UK announces a national strategy to 'level up' AI

·6-min read

The U.K. government has announced a national AI strategy -- its first dedicated package aimed at boosting the country's capabilities in and around machine learning technologies over the longer term.

It says it hopes the strategy will lead to an increase in the number and types of AIs being developed and commercialized in the U.K. over the next 10 years.

The plan to prioritize and "level up" development and applications of artificial intelligence follows earlier industrial and digital strategies -- which talked up the promise of AI. But Boris Johnson's government is now inching onward, announcing a 10-year plan to invest in making Britain "a global AI superpower", as the government's PR puts it -- by targeting support at areas like upskilling and reskilling in the hopes of reaping AI-driven economic rewards down the line.

Whether there's much of policy substance here, as yet, looks debatable.

Notably there's a lack of new money being announced to back up the strategy. For now the government highlights how much cash investors are ploughing into U.K. AI companies (£13.5 billion into 1,400+ U.K. tech firms between January and June this year) -- and flags a total government investment into AI of £2.3 billion+ since 2014.

But there's no word on how much funding the government might put into supporting the development of AI from here on in -- such as through planned continued support for "postgraduate learning, retraining and making sure children from wide backgrounds can access specialist courses".

Instead the announcement is heavy on soundbites about "transform[ing] the UK’s capabilities in AI" -- or positioning the U.K. as "the best place to live and work with AI", whatever that means. (Presumably it's a companion piece to the other government digital policy talking point -- about making the U.K. the "safest place to go online", as it works on online safety legislation).

The early phase of the strategy looks focused on data-gathering to inform future AI policies. And, there, perhaps the most interesting element is an AI-focused review of the U.K.'s current copyright and patent rules.

There is also some geopolitical standards setting ambition on show -- with the government talking about putting AI provisions into trade deals -- but whether the U.K. will be able to punch so hard on the global stage in this area remains to be seen.

Among the announced measures in the strategy are plans to:

  • Launch a National AI Research and Innovation Programme -- "to improve coordination and collaboration between the country’s researchers and help transform the U.K.’s AI capabilities, while boosting business and public sector adoption of AI technologies and their ability to take them to market"

  • Launch a joint Office for AI (OAI) and U.K. Research & Innovation (UKRI) programme aimed at continuing to develop AI in sectors based outside of London and the South East. "This would focus on the commercialisation of ideas and could see, for example, the government focusing investment, researchers and developers to work in areas which currently do not use much AI technology but have great potential, such as energy and farming"

  • Publish a joint review with UKRI into the availability and capacity of computing power for U.K. researchers and organisations, including the physical hardware needed to drive a major roll out in AI technologies. "The review will also consider wider needs for the commercialisation and deployment of AI, including its environmental impacts"

  • Launch a consultation on copyright and patents for AI through the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to make sure the U.K. is capitalising on the ideas it generates and by best supporting AI development and use through the copyright and patent system. "This consultation will also include a focus on how to protect AI generated inventions which would otherwise not meet inventorship criteria as well as measures to make it easier to use copyright protected material in AI development"

  • Trial an AI Standards Hub to "coordinate UK engagement in setting the rules globally", and working with The Alan Turing Institute to update guidance on AI ethics and safety in the public sector and "create practical tools to make sure the technology is used ethically"

It's also notable that while the government's strategy talks about wanting to establish "clear rules, applied ethical principles and a pro-innovation regulatory environment" for AI, the U.K. is already lagging on defining a regulatory framework -- as it's now outside the European Union which already has a comprehensive proposal for regulating high-risk applications of AI on the table.

Instead of clarity vis-à-vis data use, current U.K. government policy is simultaneously querying the current data protection regime -- with ministers entertaining the idea of watering down rules in the hopes that weaker protections for citizen's information will (somehow) boost people's trust in and uptake of technologies like AI.

For AI startups and scale-ups specifically, the national strategy includes a plan to evaluate "private funding needs and challenges" -- over the next six to 12 months.

While, over the same time frame, the government says it will roll out a new visa regime -- "to attract the world's best AI talent to the UK". (Of course the devil will be in the detail of what it announces there.)

But if U.K. startups were hoping the announcement of a national strategy to boost AI might mean gaining imminent access to all sorts of interesting government data sets to train AI models, the document only says that ministers will "consider what open and machine-readable government datasets can be published for AI models" -- and will only turn their attention to that particular task over the next 12 months or later. So that's a wait and see, then.

"This National AI Strategy will signal to the world our intention to build the most pro-innovation regulatory environment in the world; to drive prosperity across the UK and ensure everyone can benefit from AI; and to apply AI to help solve global challenges like climate change," said (new in post) digital secretary, Nadine Dorries, in a statement accompanying publication of the strategy.

If Dorries' name is unfamiliar that's because she recently replaced Oliver Dowden in the hot seat at the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) -- after yet another ministerial reshuffle.

"AI will be central to how we drive growth and enrich lives, and the vision set out in our strategy will help us achieve both of those vital goals," Dorries added.

Dowden only lasted just over a year in the post at DCMS, presiding over the U.K.'s digital policy (and all the rest of the wide-ranging brief). That was still longer than his predecessor, Nicky Morgan -- who was only there for a little over half a year.

Before that the digital brief was the responsibility of (now former minister) Matt Hancock -- so there has been quite the parade of politicians pulling U.K. tech policy strings in recent years.

So perhaps, as a first step on its claimed "long term" commitment to nurturing the country's deep tech powers, the government might consider a lasting ministerial appointment atop digital policy -- to signal both a sustained focus on levelling up the country's technical capabilities in areas like AI and, at the ministerial level, an appropriate ability to grasp basic best tech practices.

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