UK government launches first national artificial intelligence strategy

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The UK government has launched a 10-year artificial intelligence (AI) plan to position the country as “the best place to live and work with AI” through a set of rules and governance, applied ethics and a pro-innovation regulatory framework.

Launched today (22 September) by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the third day of London Tech Week, the strategy is expected to boost corporate adoption of AI technologies, build the national AI skills base and attract international investments in the space – the UK currently ranks third in global venture capital investment in AI, and is the base of one-third of all European AI companies.

The UK’s first AI strategy encompasses a plan for the next decade focusing on three key pillars: to ensure investment in the long-term growth of AI, bring benefits to all sectors and regions of the economy, and effective governance with rules that “encourage innovation, investment and protect the public and the country’s fundamental values”.

DCMS minister Chris Philp said at the launch: “Artificial intelligence technologies generate billions for the economy and improve our lives. The UK already punches above its weight internationally and we are ranked third in the world behind the US and China in the list of top countries for AI.

“Today we are laying the foundations for the next 10 years’ growth with a strategy to help us seize the potential of artificial intelligence and play a leading role in shaping the way the world governs it.”

The strategy includes the launch of a new national programme and approach to support research and development. This is expected to improve coordination and collaboration between researchers and boost the UK’s AI capabilities, while encouraging business and the public sector to fully adopt AI technologies. According to the DCMS, the UK has invested more than £2.3bn into AI since 2014.

“The UK is already a world leader in certain aspects of AI – and this strategy helps to define how to enhance those capabilities further to ensure that the UK can both develop and use AI for the benefit of citizens,” said Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.

Also part of the plan is a joint Office for AI (OAI) and UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) programme aimed at continuing to develop AI in sectors based outside of London and the South East. This is intended to allocate resources to boost adoption in sectors that do not use much AI but have significant potential, such as energy and farming.

The availability and capacity of computing power for UK researchers and organisations, including the hardware required to drive mass adoption in AI technologies, as well as the wider needs for AI commercialisation and deployment, and issues such as environmental impacts will be the subject of a review, to be published jointly with UKRI as part of the AI strategy.

Also, UK engagement in setting the rules globally will be trialled through an AI Standards Hub. Guidance on AI ethics and safety in the public sector will be updated and practical tools will be produced to make sure the technology is used ethically under initiatives involving the Alan Turing Institute.

A whitepaper on the governance and regulation of AI to build confidence in its use is also part of the strategy, as well as a consultation on copyright and patents for AI through the Intellectual Property Office. According to the government, the idea is to ensure the UK is “capitalising on the ideas it generates, as well as clarity in what and who determines copyright”, in situations such as machine creations, or if algorithms end up using an existing patent.

From a skills perspective, the strategy includes a plan to support skills, through initiatives such as the Turing Fellowships Programme, Centres for Doctoral Training and postgraduate industrial masters and conversion courses. There are also plans to support the National Centre for Computing Education to ensure broader access to AI programmes for children.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) described the plan as a “crucial step” for the UK as it moves towards securing leadership in emerging technologies and driving business investment across the economy.

“From trade to climate, AI brings unprecedented opportunities for increased growth and productivity,” said Susannah Odell, head of digital policy at the CBI. “It is also positive to see the government joining up the innovation landscape to make it more than the sum of its parts.”

Odell said the upcoming Spending Review is “a perfect chance to match rhetoric with action” and for the government to deliver on its £22bn R&D commitment.

“With AI increasingly being incorporated into our workplaces and daily lives, it is essential to build public trust in the technology,” she added. “Proportionate and joined-up regulation will be a core element to this and firms look forward to engaging with the government’s continued work in this area. Businesses hope to see the AI strategy provide the long-term direction and fuel to reach the government’s AI ambitions.”

Leading voices in the AI industry also welcomed the strategy, such as Demis Hassabis, founder and chief executive of DeepMind, who said: “AI could deliver transformational benefits for the UK and the world – accelerating discoveries in science and unlocking progress on key challenges facing society. It is great to see the scale of the opportunity recognised in the national AI strategy, and I am excited to see how it translates into action.”

Joanna Shields, Benevolent AI chief executive and co-chair of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, saw the strategy as a positive move, and a recognition that the UK government recognises AI’s “profound potential”.

“This is a comprehensive strategy and vision for how we drive innovation, economic growth, job creation and social good,” she said. “AI, successfully and ethically deployed, could become a foundational technology for the future growth of our economy and protecting our security and society.”

Elsewhere in the business space, Rolls-Royce chief executive Warren East also welcomed the strategy, noting that “AI can be used for the good of society” and that the technology is “critical” to the company’s net-zero ambitions and for the business as a whole.

“We’ve shared our AI breakthroughs in a free ethics and trustworthiness toolkit called the Aletheia Framework, and are collaborating with other sectors so we can improve together and help build trust in AI,” East added.

However, other actors in the UK technology ecosystem were not as enthusiastic. Prospect, a union with more than 150,000 members including scientists and tech experts, said the AI strategy has “virtually nothing to say on privacy, rights or jobs”.

Prospect research director Andrew Pakes said: “The UK has a huge opportunity to take a lead in developing ethical AI and creating the industries of the future. It is disappointing, however, that there is so little in the new AI strategy about privacy, employment rights and jobs. Levelling-up and innovation must not put investor returns ahead of creating high-skilled, inclusive jobs.

“With the rise in digital surveillance software and the invasive use of AI to micro-manage people, we need to ensure ethical really means ethical and involves workers in designing the future. We must not be left in the situation where people’s rights at work are not even an afterthought in the race to embrace new technology.”

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