Earlier this month, the UK government finally published its long-delayed digital strategy. Much was made of the support being given to “Britain’s world-leading AI sector,” including £17.3m to fund research into robotics and AI in UK universities and a review of AI’s role in the broader economy, but more needs to be done if the UK is to maintain its position at the forefront of AI development.
The pledge of additional funding is certainly welcome, but it should be noted that the money comes in the form of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grants rather than direct investment from the government itself. Several academics have also questioned just how far £17.3m will stretch. Quoted in The Register Dr. Kate Devlin, senior lecturer in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London, described the funding as a “token amount.”
In November last year, the government announced that it was providing an additional £4.7bn in R&D funding by 2020-21, the largest increase in R&D investment in any parliament since 1979. Some of this money will fund research into AI and robotics through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), which aims to support those technology areas where the UK has existing strengths. An initial ISCF investment of £270m in 2017-18 was announced in last week’s Spring Budget, to support challenges including the design and manufacture of next generation batteries for electric vehicles, the development of AI and robotics systems able to operate in hazardous environments, and developing medicine manufacturing technologies.
The government has made no secret of the fact that the ISCF is modeled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in an attempt to emulate its success. DARPA has been involved in numerous AI-related breakthroughs in recent years, including driverless vehicles and the Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes (CALO), which led to the development of Apple’s Siri. Most recently, its Cyber Grand Challenge competition has sought to develop autonomous systems that can detect, evaluate and patch software vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.
The UK government hopes that, by adopting DARPA’s challenge-based methodology, it will be able to deliver similar breakthroughs. However, this overlooks the fact that the biggest single factor behind DARPA’s success is not its methodology but its size. In FY2016 the agency’s enacted annual budget was $2.87bn (£2.35bn), nearly nine times more than the amount pledged to the ISCF for the coming year. “When you’re huge, you can make big bets safe in the knowledge that one or two will probably succeed and will pay off many times over,” wrote Stian Westlake, executive director of policy and research at innovation foundation Nesta.
There are question marks over the UK government’s appetite for making “big bets” given the ongoing uncertainty resulting from last year’s Brexit vote. The digital strategy, for example, has been criticized in some quarters for not going far enough, with Techcrunch reporting that its “scope and ambition vis-à-vis digital technologies [had] been pared back and repositioned vs. earlier formulations of the plan…as the government recalibrated to factor in last summer’s referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union.”
The government has talked on numerous occasions about the importance to the UK economy of AI and robotics, but it has been sharply criticized for its failure to provide adequate leadership on issues relating to the technology. A report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, published in October last year, found there was “no Government strategy for developing the skills, and securing the critical investment, that is needed to create future growth in robotics and AI.”
The announcement, as part of the digital strategy, of a review into the potential impact of AI will do little to silence those who feel the UK government could be taking more of a leadership role in the technology’s development. A research project, managed by the Royal Society and British Academy and looking at how the UK can effectively manage the use of AI, is already underway and the government has itself recently published a report of its own on the implications of the technology for society and government. There is clearly no lack of available research into the area yet, in its flagship digital strategy, the government would only go so far as to say that it would “consider carefully” the findings of all these reports. It could be, as Natasha Lomas wrote in Techcrunch, that it is “hard to be politically proactive on too many emerging technologies with the vast task of Brexit standing in your way.”
In the final months of the Obama administration, the US National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Technology published a paper looking at how the country should prepare for an AI-enabled future. It argued that the government had several roles to play, including convening “conversations about important issues and [helping] to set the agenda for public debate.” Even prior to the report’s publication, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy held a series of four workshops designed “to spur public dialogue” while, in June 2016, an NSTC subcommittee on machine learning and artificial intelligence was chartered, tasked with helping to “coordinate federal activity in this space.”
The UK government has been urged to follow the US example and create a similar body. In its report, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called for the establishment of a “standing Commission on Artificial Intelligence…with a remit to identify principles to govern the development and application of AI, provide advice to the Government, and foster public dialogue.” However, five months after the report’s publication, the government has yet to act upon this recommendation.
The UK may be dragging its feet, but the European Union is moving forward with plans for a European agency for robotics and AI, “to supply public authorities with technical, ethical and regulatory expertise.” The proposal was included in a resolution which sought to establish EU-wide rules for the technology “in order to fully exploit their economic potential and to guarantee a standard level of safety and security.” The European Parliament has also launched a public consultation on robotics and AI, aiming to gather views on the ethical, economic, legal and social issues related to the rise of the technology.
Of course, government can only do so much to prepare the economy for the impact of AI and automation. In a recent blog by John Gikopoulos, director of cognitive intelligence Europe at IPsoft (“How CEOs Can Lead the AI Revolution”), he noted that, as AI is about to infiltrate “nearly every aspect of every industry,” so CEOs must be able to “meld human minds and machines in a way that increases productivity while unleashing the unique power of people to think creatively.”
Worryingly for the UK, evidence suggests that many of the country’s business leaders are not fully prepared for the transition to AI and, as a consequence, risk being left behind by the competition. According to PwC’s 20th CEO survey, published in January, nearly half (47%) of UK CEOs are not currently addressing the impact of AI or automation on their organisation, well above the global average (31%). In addition, just 28% of UK CEOs say they are considering the impact of AI on their future skills needs, compared to 39% of chief executives worldwide.
Reflecting on the survey results, PwC chairman and senior partner Kevin Ellis said: “It is the perfect time for the government and business to work together to position the UK as the place for technology investment and innovation. This means putting in place a flexible regulatory framework, addressing skills shortages, investing in research hubs and supporting start-ups to scale rapidly.”