Progress in creating a world class AI sector in the UK is stately, rather than speedy
The government’s latest Industrial Strategy report on artificial intelligence (AI) delivers some welcome headlines, but I have a nagging feeling that progress in creating a world class AI sector in the UK is stately, rather than speedy. The government is, after all, marking its own homework, so it’s no surprise that it accentuates the positive.
The plans were set out in the AI Sector Deal in 2018, as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy, an overarching plan to promote the UK in ‘new’ industries, such as AI, and growth sectors, such as transport. The AI Sector Deal is essentially a partnership between government, academia, and industry to address residents’ and businesses’ goals and concerns with respect to A.I.
The government tells us that it has overseen a six-fold increase in venture capital investment into the UK AI sector since 2013, is double the amount of Germany and France combined. The UK is clearly a leader in Europe, but we really need to compare ourselves against South Korea, Japan, China and the US to get the full picture.
Take South Korea. The government is to spend $2.2bn to strengthen its AI R&D capability including creating at least six new AI schools by 2020, with plans to educate more than 5,000 new high-quality engineers in Korea in response to a shortage of AI engineers. Korea will also fund large scale AI projects related to medicine, national defence, and public safety as well as starting an AI R&D challenge (learning from the US).
In 2017, China announced that it intends to become the world No 1 for AI by 2030. The Chinese AI industry will be worth about $150 billion and Beijing is pushing for greater use of AI in a number of areas such as the armed forces and smart cities. Furthermore, the Chinese government plans for $2.1bn AI research park, just one of a number of initiatives backed with significant investment.
AI Research house Cognilytica notes that other AI hot spots include Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Singapore, Malaysia Australia, India, Italy, Canada, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is a crowded field.
The UK has also set it store by a strong commitment to ethics in AI, and this is a clear differentiator from the competition. AI has huge potential, but also huge potential for misuse. If the UK can balance growth with resolving concerns about privacy, trust and access, ministers hope this will prove attractive (and lucrative).
The year has also seen a number of bodies being set up to oversee the AI programme. The AI Council will coordinate the interface between industry, academia and government, The government Office for Artificial Intelligence is charged with delivering the commitments in the AI Sector Deal, and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will advise on the measures needed to ‘enable and ensure safe, ethical and innovative uses of AI and data-driven technologies.’
On people, the report reheats an earlier announcement (in February 2019) that a package of measures will improve the supply of AI talent in the UK, including six new Centres for Doctoral Training at universities across the country, delivering 1,000 new PhDs over the next five years, new [Alan] Turing AI fellowships to attract and retain the top AI talent; and industry funding for new AI Masters places.
Of course, it takes time to get the infrastructure in place to turbocharge AI growth in the UK, and ensure that growth is ethical, but our competitors are forging ahead and we know that pace is critical to stay ahead of the pack. I’d like to see the government using the Tiger economies as our comparators. Less focus on prominent individuals being appointed to head august up bodies, and more on the financial and practical measures to support an industry which will be an essential part of our future economic success and a key influence on our everyday lives.