UK and Europe ‘must join forces in global AI race’
The weekly magazine for higher education
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