Our slice of the AI pie

Columnists

With the fast-paced news cycle, January’s Davos forum feels like a distant memory. However, the global gathering of economic pacemakers led to some interesting debates on AI and the global race for dominance in the sector. Who will win? China or US? And where does Europe sit in the international quest for supremacy?

There is much talk around China’s continued push to be number one in AI research and application by 2025 – and a report at the end of last year said it will overtake Europe within the next four years. TTwo-thirdsof global AI investment is happening in China, and it is home to countless AI “unicorns” – start-ups valued at $1bn or higher.

There are some concerns over what China’s dominance might mean – and governments worldwide are rushing to support their domestic AI innovation. However, no country is innovating as rapidly as China – policy initiatives mean its research has risen 400% since 2007. By contrast, US government has only seen a 90% increase.

At present, the US still holds top spot, but there’s a widespread feeling that it is soon to be overtaken. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced that the President would be signing an executive order that would create and American AI Initiative which will dedicate resources and investments into AI research. This is a vital measure: as previously, the government hadn’t been seen to openly address the necessity of investment into this sector. The economic, business and national security rewards of AI are manifold, and the government must address this with urgency.

Closer to home, the UK and Europe are in danger of losing further ground, if the focus remains on innovation alone rather than combined with adoption – given the business hubs spanning Europe this is a real opportunity to take a lead. There’s a widespread fear played upon by scaremongers that AI might create a sci-fi horror scenario, leading to data loss and job cuts, with websites such as willrobotstakemyjob.com proliferating. My company works to remove the stigma around artificial intelligence and raise awareness of its manifold benefits, from sectors as diverse as healthcare to horticulture.

Last April, Theresa May announced an AI Sector Deal, outlining the government’s commitment of £1bn to the technology, with ambitions to add over £600bn to the economy by 2035. Then-culture secretary Matt Hancock confirmed AI is at the centre of plans to boost the UK’s infrastructure for digital business. The latest Budget included a £9million Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to ensure AI developments are responsible. This is an important measure to tackle the general fears and confidence about AI adoption, and how data can shape everything from creating a great online shopping experience to challenging bias when applying for things like a mortgage or new job.

The UK is clearly trying to assert itself as a trailblazer of AI uptake, with recent 2019 initiatives including a nationwide programme of industry-funded AI postgraduate courses, aiming to drive up skills in the sector, with places funded by globally-renowned businesses like Deepmind (the AI arm of Google.)

Despite the UK’s recent efforts, Europe is yet to fully reap the benefits of AI investment. According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, if Europe were to catch up with the US AI developments, a total of €3.6trillion could be added to collective GDP in this period. In order to help Europe, compete against technological leaders, a good starting point is taking advantage of the specific areas of technology we excel in already, such as B2B and advanced robotics.

Europe is, however, clearly trying to collectively boost AI innovation, demonstrated by the pan-European High-Level Expert Group on AI (AI HLEG). The group looks at state policy and investment recommendations on how to reinforce Europe’s competitiveness – and its first meeting was in December 2018. The hope is that it will firmly establish a network of AI excellence centres and provide guidance for strategic research into on AI, enabling the EU to fully benefit from its developments.

It is clear the EU recognises the vast potential of AI for revenue growth and many companies across the healthcare, manufacturing, tech and finance sectors are already adopting the technologies to encourage growth. However, there’s also a huge number of EU companies who still view AI as a threat, which hampers the EU’s ability to compete with the likes of China and the US.

As China continues to widen its lead in AI globally, now is the time to act if the UK and Europe are to remain relevant and even steal the advantage of possessing some of the brightest AI talent alongside innovation-accelerating government initiatives. The UK needs to continue building homegrown expertise in AI in order to deliver benefits that will be felt across the full range of sectors. The importance of AI investment and this race isn’t a superficial quest to be the “first” to reach the post, it’s vital for safeguarding public interest and digital economy. It’s important that we work together globally to fully reap the benefits of AI.

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