Government pledges £17.3m for AI research and announces new Digital Strategy

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 26, 2017
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has said that Britain already has a competitive advantage in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The British government has announced that it will be providing £17.3 million in funding to support the development of new robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies in universities across the UK, in a bid to support an area of the economy that has ‘fast-growing research and commercial investment’.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) also announced a new major review looking into the potential of AI - led by Professor Dame Wendy Hall, a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, and Jérôme Pesenti, the CEO of BenevolentTech, a British technology company using AI to accelerate scientific discovery.

The announcement builds on the Prime Minister’s recently launched (although long-awaited) Industrial Strategy and looks set to form part of some broader thinking around the role of AI in a new Digital Strategy that is due out on Wednesday this week.

To date the government has been fairly quiet on the role and potential of AI, probably all too aware that it leads to difficult conversations around workforce displacement, the need for new legal and ethical frameworks and the future role of government.

The Digital Strategy set to be published this week will outline DCMS’ ambition for Britain to “build on areas of strength and develop a global lead in technologies, including cyber security, connected and smart devices, autonomous vehicles, as well as AI”.

DCMS believes that these technologies will drive future economic growth and productivity across the economy.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said:

Britain has a proud history of digital innovation - from the earliest days of computing to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s development of the World Wide Web.

We are already pioneers in today’s artificial intelligence revolution and the Digital Strategy will build on our strengths to make sure UK-based scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs continue to be at the forefront.

Technologies like AI have the potential to transform how we live, work, travel and learn, and I am pleased that Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti will be leading this review. It’s great that Government and industry will be working together to drive growth in the sector, to realise all the economic and social benefits for the UK.

Backing our thriving digital economy to expand and grow by putting the best foundations in place to develop new technology is a vital part of this Government’s plan to build a modern, dynamic and global trading nation.

The new review led by Hall and Pesenti will consider how government and industry could work together to back new AI technologies, which it hopes could “inform a sector deal”. It will assess how the sector has the potential to grow further, from early research to commercialisation.

Accenture has estimated that AI could add in the region of £654 billion to the UK economy by 2035 - and the government believes that Britain already has a competitive advantage in AI, claiming that the most innovative AI companies are based here.

Given the economic uncertainty facing Britain ahead of the exit from the EU, the government is working hard to identify areas of investment that will serve the economy well over the next few decades. Having said that, so are plenty of other governments, and whether or not Britain can appeal as a target for investment going forward remains to be seen.

Business Secretary Greg Clark said:

Investment in robotics and artificial intelligence will help make our economy more competitive, build on our world-leading reputation in these cutting-edge sectors and help us create new products, develop more innovative services and establish better ways of doing business.

Innovation is at the heart of our Industrial Strategy and the launch of the Government’s Digital Strategy underlines our commitment to this vital sector. By supporting British businesses and investing in dynamic fields such as robotics and AI, we will help put the UK at the forefront of global innovation.

Chief Scientific Adviser

At the end of last year, then Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walport (who has since been picked as the new chief executive of UK Research and Innovation) was beginning to lead a discussion on the potential impact of Artificial Intelligence.

In a report, Walport noted the impact that AI may have on decision making going forward. He wrote:

It is likely that many types of government decisions will be deemed unsuitable to be handed over entirely to Artificial Intelligence systems. There will always be a ‘human in the loop’. This person’s role, however, is not straightforward. If they never question the advice of the machine, the decision has de facto become automatic and they offer no oversight. If they question the advice they receive, however, they may be thought reckless, more so if events show their decision to be poor. As with any adviser, the influence of these systems on decision-makers will be questioned, and departments will need to be transparent about the role played by artificial intelligence in their decisions.

Equally, he quite rightly highlighted that there are questions around trust that need to be answered, especially when it comes to the government’s use of AI to serve the public.

These are an essential ingredient in maintaining public trust in government’s ability to manage data safely. Teams making use of artificial learning approaches need to understand how these existing frameworks apply in this context. For example, if deep learning is used to infer personal details that were not intentionally shared, it may not be clear whether consent has been obtained.

These current protections are effective and well-established. However, understanding the opportunities and risks associated with more advanced Artificial Intelligence will only be possible through trials and experimentation. For government analysts to be able to explore cutting edge techniques it may be desirable to establish sandbox areas where the potential of this technology can be investigated in a safe and controlled environment.

The role of Government Chief Scientific Adviser has since been re-advertised, following Walport’s departure, and the job notice highlights that the successful candidate will be identifying gaps and opportunities for the UK, “particularly in emerging technologies to drive economic growth”.

The salary for the position is currently being advertised at between £160,000 and £180,000.

My take

It’s certainly no bad thing that the government has identified AI as a target market for future growth. And it’s good that it’s getting in there early. However, I am somewhat concerned that we appear to be throwing money at this without much discussion or thought around the future role or impact of AI in our society. AI has the potential to completely change the job market and our human behaviour - the government should be leading a sensible discussion on how we approach it and mould it into something we find useful, rather than dangerous.

Equally, I was surprised to learn that there will be a Digital Strategy released this week, given we’ve already had the Industrial and Transformation strategies released. We have gone from no strategies to three in the space of a couple of months! Will update with more information on that once it’s released…