Will robots take our jobs? When will driverless cars become the norm? How is Industry 4.0 transforming manufacturing? These were just some of the issues addressed at CogX in London last month. Held in association with The Alan Turing Institute, CogX 17 was an event bringing together thought leaders across more than 20 industries and domains to address the impact of artificial intelligence on society. To round off the proceedings, a prestigious panel of judges recognized some of the best contributions to innovation in AI in an awards ceremony.

Employment developments

In his keynote speech, Lord David Young, a former UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was keen to point out that workers should not worry about being made unemployed by robots because, he said, most jobs that would be killed off were miserable anyway.

He told the conference that more jobs than ever would be automated in the future, but that this should be welcomed. “When the Spinning Jenny first came in, it was almost exactly the same,” he said. “They thought it was going to kill employment. We may have a problem one day if the Googles of this world continue to get bigger and the Amazons spread into all sorts of things, but government has the power to regulate that, has the power to break it up.

“I’m not the slightest worried about it,” he continued. “Most of the jobs are miserable jobs. What technology has to do is get rid of all the nasty jobs.”

It’s certainly an interesting analogy, comparing the current tech and AI revolution to the Industrial Revolution. It’s hard to disagree that just as the proliferation of machines in the 18th and 19th centuries helped create new jobs and wealth, AI is likely to do the same. There is undoubtedly a bigger question around regulation and who’s in charge of this new landscape, however.

Transportation issues

CogX also threw some fascinating panel discussions about transportation and smart cities. Panelists — including M.C. Srivas, Uber’s chief data scientist, and Huawei CTO Ayush Sharma — talked at length about the necessity of self-driving cars in our towns and cities, whose roads have become jails where commuters do time. And that’s without delving into issues of safety and pollution.

Kenneth Cukier, The Economist‘s big data expert, asked the audience whether they thought autonomous cars were likely to hit our cities in either 5, 10, or 15 years. Most of those in attendance, along with the panel, agreed that we should see autonomous cars becoming the norm in the next 10 to 15 years, with clear legislation set to come in around 2023.

However — and this is something that affects us directly — the panel also agreed that although the mass manufacturing of self-driving cars is still a few years off, intelligent assistants for smart cars are imminent, likely to become standard within the next couple of years. Voice offers countless possibilities in the automotive space. Besides enabling the safe use of existing controls such as in-car entertainment systems or heating/air conditioning, it also offers GPS functionality as well as control over the vehicle’s mechanics.

Manufacturing advances

The session on Industry 4.0 kicked off by attempting to make sense of a term that has been used for several years. The general consensus was that “automating manufacturing” was the best way to express an idea that originated in a report by the German government. Industrial companies have to become automated to survive, and many are building highly integrated engines to capture data from their machines. The market for smart manufacturing tools is expected to hit $250 billion by 2018.

It’s well known that robotics are already used in manufacturing to handle larger-scale and more dangerous work. What the panel also discussed are other possibilities AI offers, such as virtual personal assistants for workers to help them complete their daily tasks or smart technology such as 3D printing and its benefits for smaller companies.

Even our entertainment these days is driven by AI. The Industry 4.0 session ended on a lighter note with Limor Schweitzer, CEO at RoboSavvy, encouraging Franky the robot to show the audience its dance moves. Sophia, a humanlike robot created by Hanson Robotics, also provided entertainment at the CogX awards ceremony; “she” announced the nominees and winners in the category of best innovation in artificial general intelligence, which included my company Sherpa, Alphabet’s DeepMind, and Vicarious.

CogX also touched on the impact of AI on health, HR, education, legal services, fintech, and many other sectors. Panelists were in agreement that advances in AI must benefit all of us. While there are still many question marks about regulation of the sector, AI already permeates all aspects of our society.

Ian Cowley is the marketing manager at Sherpa, which uses algorithms based on probability models to predict information a user might need.