Amelia … coming to where you are soon

Nathan Holden, Freeths, Nottingham

The stuff of science fiction is about to become science fact. We are on the cusp of a technological tipping point.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just around the corner and the most likely early adopters will be local authorities.  One London local authority is currently piloting Amelia (click here), a desktop (computer) generated avatar that will act as your first point of contact providing answers to questions about council services.  The benefit of Amelia over her human equivalent is that she carries in her virtual head all of the up-to-date information about the organisation and what really makes the difference is that unlike existing on-line systems she (assuming it is possible to have a gender as an on-line avatar) is designed to respond to questions posed in natural speech or words, so that she mimics human responses.  The really clever thing though is that Amelia not only understands the questioner’s intent but if Amelia cannot answer a question when it is referred to a human operator Amelia has the capacity to learn from that interaction so that she can answer the question next time its asked.

For those worried about AI taking over the world, including Stephen Hawkins, and who wouldn’t be, there are plenty of fictional examples of what happens when you let the machines run amok – Terminator and going further back Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the designers say that Amelia is only capable of learning something she is taught by a human operator and is not capable of learning on her own……..let’s hope they’re right!

In terms of more practical issues, reminding myself that this is supposed to be a legal article, what happens if Amelia gets it wrong – who is to blame: the person that licences the software or the programmers?

In terms of where this is headed, it seems the days of conventional call centres may be numbered. In the way that manufacturing has become increasingly dominated by the use of robots, AI will dominate banking, finance and possibly even the delivery of health care.

Even where Amelia is not deployed on the front line, there is clearly a role for her now in providing support to professionals as a font of up-to-date knowledge and expertise, a sort of very sophisticated internet browser. However, it would be naive to think it will stop there.   Amelia potentially sounds the death knell for the privilege of expertise and presents a threat to the professions everywhere… may be the Luddites were right after all!

Nathan Holden