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This article was published on March 1, 2024

Opinion: For politicians, AI will bring salvation or damnation — but nothing in between

AI is polarising politicians into two extremes: techno-utopianism and cyberphobia

Opinion: For politicians, AI will bring salvation or damnation — but nothing in between Image by: UK Government

Is AI a panacea or a Pandora’s box? It’s a question that divides the British government.

Ask the deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, and he’ll fill your ears with promises about a glorious future.

AI is a “game-changer” that can “revolutionise public services,” Dowden gushed yesterday. Healthcare, education, and crime prevention are all prime targets for the technological transformation — and that’s just the start.

“I could go on nearly forever to cover all areas of public administration,” Dowden threatened. “Because there are very few areas of the public sector that don’t have the potential to be enhanced by these tools.”

Naturally, those tools can also reduce the need for pesky human employees. As part of this grand plan, the government will spend £110mn on AI tools and technical staff to automate “dogsbody work” — and eliminate boatloads of civil service jobs.

“We need to really embrace this stuff to drive the numbers down,” Dowden said.

And that’s merely one of the deputy PM’s automation dreams. “AI is potentially — and I don’t say this lightly,” he claimed, “— a silver bullet.”

His colleagues, however, don’t all share his unbridled faith. Just days before Dowden shared his sublime vision, the home secretary, James Cleverly, delivered a very different message. In an interview with the London Times, Cleverly warned that criminals and “malign actors” working for rival states could use AI to fix this year’s general election.

“The era of deepfake and AI-generated content to mislead and disrupt is already in play,” he said.

Such anxieties add a sad note to Dowden’s rhapsody. But the contrasting tones are unsurprising — even from within the same government.

Whether they’re positive or negative, politicians have become enraptured by AI extremes. They provide the powerful solutions, the petrifying problems, and the pithy slogans that every government desires. Any ambiguities or middle grounds, by contrast, are undesirable distractions.

In reality, of course, AI is neither good nor bad; what matters is how it’s deployed. Unfortunately, the guardrails for deployment are being built by the likes of Dowden and Cleverly.

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