The opposition MP lambasted the sitting Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Margot James, claiming that the plans were more spin than substance, with calls for the government to do better.
The two opponents debated the AI deal in the House of Commons last week following the publication of the AI deal, which saw £300 million of private sector investment, £300 million of newly allocated government funding for AI research, plus a number of other private-public endeavours to position the UK as a leader in AI globally.
However, the news followed an announcement from the European Commission, which outlined plans for EU member states to invest €20 million in AI up until 2020. With Brexit looming, the UK is having to prove that it can still compete globally when it comes to the fourth industrial revolution.
Delivering a statement to MPs last week, Minister Margot James said that the AI sector deal was just the start of the UK’s plans to “seize the opportunities of modern technology” and ensuring that the government is building a “Britain that is fit for the future”. She said:
AI holds transformative potential for every aspect of our lives—from how we travel to how we work and live—and for every sector of the economy. For the UK, the prize is clear: potentially adding 10% to our GDP by 2030 if adoption is widespread, with a productivity boost of up to 30%. In pursuing that prize, we start with strong foundations.
Taken together, these measures send a signal to AI business, science and research communities around the world. The UK will attract talent, invest and lead on standards and ethics. That message is made clear by the investment of industry that, along with investment from the Government, forms a total package of almost £1 billion.
That sits alongside the £250 million already allocated for connected and autonomous vehicles, and the £1.7 billion that has been announced for the cross-sectoral industrial strategy challenge fund thus far.
The opposition’s response
The Shadow Minister, Liam Byrne, responded to James by firstly criticising her for only sending an email at late notice about the strategy, ahead of the debate, but managing to present the strategy to The Times newspaper before addressing parliament.
Byrne added that it’s a “shame” that the Minister has allowed, “the French, the Americans, the South Koreans and the Chinese to get there first”, but added that it was “but better late than never”. The Minister also questioned whether or not the strategy was actually committing any new money to the government’s AI plans. He said:
From what I can divine from what the Minister said to the House, no new money has been announced today. Rather, a top-down earmarked amount of cash has already been handed out to research councils. That is fine as far as it goes, but it is an awful long way short of the £1 billion of funding that President Macron has just announced to support artificial intelligence in France.
In the interests of brevity, Mr Speaker, I have some specific questions for the Minister. First, the sector plan makes great play of a £2.5 billion investment fund delivered by the British Business Bank. Is this just for AI, or for innovation generally? Is it DEL—departmental expenditure limit—funding or loan guarantees? Is it intended to deliver grants or loans? When does that money come online? Is it, in other words, spin over substance?
The Labour MP also said that a strong AI sector in Britain will be built on three basic foundations: good networks, trust and skills. Criticising the government’s approach to these areas, he added:
Today, our science spend is, I am afraid, in the second league, our digital networks are lamentable, our framework of trust is hopelessly out of date—in fact, we still have no date for the Data Protection Bill returning to this House—and our skills base is alarmingly thin.
That is why we call for science spend not at 2.4% of GDP, but up at 3%. We think there should be universal provision of networks at 30 megabits per second, a Bill of digital rights to restore trust and a national education service to restore the skills base.
This morning, the Bank of England published figures showing that this Government have presided over the worst productivity figures since the late 18th century. If we are to be masters of the fourth industrial revolution, as we were of the first, the Government will have to do an awful lot better than this.
The government’s response
Margot James wasn’t going to take the criticism lying down, declaring that it was a “shame” the Byrne’s response to her statement was “overwhelmingly negative”, given that the UK has world leading institutions and is starting from a good base of “readiness”. She said:
Oxford Insights, which I mentioned in my statement, has put us at No. 1 across the world on its Government AI readiness index. He referred to other countries, predominantly in Asia, which are indeed investing hugely in this area. He mentions Macron from a sedentary position; he also mentioned him in his response. We are of course delighted that President Macron is also seeing the potential for AI. There is nothing wrong with that. We are a global-facing country. It is great that our partners in Europe are also committing to this agenda.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of data and digital performance in this country. The UK is in a very competitive position in terms of digital performance. We now have 95% access to superfast broadband, which was delivered by the end of last year. Only yesterday, I was at a meeting with all the successful parts of the country that bid for the 5G test bed and pilot programme, which will put us in a pivotal position to take advantage of the internet of things. These test beds and pilots extend right across the country, from the Orkney Islands to the south-west of England, and a new wave of bids will be announced this summer. We are very determined on this front.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the future of work. This is an extremely important issue. Of course, we recognise that we are in for a fast ride here. The pace of technological change is such that momentous changes that are not always predictable can potentially displace groups of workers. We are very cognisant of the need to smooth the path through continuous training. The industrial strategy has at its heart improving the world of work and access to retraining throughout people’s lives, so that no one is left behind by these technological advances.
James also responded to a question regarding Brexit and the impact that this will have on skills, in terms of AI companies being able to recruit talent needed to develop their technology. The Minister said that the government is committed to making the UK a destination for global talent, equity finance and venture capital in the years to come, post-Brexit. She said:
We already have companies that have invested substantially in the UK; he mentioned DeepMind, and we have many others. We have doubled the number of exceptional talent visas to 2,000, and we are offering scientists who have come to this country on tier 1 visas full settlement rights at three years.
I mentioned in my response to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) that, post the EU investment in this country and AI, the Chancellor has announced substantial additional moneys available through the British Business Bank to replace over the long term EU funding that will be lost once we leave the EU.