Meet The New Player In The US-China AI Arms Race: United Kingdom

The UK plans not only to be a top AI country but also to do that with ethical and regulated AI that the citizens desire.

The United Kingdom government has released its 10-year plan to make the country the global “artificial intelligence superpower”. This comes right after BCS proposed ‘gold standards’ to make the UK a leading ethical AI superpower. The latest developments in the AI sector in the UK begs us to ask the question – is the UK competing in the AI arms race with China and the US?

“Today we’re laying the foundations for the next ten years’ growth with a strategy to help us seize the potential of artificial intelligence and play a leading role in shaping the way the world governs it,” Chris Philp, a minister of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said in a statement.


The Strategy

The national AI strategy includes several programs, reports and initiatives to boost the country’s long term capabilities in and around ML technologies by prioritising and levelling up the development of AI applications in the UK. This is to strengthen its position as a global science superpower. This includes a new National AI Research and Innovation program to improve coordination and collaboration between the country’s researchers. 


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The UK’s first AI strategy plans to launch a new national programme and a positive approach to support R&D in AI and publish a white paper on the governance and regulation of AI to ensure public confidence in the technology. This will allow organisations in various regions and sectors to capitalise on the power of AI technologies.

“The UK already punches above its weight internationally, and we are ranked third in the world behind the USA and China in the list of top countries for AI,” said DCMS Minister Chris Philp. 


Desired AI

The United Kingdom plans not only to be a top AI country but also to do that with ethical and regulated AI that the citizens desire. The New National AI, Research and Innovation Programme is set up to discover the latest developments and AI innovations. In addition, the country’s plans include a white paper on AI regulation to use modern technologies to improve people’s lives and solve global challenges such as climate change and public health.

The government plans on encouraging and developing AI students by supporting postgraduate learning and retraining and ensuring that students from wide backgrounds can access specialist courses. 

The latest data shows £13.5 billion investment by global investors into more than 1,400 UK private technology firms between January and June in 2021. This is accompanied by more than £2.3 billion government investment into AI since 2014 to support AI working with clear rules, applying ethical principles, and a pro-innovation regulatory environment. The three pillars of AI growth in the UK are: 

  • Benefiting all sectors of the economy
  • Governing with rules to encourage innovation, investment 
  • Protecting the public and the country’s fundamental values.

“The UK is already a world leader in certain aspects of AI – and this strategy helps to define how to enhance those capabilities further to ensure that the UK can both develop and use AI for the benefit of citizens,” said Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. 

The government also announced a review into the availability and capacity of computing power for researchers and organisations, along with a consultation on copyrights and patents for AI to assess the development. 

AI Arm’s Race: China and the US

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the US has filed more AI patent applications than any other country in the past two decades. Closely following, China had 41,000 over the same period. The UK filed less than 2,000.

The US government’s Competition and Innovation Act involves the country investing billions of dollars in chips, AI, and supply chain reliability in building smart cities. In comparison, China has invested twice as much as the US in R&D (research and development). The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace declared China and the US as the two globally leading exporters of technology.

Up until 2020, research based on patents and research publications ranked China as the top country for AI development. However, China’s recent developments and the government’s crackdown on big tech companies may harm China’s status in the AI arms race. 

Giving the UK a possibly good standing in the AI arms race, BCS’ Report – “Priorities for the National AI Strategy“, found the country capable of leading the world in creating AI that cares about humanity. 

“The public has become extremely distrustful of AI systems,” said Bill Mitchell, lead report author and director of policy at BCS. “You need to prove to them that you are competent, ethical and accountable.” The BCS report encouraged the UK to set the ‘gold standard‘ in AI professionalism through a pro-innovation, pro-ethical, pro-competition, and fair competition-based regulatory framework. 

Some of the largest AI companies like Graphcore, Darktrace, DeepMind, BenevolentAI and more are situated in the UK. The country is also brimming with leading universities, research centres and institutions that the government aims to tap into to become a leader in creating an empathetic AI. 

With a pinch of salt

It’s also important to note that while the ideas of clear rules, ethical AI, and a pro-innovation regulatory environment for AI are still strategies and plans by the UK government. While the EU has a comprehensive proposal for regulating high-risk applications of AI on the table, the UK still lacks a formal regulatory framework.

The public response to the announcement has been varied until now; while some are sceptical about the proceedings given the government’s history of lack of research incentive, others are quite optimistic about the plan. All in all, for now, we just have ideas and strategies and are still to see how they map out in reality. 

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Avi Gopani
Avi Gopani is a technology journalist that seeks to analyse industry trends and developments from an interdisciplinary perspective at Analytics India Magazine. Her articles chronicle cultural, political and social stories that are curated with a focus on the evolving technologies of artificial intelligence and data analytics.

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