UK and Europe ‘must join forces in global AI race’

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The UK and Europe must con­tinue to work closely to­gether on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence re­search re­gard­less of Brexit, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, as the race for AI lead­er­ship pushes na­tions to form strate­gic al­liances.

Dame Wendy Hall, Regius pro­fes­sor of com­puter sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Southamp­ton, said that the strength of UK re­search in the field meant that the Euro­pean Union could ill af­ford not to strike a deal on col­lab­o­ra­tion with UK uni­ver­si­ties.

She ar­gued that a com­mon goal of de­vel­op­ing eth­i­cal prac­tices in both re­search into and the ap­pli­ca­tion of AI tech­nolo­gies would give the UK and Europe a “high ground” and po­si­tion them well to com­pete with the US and China.

“There’s a whole hype-wave around AI right now and ev­ery gov­ern­ment in the world wants to get the best of it,” said Dame Wendy, who was com­mis­sioned by the gov­ern­ment to con­duct a re­view of the UK’s poli­cies on AI last year. “[Any­one] not in a po­si­tion to seize those op­por­tu­ni­ties and de­velop [their] own AI sec­tor be­comes de­pen­dent on the US or China. So it’s very im­por­tant that we build on our fan­tas­tic 50-year legacy of Bri­tish AI re­search.”

The de­bate comes amid con­tin­u­ing un­cer­tainty about Bri­tish-based re­searchers’ ac­cess to EU funds after the UK’s de­par­ture from the bloc next March.

A Euro­pean Com­mis­sion re­port pub­lished on 25 April called for a Europe- wide cash injection of

E20 bil­lion (£17.6 bil­lion) into AI re­search in the run-up to 2020, with the com­mis­sion promis­ing an ad­di­tional E1.5 bil­lion via its Hori­zon 2020 pro­gramme.

With­out such funds, the EU “risks los­ing out on the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by AI, fac­ing a brain drain” and be­ing left as “a con­sumer of solutions” de­vel­oped by US and Asian com­peti­tors, the re­port says.

A UK gov­ern­ment pol­icy pa­per pub­lished on the same day con­firmed a £1 bil­lion in­vest­ment in the sec­tor, fol­low­ing a series of rec­om­men­da­tions out­lined in the AI in­dus­try re­view led by Dame Wendy and Jérôme Pe­senti, now vice- pres­i­dent of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence at Face­book, last year. It es­ti­mates that AI will bring an ex­tra £630 bil­lion to the UK econ­omy alone by 2035.

Dame Wendy said that she was op­ti­mistic that a deal could be struck to en­sure con­tin­ued col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the UK and EU on AI re­search.

“We [the UK] will reach a call with Europe and in my view we will be part of Europe on this,” she said. “We will com­pete in terms of eco­nomics and in­dus­try and up­ward skills but that will be true for ev­ery coun­try. This is global stuff we can­not do in si­los. On the im­por­tant is­sues such as ethics and reg­u­la­tion,

we will work to­gether.” Along­side ac­cess to re­search fund­ing, en­sur­ing the con­tin­ued mo­bil­ity of lead­ing schol­ars is likely to be key to the suc­cess of the UK and the EU in AI re­search.

Nick Jen­nings, chair in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and vice- provost (re­search) at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don, said that his own univer­sity had given pol­i­cy­mak­ers “a num­ber of sug­ges­tions” as to how re­searchers work­ing on Hori­zon 2020 projects could au­to­mat­i­cally ob­tain visas if re­quired.

“I am op­ti­mistic that we will end up with some sen­si­ble out­come,” he said. “Euro­peans want us to stay in­volved, it’s clear we want to stay in­volved, so I should hope that it’s one of those less con­tentious ar­eas.”

The need for a col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach comes against a back­drop of boom­ing AI in­dus­try devel­op­ment in China, where the gov­ern­ment has pledged to cre­ate a $150 bil­lion (£109 bil­lion) sec­tor by 2030.

Data from El­se­vier’s SciVal data­base shows that Chi­nese re­search in­sti­tu­tions now dom­i­nate global re­search out­put on AI, al­though the US pri­vate sec­tor pro­duces some of the high­est qual­ity pa­pers. The UK still out­per­forms the rest of Europe in terms of re­search vol­ume, how­ever – in fifth place glob­ally be­hind China, the US, In­dia and Ja­pan.

Sir Keith Bur­nett, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Sh­effield, shifted the em­pha­sis away from com­pe­ti­tion with China to high­light the im­por­tance of col­lab­o­ra­tion.

“China, with its vast pop­u­la­tion, sense of pur­pose and in­vest­ment in tech­nol­ogy could def­i­nitely be the fu­ture leader in in­no­va­tion, but China with the UK in par­tic­u­lar could be a world-beat­ing com­bi­na­tion,” Sir Keith said.

Sh­effield has long been in­volved in such re­search part­ner­ships with Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties, and this month launched its flag­ship Chi­nese Fu­ture Lab ini­tia­tive with Ts­inghua Univer­sity.

“The UK has a whole range of cru­cial com­pa­nies such as Deep­Mind as well as re­search strengths such as the Alan Tur­ing In­sti­tute, so we have a won­der­ful ca­pa­bil­ity in AI. If you bring this to­gether with Chi­nese in­vest­ment and chutz­pah, you are away,” Sir Keith said.

Stronger to­gether the vice-provost of Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don said he was ‘op­ti­mistic’ that a ‘sen­si­ble out­come’ could be reached

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