By Shiona McCallum
Martha Lane Fox has warned against becoming “too hysterical or hype-driven” over artificial intelligence (AI).
The tech pioneer instead urges more sensible conversations around its capabilities.
She told the BBC she thinks there should be frameworks in place around AI but that companies should also “think carefully” about how they use it.
Concerns have been mounting that AI is not sufficiently regulated.
AI is technology that allows a computer to think or act in a more human way – examples include the voice assistants like Siri and Alexa and the chatbot ChatGPT.
Since ChatGPT was launched in November last year, millions of people have enjoyed experimenting with it, and its popularity has been growing.
GPT-4 is the latest in a series of AIs which the firm refers to as GPTs, an acronym which stands for Generative Pre-Trained Transformer.
But as a result of that pace, tech leaders including Elon Musk have raised “fears of a threat to humanity” and there have been calls for AI to be shut down.
Last week Italy became the first Western country to block ChatGPT.
Although Lane Fox admits there are some genuine anxieties around the tech and that there might be some job losses along the way, she says she thinks we should embrace the opportunities it presents, in a balanced manner.
“I think that having a rational and reasonable conversations is the important thing and not becoming too hysterical or hype-driven, but looking more carefully at what is actually happening and how we can mitigate the risks and double down on the opportunities,” she said.
In 1998 Lane Fox co-founded lastminute.com, an online travel agency that was briefly seen as Britain’s answer to Amazon – since then she’s been one of the strongest voices in the UK tech scene.
It is clear that she is as enthusiastic about the digital future now as she was during the dot com boom, and that she has a handle on how AI is still in a very early iteration.
“There’s no point in sitting here saying ‘AI going to destroy the world’. Well, it’s happening, right? Technology isn’t slowing down. It’s speeding up with digitising. So we have to decide whether we’re going to digitise in a way that is ethical, that is inclusive, that is sustainable.”
She is also adamant that the more diversity you get round the table when legislating for future technologies, the better: “Women, minorities, you know, people that don’t normally get access to this stuff.”
Lack of women in tech
Martha Lane Fox is a champion for equality and parity across the tech sector – something she says she is disappointed to see unchanged for women since she was breaking into the scene in the 1990s.
She says that she is “totally horrified” at the situation, adding that there is a higher percentage of women in the House of Lords, where she is a life peer, than there is working in technology.
In March 2013, Lane Fox became the Lords’ youngest female member at the time, at the age of 40. The appointment saw her gain the title of Baroness Lane Fox of Soho in the City of Westminster.
Since then she has served successive governments as a digital adviser, and founded businesses such as karaoke chain Lucky Voice.
Most recently she has become the president of the British Chambers of Commerce.
‘Twitter front-row seat’
Up until Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, Lane Fox had been on the board of the platform as a non-executive director.
She was integral to the business decisions that were made during the the legal tussle between Mr Musk and Twitter, as the controversial sale went through.
Her first response to the questions around what it was like during that period was simply: “Exhausting.”
“I’m still kind of winding down from that experience” she says.
“I feel unbelievably lucky to have had a front-row seat to one of the most extraordinary corporate events over the last decade.”
Lane Fox says the priorities that she and the other directors had were always what was best for the Twitter shareholders, regardless of the frenzy around Mr Musk: “Elon offered an amazing price to the company, and it was clear to the shareholders we had to sell the company.”
When probed on what the billionaire was like to deal with, she says: “You have to put your kind of personal beliefs aside.”
Lane Fox thinks it is too early to tell what Mr Musk’s impact on Twitter will be, but anticipates it will be “interesting”.
Along with paid verification, since taking over the platform Mr Musk has brought in a TikTok-style “For You” feed of recommended posts, a focus on “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach” and silver and gold ticks for governments and brands.
“The product cycle at Twitter can definitely keep improving and already things have changed, some good, some bad” says Lane Fox.
“I wouldn’t underestimate either Elon or Twitter.”
You can listen to the full interview with Martha Lane Fox on Tech Life on BBC Sounds and the World Service.