AI in the UK: No Room for Complacency Contents

Chapter 3: Leading on artificial intelligence

The role of Government

62.It is over two and a half years since the Select Committee published its report. We asked our witnesses what progress the Government had made in that time. The replies were encouraging. Professor Wooldridge said: “I give a big thumbs up for what has happened nationally in AI in the UK over the last few years. We have done the right things.”93 But he added: “The one thing I would ask is to understand that this is a long-term project … Let us hold this course and be aware that this is not a one-year or 18-month project.”94 In the following session Roger Taylor echoed this: “We are making good progress, but I would refer to the comments made in the previous session. This is not a short-term game; it is a long-term game. We are in the foothills of getting this sorted and we have a huge amount to do. There is good progress, but the task ahead of us is probably much greater than what has been achieved so far.”95


63.At the date of the report many Government departments were active in development of AI, in the use of AI, and in training in its use. There cannot now be a single department that is not to some extent involved. There are cross-departmental bodies like the Office for AI. There are regulators on the fringes of Government: the ICO is deeply involved, and has joined with the Competition and Markets Authority and Ofcom in setting up the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum, “a recognition of the fact that data protection, competition and consumer protection, telecoms regulation and online harms overlap far more than they used to.”96

64.There are also many other bodies outside the framework of Government which are to a greater or lesser extent involved in an advisory role: the AI Council, the CDEI, the Ada Lovelace Institute, the Alan Turing Institute, and the RHC, to name but a few.

65.Coordination is plainly essential, and we asked whether the departments, agencies and bodies involved in the development of AI policy in the UK worked together effectively. Simon McDougall was cautiously optimistic: “I think so far, so good. A number of bodies have been formed relatively recently, since the original report came out. As the regulator, we find this an incredibly rich area to work in with these different organisations.”97

66.Roger Taylor was even more positive: “Our communication and co-ordination efforts are going well. We are all talking to each other regularly, as well as to civil society, including [the Ada Lovelace Institute], to co-ordinate how we operate as far as possible. That is good. As this develops, we shall see over time what the long-term institutional landscape needs to look like.”98 Later he added: “There is a real benefit from greater co-ordination of our efforts in this space, through national leadership and the identification of clear objectives. Those may be sectoral, as with the industrial strategy. They could be in other sectors, for example the use of AI in education. Having clear, central government-set objectives in that regard is useful.”99

67.Certainly, the Government now seems to be aware of the need for coordination between the wide variety of bodies: the National Data Strategy, launched on 9 September 2020, states:

“We will consider the roles of the Alan Turing Institute, the National Innovation Centre for Data, the Open Data Institute, the Data Skills Taskforce, the AI Council, the UK Cyber Security Council, the Data Lab, and others in the data skills ecosystem for ways to improve the leadership and facilitation of new and better collaborations between industry, the public sector, universities and institutes.”100

68.We believe however that more needs to be done. Coordination needs to be raised to a higher and more influential level. This is not a case where one Minister or department needs to be given greater or even sole responsibility. In a matter of such importance there needs to be cooperation at a formal ministerial level. We anticipate that matters relating to AI which are of sufficient importance to be decided by Ministers collectively will currently go to the Domestic and Economy Implementation Committee of the Cabinet, whose remit is “To support collective agreement of matters relating to the implementation and delivery of domestic and economic policy.”101

69.The full membership of the Committee includes every Cabinet Minister except the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House of Lords. This is too large and unfocused a group to give AI the full attention it properly deserves. We note that of the 15 Cabinet Committees one, the National Space Council, has the remit “To consider issues concerning prosperity, diplomacy and national security in, through and from Space, as part of coordinating overall Government policy.”102 The Committee is chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and has five other members. If Space, whose importance cannot be doubted, merits a dedicated Committee, so certainly does AI, whose tentacles spread much more widely.

70.Cabinet Committees conduct much of their business by correspondence. They can co-opt other Ministers when necessary. Ministers who are members can and should seek the advice of the AI Council, the CDEI and other expert independent bodies.

71.We commend the Government for its work to date in establishing a considered range of bodies to advise it on AI over the long term.

72.However we caution against complacency. There must be more and better coordination, and it must start at the top. A Cabinet Committee must be established whose terms of reference include the strategic direction of Government AI policy and the use of data and technology by national and local government.

