BRIEFING
[ 28 June 2018 ]

Artificial intelligence
BrAIn of BritAIn

Britain is a world leader in AI. But with the US and China pouring massive amounts into the area, much real and artificial intelligence will be needed to stay at the top.

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Who's number one?

The acknowledged leader in AI is London-based DeepMind. Only eight years old, it was bought by Google for $400m before it even had a product. Read more about this extraordinary company here.

"What often happens when a US company buys a British business is the senior team is made to relocate to America. But because [the founders] were sure being in London gave them an edge over their competitors, they insisted they had to stay here, not move to California.”

Rohan Silva, the Standard, on Deep Mind

Alexa, who's your daddy?

Evi, formerly True Knowledge, is a Cambridge-based tech company that was acquired by Amazon in 2012. It played a key role in the development of Alexa, the internet giant’s creepy automated assistant.

London's new AI cluster

Radiating out from London’s Kings Cross is the Knowledge Quarter. This convergence of world-leading universities, research centres, laboratories, libraries, and technology corporations is throwing out AI world leaders like confetti.

If you work in ‘KQ’ your neighbours will include Deep Mind and The Alan Turing Institute, as well as Google, Facebook, The Francis Crick Institute, Wellcome Trust, Digital Catapult, the British Library and UCL.

Trust me, I'm from Google

AI’s capacity to work with vast amounts of data could yield huge potential benefits for the NHS. The story to watch is the Royal Free NHS Trust and DeepMind's Streams app to detect kidney disease, which uses confidential data from real patients. As this article suggests, AI and patient data can be uncomfortable bedfellows.

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Fighting terrorism

A British AI company, ASI, is working with the Home Office to stop terrorism. This video shows how they detect Daesh propaganda videos as they are uploaded.

British pedigree

The Turing Test, from Alan Turing’s 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, is the seen as the benchmark way of testing a machine’s ability to mimick human behaviour, a technique he elucidated through an ‘Imitation Game’. It’s a central text of the AI canon.

The Alan Turing Institute, headquartered in the British Library, is the national institute for data science and AI.

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No, not the drummer from Queen

The government has announced a National Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which will be chaired by former journalist Roger Taylor and will promote “safe, ethical and innovative use of data.” It’s part of the government’s wide array of initiatives to stay at the front of global discussion about the ethical use of AI. Which is a minefield: think of the dystopias that could be created by human bias carried over into machines through partial datasets and then extrapolated to ‘logical’ conclusions. It’s a deadly serious task; the UK’s blend of technical and legal expertise puts the country in a strong position to lead and contribute.

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Stephen Hawking, speaking to the BBC in 2014

So how much are we spending on it?

The UK government recently announced “an AI deal worth more than £1bn”. In fact, it is a mish-mash of public and private funding sources, some new, others existing. Still, it’s a decent slug of cash and comes with a commitment to train 8,000 specialist computer science teachers and fund 1,000 PhDs in artificial intelligence by 2025. A new industrial masters programme for AI will be launched in 2019.

The US dominate$
According to Goldman Sachs, the UK invested around $850 million in AI in the five years to 2016, making it the third highest investor of any country. But it’s a distant third and China, which invested $2.6bn, is a distant second to the US’s $18.2bn.
In the past year, other governments have been getting competitive, with France’s President Macron promising $1.8bn over the next five years to support AI. Meanwhile, the European Commission has also heard about AI and has launched a ‘High-Level Expert Group’ to learn more.

It’s gra$$ roots
While public money will be important, the UK AI development sector has flourished largely independently. According to a House of Lord Select Committee report on AI, “this has resulted in a flexible and innovative grassroots start-up culture, which is well positioned to take advantage of the unpredictable opportunities that could be afforded by AI.”

House of Lords report
The House of Lords report offers an astute assessment of the AI challenges and opportunities facing Britain and the world. Accepting that we can’t match the US for financial might, it proposes that Britain “forge a distinctive role for itself as a pioneer in ethical AI.” It also points to the UK’s particular blend of assets such as leading universities, a thriving legal industry, and world-respected institutions like the BBC. Put down that Lee Child and give it a read.

Verdict
If AI ultimately turns out to be a question of financial resources – and that’s possible, look at the internet – then nobody will be able to compete with the US’s buying power. But unlike traditional computing, AI appears to require a free-spirited inter-disciplinary incubation.

In addition, AI carries with it deep ethical and societal questions from the start. Given that trust in these advancements will be critical to their adoption, Britain is well placed to ensure these innovations benefit mankind, rather than, you know, wipe us all out.

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