Does the UK really have the potential to be an AI superpower?

Earlier this year, Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced his desire to cement the UK as an AI superpower. And it has been all hands on deck since then with an AI summit set to take place in November, government funds being channeled into research, and ongoing discussions around regulation. The UK is certainly determined to secure a podium position in the AI race.

It isn't difficult to understand why such high importance is being placed on AI at a governmental level. Predicted to increase UK GDP by up to 10.3 percent by 2030 -- the equivalent of an additional £232 billion -- embracing AI could hugely benefit the economy, whilst also boosting productivity and efficiency for businesses of all sizes and sectors. In the current economic climate, when all budgets are squeezed and workforces are stretched, AI has the potential to be hugely transformative. As Plamen Minev, Technical Director, AI and Cloud at Quantum, explains:

Advancements in Generative AI and recent releases of ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion have created a buzz across the technology space, as it has further enabled slimmer teams to operate within minimal time and budget.

These latest AI models have greatly enhanced capabilities, offering near perfect accuracy as well as varying deployment options. We're finding that end users have far passed accepting the technology, and instead demand access to it as a way to simplify their everyday tasks.

Similarly, with cyber attacks hitting some of the UK's biggest organizations -- Royal Mail, NHS and regional councils and police forces -- AI can play a fundamental role in protecting sensitive systems and data by keeping organizations on the front foot.

"AI and machine learning have the potential to radically improve business continuity," states Kevin Cole, Director, Technical Marketing and Training, Zerto, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. "One of the greatest challenges we face in the world of cyber is staying one step ahead of the attackers. By absorbing huge amounts of data, AI can provide more accurate predictions for attacks and more effectively identify weak points in an organization’s security. The sky is the limit when it comes to AI."

Whilst the benefits that AI can bring are clear, does the UK have the right foundations in place to become an AI superpower or are Sunak and his government out of their depth?

Starting off on the right foot…

As a service-led economy in the 21st century, the UK is naturally technology-led. Every business in the modern day relies on software, hardware, networks, telecommunications and electronics to conduct even the simplest of operations and the development, installation, and servicing of such technology is a UK speciality.

As such, the country has certainly become a leader in the sector over the past few decades. As Geoff Barlow, Technology Practice Lead -- Strategy at Node4, points out, the UK tech industry is, "The third in the world to hit the value of $1 trillion, behind only the US and China."

He continues: "We have always been early adopters of the latest technologies and innovation, and are home to many exciting technology companies -- DeepMind, Deliveroo, Monzo, to name just a few -- as well as being a huge partner country for Microsoft. The UK is home to a third of Europe's AI companies, and now that OpenAI has chosen London as the location for its first international office, the UK is further cemented as a hub for innovation."

Matt Rider, VP of Sales Engineering at Exabeam, agrees that, "Historically, the technology sector has always been strong in the UK, with global technology pioneers like Alan Turing and Tim Burners-Lee leading the way in the birth of computing and the internet."

Yet, he reflects on the debate at hand, wondering if people doubt the UK’s potential to become an AI superpower because, "It seems few in the world know that the World Wide Web was created by a Brit, that the chips in their phones were designed by Brits, or that the frontiers of AI are currently being redrawn in London by the likes of heavyweights such as DeepMind."

Node4's Geoff Barlow adds that by having a UK presence, these established global technology brands provide, "The talent pool and skills within the country to put us in a great position to become an AI superpower. This has been supported by a stream of talent coming from educational institutions and business in the UK. We have some of the best universities in the world and the people that are needed to push AI forward -- mathematicians, statisticians, and data scientists."

Hugh Scantlebury, CEO and Founder of Aqilla, echoes this arguing that, "The AI skills definitely exist within the country to allow it to become a global leader in the field. Cambridge is set to become the Silicon Valley of Europe, so what better country is there to lead the way with AI? Global technical businesses with headquarters in the UK, like BT, Arm, British Aerospace, and Vodafone, can also play a huge part in pushing the country forward. Active encouragement and financial assistance for academic institutions can accelerate investment in research and design, which will be crucial for becoming an AI superpower."

… or in over one’s head?

Yet, like all debates, there are two sides to this argument and not everyone is on the same page. Instead of having confidence in the skills within the UK, Agata Nowakowska, AVP EMEA at Skillsoft, warns that there are “Glaring gaps in the UK's digital literacy.”

“The House of Lords' latest Digital Exclusion report emphasises the pressing need for immediate action to help build people’s confidence around digital skills, foster development and gain employment in today’s ever-evolving digital era."

And there is further evidence to support this. According to the Oxford Learning College, 27 percent of UK workers lack the sufficient digital skills required for their job role, with a further 20 percent set to be significantly underskilled for their jobs by 2030. And it seems that little is being done to prevent this, with Skillsoft research finding that only 37 percent of organizations have arranged AI training in the past year.

In order to be able to fully embrace and reap the benefits of AI, the UK needs to do much more to ensure that the workforce has the skills it needs to achieve this.

But, skills are not the only hurdle that the UK has to overcome in order to lead the way in the AI space. Hubert Da Costa, Chief Revenue Officer at Celerway, suggests that, "For the AI revolution to deliver on its promise, innovation is needed around what is known as Intelligent Connectivity; the combination of high speed 5G networks, AI and IoT edge devices that enable new powerful computing capabilities at the edge of the network."

However, whilst we're not there yet, positive steps are being made to rectify this, such as the recently announced Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP), which 'seeks to support development of critical technologies including AI, 5G, edge computing and advanced connectivity in the European Union,' Da Costa explains, “What we need to see now is investment in delivering this at the edge, free from the constraints of centralised data centres that will allow industries such as transport, public services healthcare and many more to increase efficiency, productivity, security, and scalability."

The verdict

Whilst the UK may still have some work to do before it can solidify itself as an AI superpower once and for all, the majority of the foundations to achieve it are already in place. At this early stage in the game, it is important to make sure that every box is ticked, and not to get too far ahead of ourselves before the leap is made.

As Craig Adams, Managing Director, EMEA at Protecht advises:

In order to make the most of AI’s vast potential as a super power without falling foul of its current limitations, we need to look very closely at both the opportunities and challenges it presents, before finding the right path forwards to successful implementation. In fact, understanding the technology, its application, and the risks it poses, should all be considered fundamental requirements for risk managers before partial or full-scale deployment is even considered.

With all countries racing to be an AI superpower, the UK is in as good a position as any to cement itself as a leader in the space. As Laurie Mercer, Security Architect at HackerOne, summarises, there is a chance for the UK, "To lead in both the setting of standards, the development of tools, and the discovery of novel vulnerabilities created in the new AI ecosystem. The UK has a golden opportunity to leverage its existing talent, develop new tools and techniques to secure the world's new AI powered applications."

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