73.The first task of the Committee should be to commission and approve a five year strategy for AI. Such a strategy should include a reflection on whether the existing bodies and their remits are sufficient, and the work required to prepare society to take advantage of AI rather than be taken advantage of by it.

74.When the Government consulted on the setting up of the CDEI, a number of those replying thought it should be put on a statutory footing to emphasise its long-term capacity, its independence and its authority. In its response, the Government said it remained “committed to establishing the Centre on a statutory footing after its initial phase of operation and views this as the most effective way to secure its long-term credibility, accountability and effectiveness.”103

75.We have emphasised in the previous chapter the importance of the role played by the CDEI. The Government has not pursued its plans to put the Centre on a statutory footing; regardless of such plans, it is essential that the CDEI should be allowed to work effectively and independently, and should be given the resources to enable it to do so.

76.There are particular deficiencies to be addressed. Professor Hall explained that the AI Council was about to launch a road map, and added: “It is really important that the Office for Artificial Intelligence is strengthened and works across government. It is hard for it to do that. Please, government, listen to your AI Council. That is what we are there for.”104 We wholly endorse that plea, but it emphasises how important it is for the AI Council to concentrate on pragmatic issues, and to recommend to the Government the specific courses it should follow and actions it should take.

A Chief Data Officer

77.One matter must be dealt with immediately: the appointment of a Government Chief Data Officer. In 2017 the Government announced: “We will appoint a new Chief Data Officer for government to lead on use of data.”105 This was listed among “Priorities until 2020”. On 21 October 2019 Simon Hart MP, then a Minister at the Cabinet Office, in reply to a Question from Jo Platt MP asking “until what date the objective of appointing a Chief Data Officer by 2020 applies”, replied: “No specific date has been set for the appointment, however the government remains committed to appointing within the timeframe set out in the Government Transformation Strategy.”106

78.No appointment was made. On 9 September 2020 Oliver Dowden MP, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, launched the Government’s National Data Strategy, which states: “To succeed, we need a whole-government approach led by a Government Chief Data Officer from the centre in strong partnership with organisations … We will recruit senior cross-government data leadership, including a Chief Data Officer for government”.107 We are not aware that any steps have been taken to recruit a suitable candidate to this essential post.

79.The Government must take immediate steps to appoint a Chief Data Officer, whose responsibilities should include acting as a champion for the opportunities presented by AI in the public service, and ensuring that understanding and use of AI, and the safe and principled use of public data, are embedded across the public service.

Autonomy Development Centre

80.On 19 November 2020, in announcing an increase in defence expenditure, the Prime Minister said: “We will establish a new centre dedicated to artificial intelligence.”108 This is to be an Autonomy Development Centre to accelerate the research, development, testing, integration and deployment of world-leading artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. At the date of this report no details have been given of when the Centre will be established, whether it will be solely focused on defence and security applications of AI, whether it will be replacing any existing AI-related bodies the Government is involved in, and what will be done to ensure coordination of its activities with those of other bodies.

81.In its report the Select Committee expressed concern that “the Government’s definition of an autonomous system used by the military as one where it ‘is capable of understanding higher-level intent and direction’ is clearly out of step with the definitions used by most other governments.”109 This limited the extent to which the UK could participate in international debates on autonomous weapons, and its ability to take an active role as a moral and ethical leader on the global stage in this area. The Committee recommended that “the UK’s definition of autonomous weapons should be realigned to be the same, or similar, as that used by the rest of the world.”110

82.In his letter of 30 January 2020 one of the questions put by Lord McFall to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation was to ask what discussions the Government had had with international partners about the definition of an ‘autonomous weapons system’.111 In her reply Amanda Solloway MP explained that there was no international agreement on the definition or characteristics of autonomous weapons systems, and that “the UK does not intend to change its definition”.112 If we had known of the intention to establish a new Autonomy Development Centre when Ms Solloway gave evidence to us on 14 October 2020, we would have pressed her on this issue.

83.We believe that the work of the Autonomy Development Centre will be inhibited by the failure to align the UK’s definition of autonomous weapons with international partners: doing so must be a first priority for the Centre once established.

