Government left behind in global AI race


AI is developing at ever faster rates, yet is Britain really making the most of its vast potential asks Oliver Peter Smith.

Article Image

Image by Number 10 Downing Street

By Oliver Smith

Only a decade ago, human-level artificial intelligence was viewed as fictitious and most would see it as a sci-fi quip. Today, however, the premise is very real. The explosive rollout of Chat-GPT has been a wake-up call, not only for those who haven’t been keeping a close eye on AI developments in recent years, but for those developing it themselves. More importantly, the speed at which AI is being developed will only increase over the coming years, potentially transforming the economy and the society in which we live. This presents an enormous opportunity to invest into new businesses and ideas, and the government appears to be bullish on making the most out of it. However, how is the UK faring so far?

The government has already made attempts at making the most out of AI. Only recently, in 2022, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) was founded. Modelled on America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the government-funded organisation takes a ‘high-risk, high-reward’ approach to innovation, investing millions of pounds into high-risk technology start-ups in a bid to place the United Kingdom at the forefront of innovation. So far, however, funding for this has not been as big as originally anticipated, stoking criticism from Dominic Cummings, of whom ARIA was his brainchild. Moreover, criticism has mounted due to ARIA’s lack of a clear purpose, meaning that its effectiveness may not be as great as its American counterpart.

The difference here, in particular, is that DARPA always had a clear and distinct purpose. The agency (originally known as ARPA) was founded by Dwight D. Eisenhower to combat the Soviet Union’s Sputnik programme and has retained a focus on defence and intelligence ever since. It has been described as the agency that ‘shaped the modern world’ by the Economist, claiming at least some credit to the development of GPS, drones, weather satellites, and stealth technology. Despite having many of its innovations fail due to its high-risk strategy, those which succeeded produced billions of dollars of value to the American economy, transforming the US not only economically, but socially too. Because of DARPA’s clear purpose and direction throughout its history, it has always had the capability to radically innovate and invent.

However, despite the underwhelming funding for ARIA, the government has pledged almost £2 billion for ‘tech hubs’ near universities, signalling a shift towards university-led research to generate innovation. With the UK having well over 100 universities, with 29 of these ranked in the world's top 500 universities, the government is seeking to make the most out of innovative research. This investment includes creating 12 investment zones within eight different areas, with each zone receiving £80 million in support. According to Jeremy Hunt, who unveiled the initiative in his budget in March, the aim is to “supercharge growth” in the most “budding areas”.

This mirrors Rishi Sunak’s approach to technological innovation, and artificial intelligence too. Sunak has said he intends to shape the United Kingdom into a “science and tech superpower”, and of AI, Sunak says that it has the “potential to be transformational and grow the economy”. In efforts to stress the significance of AI to the UK, Sunak has spoken to executives of leading AI firms, including Google and OpenAI, to discuss its development in the U.K. This comes as the UK seeks to promote a new model of regulation which will be less extreme than the EU’s, hoping to gain the upper-hand. This does, however, stoke safety concerns about the power of AI in the future.

Whether this approach has or will come to fruition is difficult to judge. On the one hand, the UK is home to a large number of leading AI companies, most significantly of all, DeepMind, and significant strides in language processing, computer vision, and machine learning have been made. Moreover, universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are world-leaders in AI research, as well as being host to organisations such as the Centre for Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity Institute. However, on the other hand, the UK is lagging behind its counterparts. The market for AI is expected to hit upwards of $100 billion in America by 2030, and Canada introduced its own strategy for AI backed by $125 million in 2018. Furthermore, South Korea has claimed that it too wants to become an AI powerhouse, pledging 14 trillion won to increase the competitiveness of its AI market.

AI has the power to radically change economies and societies, and as the AI ‘arms race’ develops, these changes will become more present in our everyday lives. The government is attempting to put the UK on a war footing, but only with time can we understand the effectiveness of the UK’s approach after seeing such radical developments in recent months.