What are the implications of artificial intelligence?

Olly Buston, 27 November 2017
There’s an incredible amount of good that artificial intelligence can do, but there are also risks, says Olly Buston. What role will machines play in civil society? What should civil society do to make sure that artificial intelligence has a positive impact in the world? And what will the people do in an intelligent future?


The social, economic and political impacts of artificial intelligence are going to be absolutely huge.

We’ve just put out a report this week which looks at the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on jobs across the UK; we’re seeing job losses in the range of 20 to 40 percent. That’s going to potentially generate great inequality across the country. In turn, that’s going to have a profound political and social impact.

There are brilliant ideas: amazing computer scientists working in Africa finding solutions to diagnosing crop disease in Uganda for example or diagnosing malaria in Nigeria… finding patterns in data, making predictions and recommending action, AI is absolutely brilliant at.

There’s an incredible amount of good that this stuff can do.

It’s also going to help deliver education even in the most remote places with very limited infrastructure. AI could deliver high quality, very personalised education. So there’s an incredible amount of good that this stuff can do.

So AI’s going to increasingly replace cognitive tasks… initially simple repetitive cognitive tasks. So if you think about the work that civil society organisations do: some of marketing, fundraising is really automatable using AI. Some logistics work… it may be very easy to replace people with machines in that area over time.

So lots of aspects of civil society work could be improved using AI. And then the question is: “So what do the people do?”

And ideally what this means is that people are freed up to do more of the more creative work that civil society groups do. And also the more interpersonal side of things: talking to real people, human contact. Those are the things that machines are going to be less good at for longer: things that involve creativity and things that involve talking and communicating with real people and empathising with real people.

Ideally, you have the perfect mix of human and machine where the machine is helping you target, understand and shape your communications. But there’s a real person that’s delivering the message in a way that is able to really empathise with the person at the other end of the conversation.

Potentially we’re on a path [to] communities fracturing… individuals’ sense of purpose blown apart.

Potentially we’re on a path where there’s a high degree of automation across all sectors of the economy. There’s high levels of unemployment, which means communities are fracturing, it means individuals’ sense of purpose is blown apart. And it means people consuming… mass consumption of the lowest common denominator culture and a general sort of malaise and unhappiness for the majority of people as a few lucky people become extraordinarily rich.

That’s perhaps the line of least resistance. But there is a path where we use AI to massively increase the net wealth of our society and that that wealth is well shared and the people are perhaps doing less work. But they are freed up to spend time on more creative things; things that make us truly human and they’re leading really fulfilling lives in a society that’s increasingly prosperous but where that wealth is well shared.

So there is an optimistic scenario here but I think it’s going to require a huge effort from… particularly from civil society organisations to get us onto that positive path.

Olly Buston is founder and chief executive of Future Advocacy. Olly was previously Europe director of ONE and director of the Walk Free anti-slavery movement. He has also worked for Oxfam International.