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AI and public services of the future

From board rooms to bus queues, there’s no hotter topic of discussion right now than Artificial Intelligence (AI).

As the recent AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park looked to establish a rulebook for how this powerful technology will be utilised, society remains divided over the new technology.

For some, it will herald the start of robots taking over; others are enthused at the opportunities to transform, innovate, and improve efficiencies.

Within local government, the question is how do we harness AI to elevate our economies and increase accessibility to public services without damaging our communities?

It’s a discussion that we here in Surrey are already thinking about deeply.

On the eve of the Bletchley Park summit, government announced funding to create a new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) within Surrey, establishing more than 80 industry-ready PhDs to lead the transformation to responsible AI-enabled inclusive media.

It will be led by academics at two world-leading centres within the county: the University of Surrey’s Institute for People-centred AI, which has been pioneering research within AI and machine learning for 35 years; and the StoryFutures unit at Royal Holloway University of London, which is leading creative innovation in next-generation inclusive digital media.

The CDT will seek to remove significant real-world barriers to media inclusion, using AI to create intelligent content that adapts to individual preferences, such as age, language, and sensory and physical abilities.

As the authority for strategic oversight of our regional economy, Surrey County Council was pleased to support the proposal.

For a start, it places the region at the centre of this exciting, innovative, and emerging technology.

The CDT will complement Surrey’s already highly-skilled workforce which has world-leading cybersecurity, gaming, and creative industry clusters.

The challenge for us now is to work with industry and academic partners to develop a regional economic ecosystem which champions training, community-building, and knowledge exchange around AI.

If we get it right then, rather than making roles redundant, AI will be the driver for upskilling the labour force and freeing people to use their talents in more creative ways.

It will also place Surrey as a national – perhaps even world leader – in digital media inclusion, supporting job creation, inward investment, and wider economic prosperity.

But utilising AI within digital media goes beyond the bottom line.

Creating content and services that are inclusive and accessible for all is essential for society.

While Surrey has a thriving and vibrant economy second only to London in size, we know there are sections within our 1.2 million population who need a little extra help, as reflected in the County Council’s organisational mission of No One Left Behind.

If we can harness AI technology in a safe and trustworthy way, it could have a significant positive impact on our ability to deliver high-quality and sustainable services for all.

We could use the learning from the CDT to improve service reach to our most vulnerable residents, including those with special educational needs and disabilities.

Collaborative research projects could also focus on improving the accessibility and impact of services on hard-to-reach groups, leading to greater overall resident satisfaction and increase in participation.

The development of more interactive and creative content in fire prevention and community safety services could also increase engagement – reducing demand for emergency intervention down the road.

AI could also be used to drive community engagement around green agendas, such as identifying and promoting measures where local authority interventions could catalyse a broader change on the transition to net zero.

The balance between opportunities and risks remains very real. But harnessed the right way, AI could have transformative impacts on our regional economies and delivery of public services, creating a safer and fairer society along the way.

Dawn Redpath is Director for Economy and Growth at Surrey County Council. This article first appeared as a thought leadership piece in The MJ in November 2023.

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