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Why a Top Scientist Thinks AI Could Face a Massive Public Backlash

Artificial intelligence (AI) is in danger of facing a major public backlash, despite all the benefits it offers in everything from personalization to productivity. And that backlash could boost the already high levels of inequality in today’s society.

That’s the warning that physicist Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey—the recently elected president of the British Science Association—gave yesterday at a press event ahead of next week’s British Science Festival.

“There’s a real danger of a public backlash against AI, potentially similar to the one we had with GM back in the early days of the millennium,” he said, referring to genetically modified organisms.

Already a supermarket in the U.K. and restaurants in China have fired robots for alienating customers. Retailers are scrambling to understand how AI can improve sales without scaring away customers.

But under the hood, AI is big business in the U.K.: last year PwC estimated that AI will boost economic growth by about 10% and account for 5% of overall U.K. GDP by 2030. The PwC report estimates that about 80% of that growth will be due to improved personalization of offerings to consumers and about 20% to improved productivity of workers.

In his press talk, Al-Khalili said it will be important to engage the public to get political leaders involved with AI. “Regulations will need to be in place and they may come too late. At the very least, this will result in the technology not being used to its full potential in the public sector, potentially leading to an increase in inequality in society.”

In the absence of regulation, many companies are resorting to ad hoc responses, such as Alphabet’s employee-led decision not to renew a military AI contract. They are also revisiting their sources of training data for some AI applications in the wake of accusations of built-in racial and gender bias.

Al-Khalili also noted AI’s potential for disrupting the structure of jobs: “A significant government investment in skills and training is imperative if this disruption is to be navigated successfully and to the benefit of the entire population.”

Al-Khalili, whose research specialty is quantum mechanics, hosted a BBC episode on artificial intelligence last week.