The UK’s National AI Strategy — Creating a Global AI Superpower

On the third day of this year’s London Tech Week, where I proudly spoke during the “Elevating Founders” segment, the UK government unveiled its first-ever National AI Strategy to the world.

The comprehensive plan aims to level-up the country’s position as a global artificial intelligence superpower by unleashing the transformational power of these technologies to improve people’s lives and solve huge global challenges such as climate change and public health.

But exactly how will the 10-year commitment advance domestic capabilities in AI, which powers much of the tech and apps we use every day and helps in countless fields including medicine, finance, justice, and transport?

In many ways, but mainly by attracting and directing investment into research & development, talent creation & enhancement, public & private sector adoption, research cooperation & collaboration, boosting computing power, and better access to data.

And also, perhaps more importantly, by increasing public and private trust in artificial intelligence through a much-needed framework of governance & regulation.

In general, key figures in the tech world have responded positively to the news, with DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis saying:

“It’s great to see the scale of the opportunity recognised in the National AI Strategy.”

Benevolent AI’s Joanna Shields called the plan:

“A comprehensive strategy and vision for how we drive innovation, economic growth, job creation and social good.”

While the Alan Turing Institute’s Sir Adrian Smith hailed it as:

“A major moment.”

As I did with the EU’s Draft AI Legislation on its announcement earlier this year, I’ve gone over the UK’s National AI Strategy with a fine-tooth comb, and I’m largely happy with what I found: a genuine drive to tackle some of humanity’s greatest problems using tech while limiting its harmful potential.

I’m especially pleased to see that Downing Street fully understands how vital it is to bridge the UK’s AI skills gap. On the whole, there’s a global shortage of talent in the field, and I’ve long argued that competition for top experts is fierce.

It’s why tech giants pay through the nose for the best talent, leaving a death of relevant skill in the public and third sectors as well as academia. Those areas are where cautious optimism reigns, unlike in the private sector, where short-term profits trump long-term trust and safety.

Due to the general scarceness of skills in AI, especially outside industry, there’s a pressing need to train more domestic specialists, and we also have to make it easier for professionals with the right expertise to come and help the UK with its mission.

Time will tell if the government manages to make the UK an attractive prospect for AI researchers, as this hasn’t traditionally been the case. And even though the plan is broadly good elsewhere too, we are left with one other obvious question mark:

How does the government intend to pay for the UK’s transition to global AI superpower?

It would have been great to see some solid indication of funding alongside the announcement, but no such luck. This changes to some extent next month when Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak concludes his 2021 Spending Review, giving some idea of what the government aims to spend on delivering the ambitious strategy — just one part of its greater Plan for Growth.

The thing is, the SR21 covers public spending for only the next three years, so it still leaves ambiguity as to how the government intends to pay for the remaining seven years of the strategy. The vision laid out with the new National AI Strategy is a bold one, and I can’t overstate the importance of fulfilling promises here.

Despite the lack of clarity in this respect, I don’t for one second doubt the government’s long-term commitment to transforming the UK into a global AI superpower. After all, long-term thinking — like possible future AI risks — is partly what’s guiding action here.

And I have complete faith the Chancellor will find the necessary funds to ensure the country competes with top AI rivals across the world.

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s to prepare well in advance for threats rather than reacting once they’re on our doorstep. So, it makes perfect sense that Downing Street is motivated to take a lead in developing ethical AI and shaping industries of the future!




Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.

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Catriona Campbell

Catriona Campbell

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.

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