AI in the UK - are we riding a wave or missing the boat?

This week, Madano’s technology team hosted a breakfast panel discussion investigating the UK’s competitiveness and prospects in developing artificial intelligence as a cornerstone of the economy. Leading figures from politics, industry, media and academia were invited to offer fresh perspective on what the future of AI could hold. Speakers included Alan Mak MP; Prof. Jon Timmis (PVC and Professor of Intelligent & Adaptive Systems at the University of York); Dr. Angie Ma (COO, ASI Data Science); and Harry de Quetteville (Special Technology Correspondent, Daily Telegraph).

Amidst a spate of major initiatives designed to catalyse Artificial Intelligence innovation in the UK – most notably the Government’s AI Sector Deal – enthusiasm and curiosity abound. But, given the propensity of AI projects to fail, previous false dawns and public trepidations surrounding the technology and the relatively small investment levels when compared to the U.S. and China, cynicism here at home is also in plentiful supply. We asked our panellists whether the UK is doing the right things and what needs to change. Here are the key takeaways:

1. The UK has phenomenal potential and AI can be a great boost to productivity, but more must be done

Kicking off the event, Alan Mak described the opportunity that the UK has to set standards around AI and machine learning technologies if it is able to be an early leader in innovation. All the speakers were united in acknowledging the UK’s clear position as third in the global pecking order, but fretted that ultimately, third is nowhere.

The panel concurred that AI will totally transform the economy and bolster productivity, but it was suggested that if this was so clear to everybody in the room, should the Government not divert more spending in this direction (i.e. £700 million in public spending in the AI sector; £40 billion spent on defence).

Government also needs to do more in terms of procurement from innovative SMEs in order to bolster innovation according to the panel.

2. The brain drain is a real threat, but so is a skills shortage

While fears about our ability to compete with the larger economies were expressed, Harry de Quetteville painted a more positive picture drawing on the lessons of history. We were a pioneer in nuclear technology thanks to a small pocket of Hungarian émigrés who made their homes here, he said.

Angie Ma pointed to the lack of a major UK tech behemoth as a danger to retaining talent and de Quetteville concurred highlighting that referring to Google owned DeepMind as British is debatable and that Bloomsbury AI was harvested by Facebook for its talent, rather than its product set.

However, many speakers referred to a plethora of exciting AI start-ups and London’s pre-eminence within Europe as a promising factor in creating the necessary employment conditions.

Whilst speakers did refer to our world class universities, it was highlighted that the single degree with the lowest employment rate was in fact computer science – is the UK teaching the right skills?

3. Public engagement and government regulation critical

Professor Timmis observed that a greater concentration on teaching the right skills to school-age children and getting them excited and engaged by machine learning is a critical step. From there, speakers debated the potential damages that could ensue from a lack of a concerted effort to court public opinion in support of AI innovation.

Speakers agreed unanimously that convincing the public of the risk/reward of allowing their data to be used within AI implementations and accepting the decisions of those systems was a key battleground for ensuring success.

A large pillar of securing that public trust will be in ensuring safety and ethical guardrails. Professor Timmis outlined some exciting work that the University of York is undertaking around safety controls in autonomous systems.

Also discussed was a Catch 22 situation relating to neural networks by nature being “a black box” where the rationale for decision making cannot be explained. In spite of the efficacy of neural networks within machine learning, it was agreed that there were potentially insurmountable challenges in gaining public trust about systems that made important life changing decisions for citizens without having to clearly explain how and why they did so.

It was agreed that the Government has an important role in setting the ethical agenda that might power global standards, making the UK a fertile place for AI investment, while also creating a supportive sentiment among the public at large. What those regulations might be is the subject for significantly more debate pending the results of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s consultation.

Madano is a fully integrated communications consultancy that specialises in advising clients in sectors where communications are critical to success.

We would very much like to hear your thoughts about the issue of artificial intelligence development in the UK – please feel free to reach out to us.

You could also stay up to date with the very latest developments in our Week in AI blog which comes out every Friday. S I G N U P H E R E http://eepurl.com/dzoxpf