Data Driven Futures

UK ‘must harness AI’ or risk losing power

Written by Hannah McGrath

Failure to harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) could damage the UK’s economic prospects, according to the chairman of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

Speaking at the Westminster eForum policy conference on the progress of the UK’s AI sector, Roger Taylor warned that the UK’s efforts to lead Europe in the acceleration of AI-driven techniques are often slowed by the need to ensure data ethics are taken into account.

“There are many areas where we are simply not making as much progress as we would like because there are considerable ethics and trusts issues,” he explained, highlighting current fears over the accuracy and fairness of AI as companies worry where liability lies for automated systems, while data bias and personalisation risk making consumers feel uneasy.

Looking to the future, Taylor explained that after the China and US - which are currently leading the race to develop and integrate AI methods - the UK is currently competing with France, Germany and other European rivals to ensure a governmental and commercial lead in the field.

He warned that if the UK does not wholly grasp the potential of AI across sectors, research and academia: “We will lose a considerable amount of power over our own economies, we will lose wealth, we will lose the ability to manage our own lives.

“So we face a real challenge here,” Taylor explained. “There’s a lot of talk about a hype cycle but that’s really about investment levels, one thing to be really clear about is that the technology is real and it’s coming and it’s happening very quickly we can see it in things like facial recognition technology, the progress with self-driving cars, in Natural Language Processing (NLP), and in smart speakers.”

He also warned that the huge amount of data held by big tech companies could result in a shift of the power from the consumer or public services to private companies.

The audience was asked to imagine a future 30 years from now, in which society is fuelled by data, and asked whether citizens would accept that many aspects of their lives are “being run by a tech company in another country”.

While Taylor laid out urgent policy and ethical debates around the power and reach of AI-driven systems, he also identified huge gains to be made by deployments of AI across various sectors of the UK economy.

“There are many other areas where we are making best progress for example healthcare, the ability for AI to massively improve productivity in policing,” he said. “In the public sector there’s huge potential gains… but often it gets categorised as a way to save money.”

Taylor added that AI was driving rapid growth in connected systems and Internet of Things (IoT) led processes. “We can see it in some industries, in mining for example, astonishing increases in productivity by getting all of the machines in a mine to talk to each other and work out what they are all doing.”

Elsewhere, Rannia Leontaridi, director of business growth and office for AI at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, spoke of the government’s ambition to apply AI to breakthroughs in early diagnostics in healthcare as well of the need to ensure the sector receives funding and support in skills training.

She said the government wanted to: “Use AI and data technologies to transform the early diagnosis and treatment of chronic diseases by 2030.”

Furthermore, developing AI in the coming years will be key to “building a society that has an ability to stand internationally.” She concluded: “Progressing AI and working with AI technologies, is not an option, it’s an obligation.”