• Forget Talk of Mass Automation, the UK Needs to Ramp up Investment in AI or be Left Behind

    November 6, 2017
    • Forget Talk of Mass Automation, the UK Needs to Ramp up Investment in AI or be Left Behind

    The government’s new Review on AI is a welcome reprieve from the excessive fear that hangs over automation. The UK could be a world leader in this technology, if only we let ourselves.

    A little over 40 years ago, the respected British mathematician James Lighthill published his government-commissioned review into artificial intelligence. “In no part of the field”, he lamented, “have discoveries made so far produced the major impact that was promised.” The search for sophisticated AI was deemed a wild goose chase. Enthusiasm waned. Funding dried up. Support for AI research was terminated in all but two UK universities.

    How very different the picture is today. The government’s new review on artificial intelligence, led by Dame Wendy Hall and Jerome Pesenti, is glowing about AI’s potential. “We are at the threshold of an era where much of our productivity and prosperity will be derived from the systems and machines we create”, the authors write. “The impacts on society and the economy will be profound”.

    They are entirely correct. Artificial general intelligence (AGI) – the stuff of science fiction that ‘thinks’ just as humans do – is many decades from realisation. But ‘narrow’ AI is achieving feats once thought impossible just a few years ago. Algorithms can detect cancers as accurately as trained pathologists, spot fraudulent financial transactions in a matter of milliseconds, and translate languages to a stunning degree of accuracy.

    The problem, as the Review emphasises, is that the UK is falling behind its competitors in developing this technology. Between 2011 and 2015, the UK published 10,000 academic papers on AI. Impressive, until you realise that China released four times as many. On commercial funding too, we are falling short. Whereas £294m of VC funding went into UK AI companies in 2010-16, the figure for the US was £4.8bn.

    Neither are UK businesses and public services making sufficient use of this technology. Retailers like Ocado and Amazon are pioneers, deploying algorithms to forecast demand for products, optimise the delivery routes of trucks, and more besides. But the same cannot be said for most firms. Just 14 percent of the business leaders surveyed by the RSA/YouGovsay they are actively investing in AI. Some are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach. Others are blissfully unaware.

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