By Ciarán Daly
LONDON, UK - Much has been made of the international race for AI supremacy between the respective global superpowers of China and the US, with some commentators even pushing an 'AI Cold War' angle.
These two key focal points for AI interest and innovation may impress with their sheer resources and spending, but some of the greatest advancements in AI are coming out of smaller economies with much less firepower.
[caption id="attachment_10850" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Julian David, TechUK CEO[/caption]
Britain has for centuries punched above its weight in enterprise and business, and is today considered to have one of the strongest digital economies in the world. As this small, rainy island looks inward and asks difficult questions about its place in the world, the British AI sector is one area where the path forward is clear - as the recent Lords AI report indicated.
From their offices near St. Pauls Cathedral in London, TechUK are certainly at the crossroads of many different strands of innovation going into British tech and enterprise. A federation of business leaders dedicated to expanding technology investment, education, and implementation, their network spans global enterprises, SMEs, research institutes and government.
Ahead of CEO Julian David's keynote at The AI Summit London next month, we sat down to pick his brain on the current prospects for British AI.
British SMEs need AI resources
[caption id="attachment_11355" align="alignleft" width="261"] Kriti Sharma, VP, Artificial Intelligence @ Sage - TechUK's first AI Leader[/caption]
The interest in AI is undoubtedly here, but big challenges remain at the industry level. "British businesses are growing more and more receptive to AI at the moment," says David. "If we'd told companies two or three years ago that we wanted to bring tech and AI initiatives to their industry, we wouldn’t have seen much of a response. But now, an awful lot of people are coming in to work with us.”
Whereas large FTSE-scale enterprises have the clout and resources to make AI work for them, however, the approach to AI and digitisation across mid-tier companies remains a real challenge. This is down to the UK's 'very fragmented' support structure around SMEs. "Once you get out of London and other hotspots like Cambridge or Bristol, there's very few places where SMEs can go and learn about this stuff in order to see how it's done."
To address these imbalances in AI infrastructure and literacy, TechUK last week launched The AI Leaders Initiative, which aims to promote a different individual each month for their work in helping organisations realise the benefits of AI technologies. Their first nominee, Kriti Sharma, is VP of Artificial Intelligence with Sage, a large business technology firm that aims to specifically support entrepreneurs and SMEs with a range of technological solutions.
"We don't think a special AI regulator is the way forward."
Interview: Lord Clement-Jones, Chair Of The Lords AI Review and All-Party Parliamentary Group on AI
TechUK: AI knowhow in industry verticals is key
By profiling AI leaders working in different verticals, David explains that TechUK hope to address one of the greatest challenges facing AI in the UK right now: sector-by-sector use cases and resources.
"Industry verticals need to develop a really deep understanding of how AI can be applied," he explains. "That means looking at supply chains, customer interactions, and the core of the business processes within each industry, and trying to join the dots."
"In tech, you're global or you're gone."
It's a long game, and one which demands a coordinated approach. Promisingly, this is already emerging in certain sectors. TechUK's annual 'Supercharging The Digital Economy' conference, to be hosted in Manchester later this year. In partnership with the British Retail Consortium and the Royal Institute of Civil Engineers, the conference will focus on two exemplar British industries for technology deployment - transport and retail - and use these as case studies to explore how whole sectors can build the right infrastructure to put new technologies like AI in place.
"What we're saying is, look: let's be ambitious and do something across a whole sector," says David. "From there, we can apply those lessons to other industries and then across the whole country."
To be a tech leader, Britain must retain a global outlook
This industry-by-industry, case study-by-case study approach could hold the key to Britain's emergence as an AI leader. Business and enterprise adoption of AI, of course, ultimately holds the key to the technology's success, but big questions still remain as to how Britain will be able to leverage those capabilities on the world stage. For David, the country must remain open - or risk squandering the opportunities we have already created.
"We need to ask ourselves what we are going to be an AI leader in. There’s plenty of niches within this space."
"In tech, you're global or you're gone, essentially," he argues. "If we're to build this industry here, the UK needs access to global skills. This is one of the biggest issues surrounding not only the UK's relationship with Europe following Brexit, but also its relationship with other technology hotspots. If we don't bring the best skills here, the jobs will go elsewhere."
Remaining open to the world is not only a 'win-win' scenario for British companies and workers. David believes it is absolutely essential for the industry: "Bringing in talent from around the world creates an environment in which British people can join in with excellent companies, facilities, and research. AI then stops being this scary thing that's going to take everybody's jobs. It's the opposite: people will begin to see how this technology is here to help us."
Applying AI will bring it to life for enterprises
The second major challenge is investment on a large scale—not just in AI skills and workforce training, but in resources and infrastructure. “The yardstick we need to utilise involves looking at the scale of activity elsewhere and asking how we can match it," David argues. "Alright, we’re not as big as China and we never will be. We don’t have the industrial strength of the US. But what we do can make a difference. You don’t have to be a huge economy to be a leader in tech—just look at Israel.”
People will ultimately invest in the UK, not because of our funding clout, but because of the R&D facilities here; the capability of the workforce here; the research capacities of our universities; as well as other things like the relative openness of British society, our legal framework, and our regulatory openness. It is these capabilities which must be built on and strengthened.
"Alright, we’re not as big as China and we never will be. We don’t have the industrial strength of the US. But what we do can make a difference."
"We need to ask ourselves what we are going to be an AI leader in. There’s plenty of niches within this space," David says. "If we direct our efforts right and we become the best place to practice this stuff, then I think we have a great future. We think having the right environment, trust, and ethics around AI will give us a good industry, and we’re getting there.”
Britain might be at a crossroads today, but by building the right environment for AI adoption, the technology will really come into its own here. Nobody knows what the future holds for Britain as a tech hub, but as TechUK's efforts demonstrate, infrastructure and a global outlook are vital to making AI a reality for enterprises.
“It’s when you apply it, that’s when it comes to life, isn’t it? How does this actually help someone get a faster diagnosis? How does it help someone understand all the options that are out there in their personal life? How does it help somebody plot their way through an education or build skills? All of those things are potentially valuable.”
Julian David is the CEO of TechUK. Find out more about how you can attend his AI Summit London keynote here.
Based in London, Ciarán Daly is the Editor-in-Chief of AIBusiness.com, covering the critical issues, debates, and real-world use cases surrounding artificial intelligence - for executives, technologists, and enthusiasts alike. Reach him via email here.