The United Kingdom as a world leader

84.The Global AI Index ranks 54 countries for their investment, innovation and implementation, using a weighted index of eight factors.113 Amanda Solloway MP referred to the fact that the UK is currently ranked third, after the USA and China, and described this as “a really strong and great place to be”.114

85. Caroline Dinenage MP later added:

“As one of our success stories, we are third in the world for producing tech unicorns. We have more tech unicorns, these billion-dollar mythical creatures, in the UK than Germany, France and the Netherlands combined. That is really important. We are fourth in the world for scale-up investment, behind only the US, China and India; £10.1 billion was invested in UK tech companies in 2019. We have now overtaken the US for foreign investment per capita. Part of that is having the right business environment and skills, but it is also having a reputation as a safe, ethical, humane and attractive place to do business.”115

86.Professor Hall also referred to the UK being third in the global AI ranking, and added: “Our ambition is not just to remain third, but to be a real player in the world in this. … The biggest risk to us is that we do not keep up the impetus.”116

87.A closer look at the table reveals that while the UK is top of the league for operating environment and third for research, it is only seventh for government strategy, eighth for infrastructure and eleventh for development. We therefore agree that there is no room for complacency.

88.In its report the Select Committee stated:

“Alongside a very strong tradition of computer science research in our universities, we [the UK] have world-leading humanities departments, who can provide invaluable insight and context regarding the ethical and societal implications of AI. … We have some of the world’s foremost law firms, legal experts and civic institutions … And finally, we have world-respected institutions such as the BBC, alongside a long history of international diplomacy, engagement and leadership …”117

89.We asked our witnesses whether it is still the case that the United Kingdom is an attractive place to learn about and work in AI, what mechanisms could be put in place to improve collaboration between universities and industry, and how our AI research centres can be more inclusive and coordinated. The replies were encouraging. Professor Hall told us: “we have seen international students coming into the UK, even during the pandemic, to study AI at the universities. That flow does not seem to have stopped, even from China.”118

90.Professor Wooldridge agreed:

“The UK has always been and remains an extremely attractive place to study AI. We have been there from the very beginning. The moves we have seen, the introduction of the centres for doctoral training in AI … have been a tremendous boost to this area. That was exactly the right thing to do and it is having an effect. Interestingly, when I went back and studied my evidence in 2017, both [Professor Hall] and I called for an increase in capacity. We were desperately short of capacity and we are addressing that issue. We still have a long way to go before we get there … the UK has always benefited, on the wider European scene, from being seen as being a stable, liberal, cosmopolitan, meritocratic society. All those things have made us an attractive place for researchers to come and work. If you are a top AI researcher, you can take your pick. It is a given that you will get an outstanding salary anywhere in the world.”119

91.Nevertheless, when asked at the end of the evidence session for a one word answer to the question “Do you think we are as internationally competitive now as we were when we looked at this as a Select Committee?” Professor Wooldridge answered No,120 and elaborated on this in subsequent written evidence.121 He had two reasons for believing that we are not as competitive now as we were in 2017:

“First, the rest of the world has also responded. On this side of the Atlantic, France and Germany have launched a range of similar initiatives, while in North America, both the US and Canada have responded likewise. China has continued to invest in AI on a staggering scale, through private and public routes, and has continued its rapid ascent of the AI league tables. Many other smaller nations have also reported similar initiatives. So, the international goal posts have moved.

Second … my honest sense is that the UK’s reputation as a home for international talent has taken something of a battering over the past few years. I emphasise this is not a political point: I am simply reporting on the basis of my personal experience, as someone whose job involves attempting to attract (and retain) world class researchers to the UK. I personally know of leading international AI researchers who were perfectly content working in the UK, who became frustrated and disillusioned by the tone of the debate around our decision to leave the EU, and who subsequently relocated back to continental Europe as a consequence. In seemingly every discussion I have with an international researcher about the possibility of relocating to the UK, the issue comes up. One of the most frequently voiced concerns is about whether UK-based researchers will still be able to apply for funding from the European Research Council (ERC), which is the jewel in the crown of European Research Funding. If we eventually find that we cannot, then that will be hugely damaging.”122

