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May AI help you? - the week in AI

Written by, Dominic Weeks, Head of Technology 

Government plans a future economy powered by AI

The Prime Minister decided to take a Brexit breather at Jodrell Bank on Monday, to deliver a speech highlighting the opportunities and unique advantages that the UK has to power health improvements through AI innovation. Highlighting opportunities to increase early detections of cancer and thus cut the death rate, Theresa May also argued that health improvements powered by AI were crucial to the country’s future prosperity.

The theme was echoed enthusiastically at a BEIS event hosted by the Resolution Foundation on Tuesday. The event discussed the industrial strategy and the associated AI and data grand challenge. Ministers Sam Gyimah and Margot James celebrated the Prime Minister’s vision for AI in health and beyond in powering the economy. The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation highlighted Britain’s universities as a source of differentiation and strength, and both suggested that “ethical” AI innovation could be a niche to counter the big bucks invested in China and the U.S. The panel assembled also stressed the importance of spreading the benefits of AI innovation throughout the UK and for people of all backgrounds.  

Panellist Marc Warner, CEO of ASI Data Science, asked pointedly if the Government could support innovation by opening up the procurement process to smaller tech firms. Lord Willetts, chairing the discussion, responded by lamenting that America has a less risk averse attitude to government spending with innovative start-ups. Another disadvantage that we have.

This week’s focus on AI follows a raft of recent government initiatives and announcements on the topic within the last two months. Including:

Analysis

The Prime Minister’s speech was widely picked up for the headline promise to reduce cancer deaths, but she also touched more broadly on advances possible in areas like heart disease, dementia and diabetes. The finer details of May’s speech hinted at the strong foundations she believes we have upon which to build AI innovation: London being Europe’s tech capital and the strength of our universities - “We have great universities because we have strengthened historic institutions and nurtured new intellectual powerhouses with public investment.”

Missing here, and also from the discussion at the Resolution Foundation’s AI event was the talent challenges facing UK businesses and universities.  The Government is investing in 1,000 AI-focussed PhDs, which is a positive step, but with UK academia fresh off strike action over pensions cuts and considering the level of money being offered to qualified AI researchers by both U.S. universities and Silicon Valley firms, holding on to talent will be more difficult than is perhaps being outlined.

Furthermore, questions about the benefits for and roles of smaller firms, communities outside of London and the disadvantaged will linger, especially as the “robots eating our jobs” fears persist. 

However, private and public sector organisations engaged in AI research will be delighted to see the Government focus continuing after the announcement of the AI sector deal. It is a start at least to have senior politicians painting a positive vision of what AI can contribute to life in the UK.

Plus, the government is setting an ambitious target for research and development by shooting for 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.  The vision and commitment is there, how it is rolled out and coordinated is the key.

Samsung’s New AI Centre

In a masterstroke of coordination, the Government was also able to lean on Samsung’s announcement that it will open a new AI centre in Cambridge as a supporting proofpoint.

The lab will be run by Professor Andrew Blake who previously headed Microsoft’s research lab in the city. The centre promises up to 150 highly skilled jobs.

Writing on this last point, the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones showed a little cynicism, relating a survey by Odgers Berndtson that found just 225 students in the country were doing post-graduate technology research in specialist areas including AI and machine learning.

The BBC’s tech correspondent adroitly summarised that we’re not the only show in town, with French President Emmanuel Macron hosting an event this week with global tech leaders. The President also recently announced a new national strategy to catalyse AI research in France – the Entente Cordiale may soon be further strained. 

Heard on the circuit

The Times+ event on the “Rise of the Robots” on Monday explored the positive and negative presumptions of what AI could mean for the future and the regulation that is needed to draw out more of those positives than negatives. A strong strand of debate was the importance of educating the public about AI tech and what it can (and can't) do and also the remit of the new Centre for Data Ethics Innovation to guide a national debate.

News in brief

Stat of the week

UK bosses believe that artificial intelligence will create more jobs than it destroys, according to a study by KPMG. 70 percent of CEOs surveyed by the Big Four firm said that AI would lead to more jobs, not fewer, at least over the short term.