries.’

The final speech was delivered by Jamie Bartlett, who reminded everyone that the point about artificial intelligence is that it is ‘artificial, that is, not real.’ AI should be defined as ‘trying to imitate and simulate human intelligence.’ Bartlett agreed that jobs are at risk, and that ‘this technology is pretty terrifying – there is a risk that computers will take over.’ The crux of Bartlett’s argument was that in future AI will shape politics and anti-politics in the years to come. He envisioned a future in which dangerous extremists were not jihadists or animal rights activists, but anti-technology fanatics.

There was much discussion of the Turing Test — and the recent story of Eugene Goostman, the computer programme that fooled Turing judges into thinking it was a flesh and blood 13-year-old. The panellists agreed that Goostman’s machine, while funny, was hardly a convincing example of intelligence.  ‘We always seem to be 20 years away,’ said Bartlett. ‘The more we study the brain and understand it, the more realise how complicated it is.’ Bryan Appleyard said that machines lack the capacity for ‘interiority’. He concluded by saying: ‘As human beings, we mustn’t forget what amazing creatures we are.’

Tags: Artificial Intelligence, Employment, Microsoft, robots, Spectator Events, Technology