92.Professor Hall had answered “Yes” to this question. In subsequent written evidence she pointed to the launch in April 2018 of the AI sector deal, the £1 billion investment package, the setting up of the Office for AI and the AI Council, investment in skills through funding for PhDs, MSc and Turing AI Fellowships, research through investment in the Turing Institute, and adoption of AI by industry through Industrial Strategy Challenge Funds, which had all had been perceived very well internationally, and had significantly helped the UK to retain its position in the Global Index for AI.123 She added:

“I would argue this has helped to balance the negative effects of Brexit. I am also very optimistic for the future as we make the case for more funding so that whether or not we are able to take part in the European Research Council competitions, we have the funding to recruit and retain top talent in AI and invest as a nation in AI research and innovation.”124

93.The ability of this country to attract and retain the top AI research talent is of paramount importance, and it will therefore be hugely unfortunate if, for whatever reason, while other countries have moved forward, the UK has taken a step back, with the result that top researchers will be less willing to come here. The Government must take urgent steps to make clear that foreign researchers are very welcome, and must ensure that any changes to the immigration rules take this into account. It must also ensure that funding for research is available, especially if EU funding ceases after the end of 2020.

94.For students, Professor Hall saw Brexit as “a huge opportunity to remodel the way we bring in international students.”125 She added:

“Until now we have had a huge difference in fees between UK and EU PhD students, and anybody from outside the EU. We have a chance now to attract international students from all over the world, including Europe, in ways that are affordable. The UK should seize that opportunity. It is possible in ways that were not possible when we were part of the European Union. We need to do that, because we are a sought-after place.”126

95.The UK remains an attractive place to learn, develop, and deploy AI. It has a strong legal system, coupled with world-leading academic institutions, and industry ready and willing to take advantage of the opportunities presented by AI. We also welcome the development of Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence and the UK’s role as a founder member.

96.It will however be a cause for great concern if the UK is, or is seen to be, less welcoming to top researchers, and less supportive of them. The Government must ensure that the UK offers a welcoming environment for students and researchers, and helps businesses to maintain a presence here. Changes to the immigration rules must promote rather than obstruct the study, research and development of AI.

93 Q 6 (Professor Wooldridge)

94 Q 6 (Professor Wooldridge)

95 Q 13 (Roger Taylor)

96 Q 12 (Simon McDougall)

97 Q 11 (Simon McDougall)

98 Q 11 (Roger Taylor)

99 Q 13 (Roger Taylor)

100 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, National Data Strategy (para 5.1.2 in the updated version of 9 December 2020): [accessed 16 December 2020]

101 Cabinet Office, Cabinet Committees (19 November 2020) p 11: [accessed 10 December 2020]

102 Cabinet Office, Cabinet Committees (19 November 2020) p 14: [accessed 10 December 2020]

103 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation: Government response to consultation (November 2018), p 14: [accessed 15 December 2020]

104 Q 6 (Professor Dame Wendy Hall)

105 Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service, Government Transformation Strategy: better use of data (9 February 2017): [accessed 10 December 2020]

106 House of Commons Written Question, UIN 1134

107 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, National Data Strategy (Mission Three and para 4.2.3, updated 9 December 2020): [accessed 16 December 2020]

108 HC Deb, 19 November 2020, col 489

109 Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? (Report of Session 2017–19, HL Paper 100)

110 Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? (Report of Session 2017–19, HL Paper 100), paras 345–346

111 Letter from the Senior Deputy Speaker to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, 30 January 2020:

112 Letter from the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation to the Senior Deputy Speaker, 14 August 2020:

113 ‘The Global AI Index’, Tortoise media (3 December 2019): [accessed 10 December 2020]

114 15 (Amanda Solloway MP)

115 Q 20 (Caroline Dinenage MP)

116 Q 2 (Professor Dame Wendy Hall)

117 Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? (Report of Session 2017–19, HL Paper 100) para 401

118 Q 5 (Professor Dame Wendy Hall)

119 Q 5 (Professor Wooldridge)

120 Q 6 (Professor Wooldridge)

121 Written evidence from Professor Wooldridge (AIF0001)

122 Written evidence from Professor Wooldridge (AIF0001)

123 Written evidence Professor Dame Wendy Hall (AIF0002)

124 Written evidence Professor Dame Wendy Hall (AIF0002)

125 Q 5 (Professor Dame Wendy Hall)

126 Q 5 (Professor Dame Wendy Hall)

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