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Viewpoint: Why the UK isn't ready to lead on AI - yet

Tyrone Stewart

Tyrone Stewart ViewpointThis week kicked off with the House of Lords’ select committee on artificial intelligence (AI) releasing a report that set out recommendations for the ethical development of AI in the UK. This report suggested that the UK is in a position to lead the world on the ethical AI, rather than just waiting to others like the US to get the ball rolling. But is the UK really in any position to be a leader in the space or in technology as a whole?

A big part of whether of not the UK becomes a leader within AI tech will be done to whether or not the government chooses to give serious consideration to the recommendations presented by the House of Lords committee.

The report from the committee highlights the need for UK to develop a cross-sector code for AI that ensure that the technology is built for the benefit of humanity and not to hurt, destroy, or deceive humans, among other things.

Recommendations also include the need for the government to invest in training people in order to limit the number of jobs lost to the tech, to give people more control over the personal data handled by AI, to be more transparent about AI tech, to educate people on the tech, to develop a national policy framework and, perhaps the biggest point in regards to the UK becoming a tech leader, preventing major US tech companies from having a monopoly over data in the UK.

The last recommendation listed is probably the biggest barrier preventing the UK from becoming a truly leading tech player. As many in the industry will be the first to tell you, Google and Facebook have their hands on more-or-less all the data not just in their homeland of the US, but in many countries around the world. The UK has a tough task on its hands if it plans on putting some form of regulation on the tech giants and their entities on this side of the pond. Although, the implementation of the general data protection regulation (commonly known as GDPR) could go a long way to helping that be the case.

The UK government has been working hard to lay the foundations for the possibility of the UK leading the world in various aspects of tech.

Back in November 2017, the UK budget saw chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond announce that the government was setting aside millions to boost the UK tech industry. This investment included £75m to the AI industry.

The following month, Digital Catapult – which works with the government’s innovation agency Innovate UK – set up the Machine Intelligence Garage to provide startups with access to computing power and AI expertise.

This interest in the development of AI would seemingly peak when the Home Office worked with ASI Data Science to introduce a piece of tech that uses machine learning to analyse audio and imagery from videos. Using this tech, the government is helping smaller tech firms keep terrorist content from Daesh off of their platforms.

Away from AI, last month, the government laid out guidelines with the aim of making internet of things (IoT) – or ‘smart’ – devices safer and less likely to be hit by cyberattacks. As an aside, this is interesting with the current news around Russian cyberattacks. Anyway, in the same month, Her Majesty’s (HM) Treasury said it would link up with the Bank of England, and the Financial Conduct Authority to setup a taskforce dedicated to managing the risks surrounding crypto assets.

All-in-all, it’s been a busy last six months for the UK government as it seeks to position itself at the forefront of technology and you can’t fault the nation’s desire to become the big dog within the industry – a desire recently boosted by cybersecurity firm Avast’s decision to list on the London Stock Exchange, as opposed to the New York one, creating the UK’s largest ever tech IPO at around £2.8bn.

Despite so much pointing toward the UK being a true tech hub, there are still a few barriers stopping that becoming a reality in the short-term. As mentioned, there’s the issue of US tech firm and the amount of data they own, but there’s also the issue of that lovely thing called Brexit added to the fact that the UK still is a long way off getting anywhere close to the likes of the US and China when it comes to the industry.

Seeing what deals are put in place and where the UK stands in a year’s time upon leaving the EU is going to have a massive bearing on whether the UK can truly succeed in challenging the biggest nations in tech.

There are a lot of promising tech startups in the UK that need a positive outcome from Brexit, as well as the government working to limit the data available to the likes of Facebook and Google, to give these startups even a semblance of a chance at making a real international impact. The talent certainly exists and we only have to look at startups like Deepmind, which is working absolute wonders under the Alphabet/Google banner. Though, it’d be nice to see the next big UK AI startup make waves without needing to succumb to one of the power players in the US.