UK government announces £1 billion investment in AI

© iStock/BrianAJackson
© iStock/BrianAJackson

The funding will support research projects and plug the skills gap by training computer science teachers and funding AI PhDs

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The UK government has announced an AI investment deal worth £1 billion, in a bid to bolster the country's tech sector amid fierce competition on the global stage.

The deal includes funding for 1,000 AI PhDs, a new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and training 8,000 specialist computer science teachers to ensure there is one in every secondary school.

"Artificial intelligence is at the centre of our plans to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business," Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said in a statement.

Hopes to compete with global AI powerhouses

The government identified AI and data as one of four areas in which the UK can lead the world in technology in its Industrial Strategy, published in 2017, which estimated that it could add £232 billion to the UK economy by 2030, the equivalent of 10 percent of GDP. 

Japanese and Canadian venture capital firms will be adding to the funding promised by the government and British companies, in a concerted effort to stave off the threat from the growing AI sector in China, which aims to become the AI world leader by 2030.

As a result, Vancouver venture capital firm Chrysalix and Japanese VC group Global Brain will both open European HQs in the UK, and respectively invest up to £110 million in AI and robotics and £35 million in deep-tech startups in the country.

The £1 billion total investment will add almost £300 million of new private sector investment and more than £300 million of newly allocated government funding for AI research to the £400 million that the government had previously announced.

European competition is also rising. On Wednesday, the European Commission called for an investment of at least €20 billion in AI research by 2020, while French President Emmanuel Macron last week pledged to invest almost £1.5 billion into AI research in his country.

"Today’s announcement reaffirms the UK's place as a world leader in artificial intelligence," Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, said in a statement.

"This government is determined that British businesses should now take the next steps to build on the growing global opportunities provided by the advancement of AI, changing the lives of millions of people.

"As an international economic department, we will help UK companies in the AI sector to forge new trading ties that will boost exports, investment and provide jobs to every part of the country."

Andy Cotgreave, technical evangelism director at Tableau Software, said the government would also need to invest in the underlying data management practices to compete with China and the US.

"While today’s announcement is a step in the right direction, the government needs to educate and support organisations in creating quality and reliable data sets for AI," he said.

"Without investment in AI training, the UK risks falling further behind the US and China which have greater scale.

"These countries have bigger data sets, bigger populations and bigger companies. For the UK to seriously challenge, a competitive role in ethics, adoption and research must be found."

UK tech sector reaction

The government's proposals are a response to the recommendations of an independent review of how the UK could grow its AI sector and come a week after a House of Lords committee called for a new code of ethics.

Read next: Lords calls for AI ethics code but dismisses need for new regulation

The government hopes to ensure high ethical standards by spending £9 million on a new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which will provide advice on the ethical use of data.

Emma Kendrew, Accenture's UK AI lead, said the centre will be vital to protect the public, as AI will guide decisions on healthcare, housing and criminal justice.

"As the stakes get higher, AI will have unprecedented access and impact on the ways people work and live," she said.

“The technology needs to be nurtured in the same way as a child and taught the principles of good citizenship: responsibility, fairness, and transparency. It’s definitely a case of nurture over nature.

"The new centre established today will have a vital role in making sure AI is ‘raised’ and deployed responsibly. As a world-first, it will ensure that the UK stays firmly pinned on the map as a top location for global businesses to invest in their AI efforts, as well as for homegrown talent to thrive."

Cautious optimism on investment in skills

In addition to investing in training computer science teachers and funding AI PhDs, the government is doubling the number of Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas it grants to 2,000 a year.

Mike Drew, head of technology at Odgers Berndtson, a headhunting firm that has given evidence to recent parliamentary inquiries on AI, said the money would need to be backed up by policies designed to plug the skills gap.

"The government also needs policies urgently to address the yawning skills gap in AI and related areas," he said.

"There is potentially limitless demand from companies to explore and utilise possibilities of machine learning but a severe shortage of specialists to make this a reality."

Boris Krumrey, chief robotics officer at automation expert UiPath, added that the investment in education would have to recognise the changing workforce requirements that AI will create.

"These jobs may look different than before and require other skillsets and knowledge," he said.

"For example, individuals would be tasked with developing new automation technologies and managing the implementation of these technologies within our business environment.

"Furthermore, individuals will remain responsible for emotive occupations, such as therapists and teachers – professions that still have low automation potential."

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