AI in the UK: ready, willing and... stale?

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With little fanfare, the UK government released the findings of the House of Lords’ Committee on AI yesterday, AI in the UK: Ready, Willing and Able?  

As the CEO of a fast-growing AI technology company based out of the Big Smoke, I was invited by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Artificial Intelligence to give evidence on the matter in October of last year.     

The evidence I presented at the House of Parliament in London on ‘How the UK can become a global Artificial Intelligence leader’ was based upon my experience in starting, growing and running a tech scaleup in the United Kingdom. And indeed, I was keen to see if my advice was taken.     

I made three specific recommendations: “Let’s make the Great British AI economy a global leader. To do so by supporting policy that: 

  1. ensures our future AI talent pool represents the country’s diversity;  
  2. keeps our doors open to innovators, and future innovators, from around the world; 
  3. economically encourage companies to start, and grow, on our shores.” 

Much of the committee’s findings were in line with mine. The citing of particular large technology companies, for example, as potential monopolistic entities; that issue is beyond the scope of AI policy - it’s one for competition regulators. But - how did the government do? Let’s deep dive. 

1. Ensuring the AI talent pool represents the country’s diversity 

The report recommended creating 200 new PhD places for AI, and a new Masters programme with an initial 300-person cohort, with quotas to ensure all members of society are represented, both in terms of gender, ethnicity and the like.       

Well, that’s a good start. But it’s a drop in the bucket. Though it’s a great notion, you can’t simply churn out new PhDs and create instant billionaires. As anyone who’s been in the world of work knows, skills are great - but knowing how to operate in a commercial environment requires experience.     

Furthermore, the creation of new PhD places created holds no guarantee that a wide range of people will apply for these positions. Some of the diversity stats were daunting – only 7% of people taking computer science A-levels are female. Clearly, the problem is systemic, and won’t be fixed by subsidising a few PhD spots.     

In an attempt to combat social immobility in the sector, the government has committed to creating more publicly-funded scholarships for AI research. This, from my perspective, is laudable. The multiple years required to study AI academically is a financial impossibility for many people from lower socio-economic brackets. This prevents incredibly intelligent and talented people, who can’t afford to go to school for 10 years, from accessing their chosen field of education.     

The question that remains is: is it enough? Rags-to-riches stories are rare in the UK when compared to contemporary Western nations. Whilst the intention is good, I’m not convinced the scale of the efforts are enough. 

2. Keep our doors open to innovators – and future innovators – from around the world; 

The government also announced that they’ll be increasing Tier 1 visas (highly-skilled immigrants) from 1000 to 2000 per year. Again, it’s a drop in the bucket. 2000 new, highly-skilled immigrants to enter a workforce of tens of millions, with more people retiring than ever before, seems an imprudent under-estimate of requirements.

Present statistics indicate that 6% of the UK’s tech workforce hails from the EU, and 7% from non-EU countries. And the 6% EU is growing faster than anywhere - because London has become the go-to destination for ambitious European developers.  

‘2000 new people per year’ is a quota - and anyone who’s taken Economics 101 knows quotas are an inefficient instrument. Until now, the EU’s open borders have let the labour market demand to dictate when it’s economically beneficial for people to move here.     

As a result, I foresee a flatline. Big tech companies will be able to throw money at a shrinking pool of developers. In turn, this will cause an obvious spike in salary inflation, putting pressure on small innovators.     

In short, this policy falls short of what the UK’s tech sector needs by a long distance. 

3. Economically encourage companies to start, and grow, on our shores 

This part of the policy document was the shortest, and was positioned at the very end. It spoke of maintaining the UK’s role as a leader in AI R&D. The recommendations were thin on the ground, and spoke of private business collaboration with academia, with no mention of economic incentives.     

This is the part of the document that worries me.     

They spoke of university spin-outs, which are great - many companies have been founded like this, for example Google. But the vast majority of companies, in AI or otherwise, are not academic spin-outs. I would have liked to have seen some support for these companies, of which Phrasee, the company I’ve co-founded, is one. 

Overall, this report gets a 6.5/10 

Much of the report covered philosophical implications of AI, which are important conversations to be had - but if the right people and companies aren’t in place, then the existential concerns are moot.     

I hope, moving forward, the UK’s AI policy will double-down on the people that make AI happen, and make this country a world leader. To be this, we need home-grown tech companies, a bubbling pool of future talent, and government-led incentives to encourage business growth. We haven’t seen that yet - but hopefully we will soon.

There's still a huge amount of uncertainty in the UK, especially regarding Brexit and technical transformation. These policy recommendations are a good start, and hopefully indicative of progress. What I do know is this: we'll keep building our awesome company no matter what, and I expect others in the industry will do the same.    

Parry Malm, CEO and Founder of Phrasee 

Image Credit: Everything Possible / Shutterstock