- Prime Minister Theresa May called on investors to put pressure on technology companies.
- But investors said that May’s speech was “lazy” and “disappointing.”
- An economist called it “ridiculous” and “embarrassing.”
LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May said in her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday that technology investors should “put pressure” on tech companies to crack down on terrorists and criminals using their products.
“These companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content,” May said.
“Earlier this month a group of shareholders demanded that Facebook and Twitter disclose more information about sexual harassment, fake news, hate speech and other forms of abuse that take place on the companies’ platforms.
“Investors can make a big difference here by ensuring trust and safety issues are being properly considered. And I urge them to do so.”
One technology investor who wanted to remain anonymous simply sent an eyeroll emoji when asked for their reaction to May’s speech.
Rob Kniaz, founding partner at Hoxton Ventures, which has backed companies including Deliveroo and Babylon, said that “I think it’s lazy to blame tech companies rather than pursuing criminals directly.
“Certainly they will continue to communicate through new channels as soon as old ones are shut,” Kniaz said, “and it’s the responsibility of the police and politicians to create and enforce laws to stop them. There are plenty of tools today to do so.”
And Nic Brisbourne, managing partner of London-based VC firm Forward Partners which has backed companies including Thread and Zopa, called May’s speech “disappointing.”
“I appreciate the Prime Minister’s point of view on the seminal moment we currently find ourselves at in terms of emerging technology, particularly the huge advances we’re seeing in AI,” Brisbourne said. “However, it’s disappointing to see such focus placed on the negatives that these technologies can present, rather than the huge advances they can help us achieve as a society.”
“There is good and bad in these developments, as with every advance in technology and in other areas, but the one thing we can say for sure is that change & innovation will happen. The really game changing development of true ‘human level’ artificial intelligence is some way off. What we have in the short term is narrow AI which can improve productivity and drive growth on a massive scale, but will also have unintended side effects, of which the polarising effect of Facebook is a good example.
“Our job as a society is to embrace the good and try to limit the bad. If we try to reject AI then developments and the startups that exploit them will simply happen elsewhere, making our UK based companies less competitive and the country poorer as a result.”
Karen McCormick, CIO at venture capital firm Beringea which has invested in companies including Thread, said that “investors are only one part of the puzzle when it comes to tackling issues such as child safety, data protection, and terrorism. While the government figures out how it will regulate technology and the Internet, tech giants must work harder to prove they can address problems themselves.
“Facebook and Twitter need to enhance their processes for safeguarding children using their platforms. I expect to see an explosion of highly specialised startups creating their own solutions, which we have already started to see, followed by acquisitions by tech giants.
“There’s absolutely no point legislating beyond what’s practical, and many policymakers are unclear on what exactly is feasible. It’s over-ambitious to expect technology companies to automatically remove terrorist or other illegal content from their sites. In the short term, they should improve their reporting mechanisms and react faster when such content is posted.”
Dennis Snower, president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy think tank, wasn’t impressed with May’s speech either:
Theresa May's speech in Davos: Platitudes about new technologies, no ideas about how the gains from tech can be spread, & ridiculous boasts about Britain as AI capital of the world. Embarrassing. pic.twitter.com/ORnq7VrfJI
— Dennis Snower (@DJSnower) January 25, 2018
May also focused on the benefits and potential setbacks of artificial intelligence. “It is a test that I am confident we can meet. For right across the long sweep of history from the invention of electricity to advent of factory production, time and again initially disquieting innovations have delivered previously unthinkable advances and we have found the way to make those changes work for all our people.
“As we seize technology so we have to shape it so it works for everyone,” she said.
Martin Goodson, CEO of British artificial intelligence company Evolution AI, said that he was “glad fears of mass unemployment were not overblown.”
Here’s Goodson’s full comment:
“We welcome May’s reiteration of her commitment to support the AI industry via the industrial strategy.
Her emphasis on the development of ethical artificial intelligence is also positive. Far from being a brake on growth, we see this as a commercial opportunity. For instance, our company have received government funding to develop technology for explainable AI, which is AI that can explain the decisions it makes. Imagine you develop AI that has the power to refuse bank loans to people based on their previous behaviour: it’s critical that such technology has the ability to explain its decisions.
I’m glad fears of mass unemployment were not overblown. Look at the the last 70 years. This period saw the invention of the handheld mechanical calculator, then electronic calculators, followed by desktop computers. Far from being decimated, white collar employment grew enormously over this time.”