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Professor Jon Crowcroft FRS FREng, co-founder of iKVA, Researcher at Large, at The Alan Turing Institute and Professor of Communication Systems at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory, provides his view on Artificial Intelligence in the UK

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the fastest-growing deep technologies in the world with the potential to transform multiple industries, drive substantial economic growth and irrevocably revolutionise our daily lives. AI in the UK is increasing vastly, as the UK is ranked third in the world for its research and innovation in AI and is successfully leveraging relationships between globally recognised academic institutions, such as the University of Cambridge, and industry to nurture and develop world-class AI technologies.

Moreover, the newly launched AI Standards Hub is part of the UK’s National AI Strategy, a 10-year framework that recognises the power of AI to drive growth and innovation in the private and public sectors. The strategy demonstrates the UK government’s commitment to consolidating the country’s position as a leader in this field for the next decade by investing in the AI ecosystem, governing AI effectively and ensuring that AI benefits all sectors and religions.

Industry applications in AI

The UK technology sector itself cannot operate in a silo; AI largely succeeds when it develops tools with useful applications to other sectors, such as drug discovery in the medical sector. In healthcare, the prevention of disease relies on the widespread gathering and processing of data; as discovered during the pandemic and the vaccine programme, this can incredibly successful.

Clearly, fundamental changes, such as further collaboration between innovators and industry, are needed to realise the benefits across sectors including energy, transport and national security. Fortunately, the UK is in a position to link the science on climate change with AI and data science to deliver robust programmes that will deliver products and services that countries around the world will purchase.

One of the tenets of the government’s strategy is using the public sector as an example for AI procurement and ethics. During the pandemic, the public sector successfully demonstrated its ability to use AI technology and automation to meet the increased demand for services. By adopting AI on a national scale to manage daily processes in a fast, scalable way, the public sector can continue to automate many of the bureaucratic processes that are currently labour and resource intensive to reduce the human workload and efficiently reallocate resources.

Dark data, data discovery and sustainability

Managing the exponential growth of unstructured data is one of the biggest challenges that organisations in the public and private sectors will face in the coming years. It is estimated that there will be 175 zettabytes of data created by 2025; most of this data will be unstructured. The financial and environmental cost of this untapped data is immeasurable, although it is estimated that storing dark data (the unused or unknown data within an organisation’s servers) produces 6.4 million tonnes of CO2 annually. For both public and private organisations, AI can be combined with Machine Learning (ML) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to discover the data within the organisation and utilise it; alleviating the cost of storing unused data and reducing the environmental impact of unexplored, but stored, data.

The growing applications of NLP, the area of research concerned with how we can use computers to process, analyse and understand human language data, in addition to AI and ML, has highlighted the need for clear governance and standardisation on the use of these techniques to benefit all users ethically and without bias. The new administration needs to consider maintaining our current high standards, especially in data protection and privacy, to ensure that the UK remains competitive across all markets. Designing technology to meet these standards – that exceed the standards of countries that compete with the UK in the development of technology – will continue to give the UK a competitive advantage. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and the AI Standards Hub are both well-positioned to oversee the development of a standard ethical framework that governs the use of AI innovations.

The UK as a global leader in AI

As a country, we have a number of tremendous success stories from the tech industry, including Arm, the British- based semiconductor and software company. In Europe, the UK has the highest number of tech unicorns, and we need to focus on ensuring that organisations, such as Arm, remain within the UK, and encourage UK-based investment in the technology industry to avoid losing assets and knowledge to other countries. In the continually evolving global economic landscape, research and development by the UK tech industry needs to reach, or exceed, the levels of investment that competing Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations make in their technologies. Tax incentives for start-ups work well, but larger organisations also need to be encouraged to invest in innovation.

The future for AI in the UK is bright – with our desire to facilitate cross-sector partnerships and advances in technology that will benefit both the public and private sectors, the UK is well-placed to deliver world-class innovations that will stimulate economic growth and transform the industry.

Contributor Profile

Founder of iKVA and Professor of Communication Systems
Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory Researcher-at-large, Alan Turing Institute for Data Science and AI
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