Yesterday (20th September 2021), I was delighted to co host the latest evidence session for the All Party Parliamentary Group on AI. This was the third in a series we have been running to seek input to the National AI strategy. And, perhaps it was the most important as we were considering the opportunity to drive economic growth through the widespread adoption and deployment of AI.
We heard from five excellent and expert speakers covering academic, policy, industry and broader ethical considerations. Despite the diverse backgrounds of our speakers there was more than a degree of agreement as to the current barriers frustrating AI’s widespread adoption, namely, skills, issues around data and funding.
As we well know, there are currently over 1 million vacancies in the UK economy. Perhaps less well known is that, over 100,000 of these are in technology and sciences. One suggestion was a Government led digital learning pathway, bringing clarity to the opportunities available, irrespective of background. This would also need to incorporate an essential understanding of the re-training opportunities as well.
Data is, understandably, one of the biggest issues to arise in any and every discussion concerning new technologies. This no different. The need to have better data, more available, increased quality. There is clearly a role for Government in terms of leadership with the national data strategy, how to enable safe sharing and a much greater national inclusive debate as to the very nature of data and how we all want to interact with and deploy it for collective social and economic good.
I was delighted that the subject of standards was a pervasive theme throughout the session. Standards in terms of data sharing, privacy, unified ontologies and quality. As in every sector, if we get it right, standards are not a holder back, quite the contrary, they deliver certainty and can give a significant international economic edge.
Funding rightly was raised throughout the evidence session. There is of course the global issue, China and U.S. spend to name just two. In my view though, we will fail and fail badly if we try and compete by out spending these and other nations. We can’t, but, great news, we don’t necessarily have to. Analogy stretch perhaps, but when Beijing did the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2008, their budget for fireworks at their opening ceremony was greater than London’s budget for all four ceremonies. But, Danny Boyle’s tremendous opener, Jenny Sealey and Brad Hemming’s Paralympic opener and Kim Gavin’s two closing ceremonies at London were none the worse for that. We didn’t need to compete in mere cash terms, we looked to ourselves, built from within, focussed on our strengths, our unique qualities and presented four shows to wow the world. We can, not inevitable, but, we can do this in AI for sure.
Funding is a particular problem when we consider SMEs, not only those in AI or those who seek to or who would benefit from AI adoption and deployment. The Government also need to consider what more can be positively done in relation to R and D tax credits. Also, many suggested the Government consider establishing a digital adoption fund, not least to assist SMEs. This, if rightly deployed would certainly pay back multiples. Several of the speakers also highlighted the need to accelerate AI’s potential in relation to enterprise solutions. I certainly agree, there is enormous possibilities here for the UK.
Without provoking a yawn, I was also pleased that procurement got more than a mention. It’s critical that business’, particularly SMEs are assisted in terms of vender assessment and selection. A role for Government to help here certainly.
Perhaps the most important point, the greatest USP for the UK is that of ethical AI, a rich stream running through the entire conversation. This was certainly the conclusion of our Lord’s Select Committee report on AI, “AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?”
If Covid has taught us anything it is certainly this, that we need to develop greater resilience to shocks of this and all natures, AI has an essential role to play. If fully aligned to ethics, just this, a focus for us all, towards an Empathetic, people centric prosperous post pandemic world.
The evidence session, if summed up in a sentence, was about, AI’s potential to enable human centred automated flourishing meaningful work. It is that combination of talent and technology, inclusion and innovation, if realized, that will afford us the economy, the society, the communities, cities, the country that we are capable of aiming at and achieving. We all have a key role to play to put AI to the plethora of problems of today for a better tomorrow.