Three things that could propel the UK towards AI superpower-status in 2022

In 2021, the UK has found itself under the bright lights of the world stage many times.

A global audience has watched our pandemic response, the fruition of BREXIT and, most recently, the UK’s COP26 presidency. So, why has the UK’s AI and wider tech scene still not made it close to global superpower status that we see from China, Russia and the US?

The results of the government’s recent National AI Strategy are yet to be seen, but I predict there is deeper change needed. A thriving AI industry needs a combination of education, ambition, and nurtured innovation. Here’s three things I believe could propel the UK’s AI industry forward in 2022:

Connecting the dots between academia and business

The UK government knows that, 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.

In its AI strategy, much was made by the government about collaboration. But industry and academia are still, too often, working in silos. The UK should look to other countries like the US and Israel for inspiration here. They are empowering both parties to accelerate national AI capabilities, with a cross-pollination of knowledge and increased joint ventures.

As Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at Times Higher Education wrote recently, “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.”

Reflecting on the pandemic, the UK’s vaccination programme demonstrated that when it comes to accelerating and enabling collaboration, 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.

If the Government’s AI strategy is to progress, then 2022 must be the year it breaks down these silos, challenging universities to adopt more agile, creative ways of inviting collaboration with businesses. Businesses too must be strongly encouraged to invest in AI expertise within academia, 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. 

AI innovation is moving at a rapid pace and the UK must move quickly to ensure it is out in front. 

In the post-pandemic reset of 2022 the government must see this strategy come to fruition. 

Start as we mean to go on

Change is only needed at the 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. 

In the next 12 months, as we rebuild, there must be a much greater focus on creating grass-roots AI capabilities. And this must not be a result of 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 AI and automation hold – not just for their careers, but for the country at large. Educating children from an early age in topics such as data science, machine learning and natural language processing will be key to a prosperous and innovative future, as these specific areas are set to advance the most in coming years. It is not simply about coding classes, which seem to have become shorthand for future tech skills. 

The AI of tomorrow will require young people’s 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 technological topics into our curriculum, we can also overcome the diversity issue in the tech space – by showing AI as an accessible career path to all students regardless of gender, class or background.

From start-ups to mega-platforms

Alongside much greater collaboration and a refocus of education, to further the UK’s AI agenda we must shift from our current position as a strong start-up ecosystem, to one that attracts and supports tomorrow’s mega platforms.

How 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 drive forward world-changing innovations, as well as the capabilities to create masses of UK jobs.

The UK needs this to bring in investment and, importantly, talent. Unfortunately, spreading support thinly across thousands of start-ups does not enable the next mega-platform. Greater focus is needed on identifying the top ten future companies and ensuring they are nurtured here in the UK – supporting them to invest in UK talent, linking strongly with UK academia. Spreading our bets won’t catapult us, or any busy, forward. As well as the basic funding and support we offer the get small businesses off the ground, the UK must consider how to help those with potential go to the next level and encourage them to stay here once they do.

AI is a modern industry, with modern needs. The traditional way won’t work – we need to re-educate, re-align and reset, if the UK’s AI scene is ever going to measure up.

About the Author

David Semach is EMEA Head of AI & Automation at Infosys Consulting. Infosys Consulting is a global management consulting firm helping some of the world’s most recognizable brands transform and innovate. Our consultants are industry experts that lead complex change agendas driven by disruptive technology. With offices in 20 countries and backed by the power of the global Infosys brand, our teams help the C-suite navigate today’s digital landscape to win market share and create shareholder value for lasting competitive advantage.

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