May’s AI ambitions to take on cancer - noble goal, but a case of rhetoric over reality

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 21, 2018
Theresa May wants to use AI to take on the fight against cancer. A great ambition, but how would it work in practice?

Theresa May PM
The aching pursuit of tech modernity is one that crosses the political divide.

At its worst, it leads to scandalous waste of public money, such as Tony Blair’s commissioning after one hour of the NHS National IT Programme, still one of the greatest debacles in public sector technology projects.

More usually it leads to a jumping onto whatever the latest tech bandwagon happens to be that’s trundling by.

Over the past few days, we’ve seen some classic examples, with Digital Minister Matt Hancock howling at the moon over how he’s going to bring the social media giants into line. And of course, there’s the stream of various Brexiteer-ing politicos who are confident that the IT boffins will be able to come up with the magical tech needed to make Max Fac a reality for the Irish border!

Then there’s Prime Minister Theresa May, who was yesterday declaring that AI will help cure cancer and the UK will be leading this revolution. Or at least that’s the headline that was leaked to the appropriate mainstream media outlets, which dutifully repeated it without question or query.

Don’t get me wrong. Any advance in the battle against cancer is to be welcomed and it’s quite possible that at some point, in some way, that AI and related tech will play a significant part in this. What concerns me is the (a) the simplistic nature of the claims made today and (b) turning it into a competition - more of that later.

Churchill, Stephenson et al

Talking from Jodrell Bank, the PM kicked off her speech with a Hancock-ian romp through the UK’s scientific past with an opening Churchillian post-WWII reference:

Memories were fresh of the destruction that had been wreaked through what Winston Churchill called ‘the lights of perverted science’. But stronger than the doubts about technological change was a faith in the potential of scientific inquiry to overcome the great challenges of their time – want, disease, ignorance and squalor – and to light the path to a better future. They were men and women who stood at the threshold of a new age.

Now as we stand on the threshold of a Brexit age, Theresa May is at the forefront of those women, 2018-style apparently:

As I look towards the future, that spirit of scientific inquiry, and its power to shape a better tomorrow, is at the heart of my vision. Because the world today stands at the threshold of a new technological age as exciting as any in our past.

On then to the bold claims, cheer-raising, if totally unattributed when it comes to independent ranking of leadership:

This technological revolution presents huge opportunities for countries with the means to seize them. And Britain is in pole position to do just that. We are ranked first in the world for research into the defining technologies of the next decade, from genomics and synthetic biology, to robotics and satellites.

Scientific name-dropping is next up - Newton, Faraday, Whittle, Hodgkin, Stephenson etc. No mention of Turing or Berners-Lee for some reason, both of whom would seem to be appropriate for a computing-related pitch, but hey ho…

Here comes the AI bit

As for AI, the PM argues:

We cannot predict the future or guess what technological or scientific breakthroughs might lie just around the corner. But we can observe the long-term trends that are shaping change in our world today and which will drive and demand innovation in the years ahead.

We know that Artificial Intelligence and the Big Data revolution is transforming business models and employment practices across all sectors of the economy – especially in services, which are so important to our country.

And then it’s competition time! Or as it’s more accurately referred to - the AI and Data Grand Challenge! Why do we need a Grand Challenge? It’s because:

From John Harrison’s development of the marine chronometer, to the sequencing of the human genome and treatments to tackle the AIDS crisis, we have seen throughout our history that setting ambitious and clearly-defined missions motivates human endeavour. There is huge potential in a missions-based approach to drive faster solutions.

What that means is:

As part of the AI and Data Grand Challenge, the United Kingdom will use data, Artificial Intelligence and innovation to transform the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia by 2030...In cancer, our ambition is that within 15 years we will be able to diagnose at a much earlier stage the lung, bowel, prostate or ovarian cancer of at least 50,000 more people a year.

OK, that is a good ambition, but how do we achieve it in practice? What’s the detail here? Well, that’s not for discussion today it seems:

We will work with industry and the medical research community to announce specific ambitions in a range of other disease areas over the coming weeks and months.

So it’s over to the healthcare and scientific community to put the meat on the bones then. OK. Just as well we have so many researchers in the UK, isn’t it? Except, as the PM herself admits, over half of the UK’s resident researcher community comes from overseas - and er, Brexit?

It seems that the good news here is that this isn’t going to be an issue:

When we leave the European Union, I will ensure that does not change. Indeed the Britain we build together in the decades ahead must be one in which scientific collaboration and the free exchange of ideas is increased and extended, both between the UK and the European Union and with partners around the world.

Er, but we haven’t actually sorted out the free movement issue with the EU yet. And there’s legitimate concern among UK employers in the tech sector about a skills crisis post-Brexit that hasn’t been resolved to date.

And what about the explicit statements from Brussels that the UK will face being chucked out of pan-EU scientific research programs? The PM is determined that the UK will not be part of the Digital Single Market, so why should it be part of wider tech initiatives?

It seems that the PM is ready to pay to play on this one:

The United Kingdom would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes – including the successor to Horizon 2020 and Euratom R&D. It is in the mutual interest of the UK and the EU that we should do so.

Of course such an association would involve an appropriate UK financial contribution, which we would willingly make. In return, we would look to maintain a suitable level of influence in line with that contribution and the benefits we bring.

Sounds fair enough. Is Brussels on side with this? The PM says:

The UK is ready to discuss these details with the Commission as soon as possible.


My take

A speech with a genuinely worthwhile ambition at its heart, smothered by rhetoric and attempts to piggyback on the UK’s justifiably impressive tech and innovation past. It was about grand ambitions with no detail on deliverables, just empty platitudes, such as:

There is no escaping the complexity of the challenge, but there should be no mistaking the scale of the opportunity before us either.

Digital Minister Hancock loved it of course. He does rather tend to like anything the PM says and takes to Twitter to show it:

Hancock tweet














I think I rather side with Labour’s Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation. who also took to social media to declare:

Chi onwurah tweet















The day that cancer is finally beaten is a day that can’t come soon enough. And tech, possibly AI, will play its part on that day. But it’s going to take a lot more than some positive headlines in the Daily Mail and prescribing a course of innovation to get us there.

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