The British technology sector enjoyed its best year of investment yet, attracting £29.4 billion in 2021. So, why hasn’t the UK’s AI and tech scene made it to the same global superpower status that we see from China, Russia, and the US?
We don’t need to wait for the results of the government’s recent National AI Strategy, to know that deeper change is needed to really propel the industry forward. To create an AI scene that can compete on the world stage, education, ambition, and innovation must be combined and accelerated.
Here are three tactics I believe could propel the UK’s AI industry forward this year:
- Promote collaboration between academia and business
To capitalise on the promise of AI, businesses and universities must build stronger links between one another, to drive innovation that can more quickly and effectively reach the market. The UK government knows this.
In its AI strategy, the government paid special attention to collaboration. But industry and academia are still, too often, working in silos. We can learn from countries like the US and Israel for inspiration here. These nations are successfully empowering both parties to accelerate national AI capabilities, with active sharing of information and increased joint ventures.
As the chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education wrote, “partnerships between universities and industry will be vital as nations seek to rebuild their economies after the devastation of the pandemic – reskilling the workforce and rebooting the knowledge economy.”
The UK’s vaccination programme demonstrated that when it comes to enabling collaboration at pace, where there is a will, there is a way. Of course, the pathway for AI is very different, but there are learning opportunities here nonetheless.
For the UK Government’s AI strategy to truly progress, then this must be the year it breaks down these silos, challenging universities to become more agile and creative in their business collaborations. Businesses too must be encouraged to invest in academic AI expertise to develop key innovations such as deep learning, machine learning, and deep language processing, and discouraged from hoarding expertise within their own R&D teams.
- Lay strong foundations
Change is not only needed at university level. From an early age, education must prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s world. Without integrating skills required for capitalising on AI, we will be failing both our children and our future economy.
The UK needs to show far greater commitment to creating grass-roots AI capabilities. This won’t come by only investing in academia; the governments recently announced 2,000 university scholarships is a baby step at too late an age. Those as young as 10 should be engaged in the possibilities of AI and automation – not just for their careers, but for the country at large.
Educating children from an early age in areas like data science, machine learning and natural language processing will be vital to the UK’s prosperity and innovation, as these specific areas are set to advance quickly in the next few years.
This isn’t just about coding classes, which seem to have become shorthand for future tech skills. The AI of tomorrow will require creativity and analytical skills to work alongside and manage AI applications. What we understand as STEM education, incorporating AI skills, needs to broaden both in its scope but also in starting age.
By injecting these topics into the national curriculum, we can also overcome the diversity issue in the tech space – showing AI as an accessible career path to all students regardless of their gender, class, or background.
- Building an ecosystem that nurtures mega-platforms
Alongside accelerated collaboration and shake up of education, we must also shift from our current position as a strong start-up ecosystem, to one that attracts and supports tomorrow’s mega platforms.
Can the UK be home to the next Facebook (or Meta), Google or Alibaba? Although we have a strong track record with nurturing start-ups, until recently the UK has not been focusing on ensuring the next mega platform plants its roots here, rather than in the US or China.
These mega-platforms have the resources to create world-changing innovations, as well as the capabilities to create masses of UK jobs. In order for this to be a success story, the UK must bring in investment and talent.
Whilst we may have seen a record number of unicorn firms in 2021, spreading support thinly across thousands of start-ups does not equate to creating the next mega-platform. The national focus must be recentered on identifying the top ten future companies and ensuring they are nurtured here – helping them to invest in UK talent and linking strongly with UK academia.
Spreading our bets won’t catapult us forward. Much like the basic funding offered to small businesses to get them off the ground, support must be given to businesses with potential to go to the next level and encourage them to stay here once they do.
AI is a future-ready industry, with modern needs. Traditional tactics wont work – we need to re-educate, re-align, and reset what we think we already know if the UK is going to measure up to those of AI superpower status.
(Photo by James Newcombe on Unsplash)
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