Sam Buckley, our Policy Engagement Manager, shares highlights from the ‘Better Together with Tech’ panel at our Global Conference on 1 November (sponsored by HSBC).
The ‘Better Together with Tech’ panel at our Global Conference wasn’t the only place people were discussing the impact of AI on 1 November. But it was definitely the most optimistic.
While public figures were discussing how AI might threaten humanity at Bletchley Park, we assembled our own panel of experts from around the world to look at AI and inclusion: Bela Gor of Business Disability Forum, Sally Chalk of Signapse (both UK) Lauren Lobrano of Amazon (USA), Hector Minto of Microsoft, Nasser Siabi of Microlink (both UK), and Christopher Patnoe, Google (USA).
The panel was definitely brighter in tone than some of the doom-laden stories about AI rendering humans obsolete or threatening our survival and jobs.
The need to act quickly on AI, with cautious optimism and pragmatism, were the key takeaways for businesses and inclusion professionals, and that meant challenging some of the more catastrophic predictions for AI.
AI and the end of jobs
One of the biggest charges that our panel tackled was the idea that AI would eliminate jobs and widen the disability employment gap.
The answer from our panel was a unanimous ‘no’. As Lauren Lobrano put it, the pressing question isn’t whether AI will replace employees, but how AI will aid and empower them. It supplements jobs. Hector Minto noted that each big technological leap has created at least as many jobs as it has removed.
Our opening presentation by Sally Chalk, CEO of Signapse, expressed this thinking neatly. Signapse’s AI-generated sign language interpretation system doesn’t replace human interpreters. Instead, the system builds capacity by doing things interpreters don’t usually have time to do, such as providing real-time travel information at train stations and airports. It’s an aid, not a substitute.
The prejudiced robot takeover
The other common concern about AI is that of the rogue program. Nowadays it isn’t just a Hollywood staple, but a real risk in the inclusion world. AI systems have been seen to take on the prejudices of humans and amplify them, reinforcing biases and barriers.
All panellists agreed that the opportunity – and challenge – of AI was that it was the sum of its input. And much of that, Lauren said, is also down to those managing those systems. It’s up to the developers to involve disabled people in design, and for businesses to continuously monitor and improve. “Increased success and scale,” Lauren said, “brings more responsibility.”
Christopher added: “It’s about understanding the complex nature of the world, and that biases are everywhere first of all. Then it is about proactively testing those biases in our [AI programme] models. Finally, it’s acting quickly and transparently if and when things go wrong.”
It’s also about very deliberately designing for disabled people and other groups at risk of being marginalised by involving disabled people from the outset and in the design. The good news, of course, is that this tends to benefit everyone else. “Design for the edges,” Christopher said, “and you get the centre for free.”
Shouldn’t we be at Bletchley Park, too?
Actually, our main worry about AI came back to the event taking place as we spoke. Why weren’t we, as disability and inclusion experts, invited to Bletchley Park for this crucial summit? AI has become a mainstream issue, but it doesn’t mean we’re not at the table. Disabled people drove the development of AI from its earliest days, designing accessibility features long beyond they were popularised.
Time to stop worrying and love the bot?
AI, the panel agreed, is clearly having a ‘moment’. But it’s nothing new, and nor is being adopted with no regard for risks. Actually, for our panellists, caution and a sense of responsibility is the name of the game. As Lauren said, “some fear is good. It motivates good planning.”
The question I had before this panel was: “How scared should I be of AI?” The conclusion I personally took was “the right amount”. We need to embrace AI to ensure it is used inclusively, and this means be pragmatic rather than scared. But some fear is good, as Lauren said. It’s not time to stop worrying and love AI just yet, but it is the perfect time to plan and influence what the AI-driven world looks like.
Members and Partners can watch the sessions from our global conference.