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Tech titans take debate to Parliament to tackle UK’s digital future

23 May 2023

Business leaders converged in Parliament to debate the pivotal role of automation and digital skills in shaping the UK’s economic landscape and to sound the alarm on the potential perils of AI and ChatGPT.

The Digital Economy summit, organised by the Parliament Street think tank, took place on Monday evening (22 May). Hosted by Dean Russell MP for Watford and chaired by Steven George-Hilley of Centropy PR, the panel of esteemed industry experts delved into the ethical considerations surrounding machine learning, as well as tackling the pressing issue of the UK’s skills crisis.

As industries increasingly embrace automation, the potential impact on the workforce and employment opportunities cannot be ignored. This engendered a conversation on the need for upskilling and reskilling the workforce to ensure they remain relevant and adaptable in the face of technological advancements. 

One positive that was flagged up was the ability of technology to empower small businesses: “The way tech is available as a service to businesses now means that it can help the likes of start-ups and has created a levelled playing field,” said Sachin Agrawal, Head of Zoho UK. 

Andy Ward, VP at Absolute Software, agreed that digital skills will play a crucial role in the future of the UK’s economy, saying, "There's a wealth of opportunity for high skilled jobs in cyber, software development, quantum, these are the opportunities where we can really shape the digital economy.”

However, others argued that more needs to be done to take advantage of these opportunities. Daren Wood, CTO of Resonate, urged: "The pandemic brought about competitiveness in digital skills, we're all fighting over the same talent pool. We need more ambition in the public sector to innovate and better spend the funds available to tackle core industry problems." 

The need to democratise access to advanced technology was also highlighted: "There's a big need [for] no-code software to give access to everyone. You need to educate society how to use these tools, there are no boundaries to this tech," said Sjuul van der Leeuw, CEO of marketing automation platform Deployteq.

"It's important to keep software as simple as possible. When software becomes more and more complex, we become hesitant. Companies often can't cope with an advanced digital skillset," added van der Leeuw.

Meanwhile, George Saunders, Director of digital at marketing agency Bordeaux & Burgundy, noted, “SMEs are not as scared by automation and low or ‘no code’. Such software has been built and necessary to aid those with no experience and empower.” 

The rapid speed at which artificial intelligence and language models are evolving is a concern for many in the industry, who fear the risks it poses to the human workforce. At the end of March, more than 1,000 industry leaders, including Elon Musk and Professor Stuart Russell, signed an open letter which called for a six-month pause in the development of such systems. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Godfather of AI’, recently announced his resignation from the tech world, citing concerns about the threat that the technology that he helped to pioneer, poses to humanity. 

Against this backdrop, tech leaders urged the need for proper regulation, to help mitigate the threat and ensure that these next-generation technologies can be better controlled. Chris Downie, Founder of Pasabi, stated, “AI regulation may not be able to tackle all initial issues people hold, but boundaries can be set in place to encourage better trust and safety in the meantime.”

On the whole, however, attitudes towards the potential of technology were largely optimistic. Dean Russell, MP for Watford, who hosted the debate, concluded: "We live in a world where international collaboration is so important. There's great scope to see how far we can take technology to see how it can work for the global economy." 

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