07 December, 2018

Cyber-romanticism or cyber-realism: The special relationship in the AI Age

Digital innovation, artificial intelligence, cyber security and bio-engineering look set to be driving forces in the global economy of the coming decades. But the impact of the global digital technologies on the US and the UK has not been the same. The US is a global leader, home to the top 5 global tech corporations. The UK has been a junior partner with a vibrant seedbed of research, innovation and early tech companies but without a home grown leading global tech company.  Will these differences continue, can and should the UK develop greater capacity and what does the future promise of AI mean for the way the special relationship is changing? 

The UK has advantages - in science and the arts, in its university system, its global connectivity and links with Silicon Valley, in its role as a global financial centre and the linguistic advantage of English as the global Lingua Franca. Can the UK capitalize these strengths in the next stage of the technological revolution and the development of AI? 

On 20 November, in the State Rooms of Speaker’s House, the Ditchley Foundation together with the British American Parliamentary Group held a panel discussion with Dr Annalisa Jenkins CEO of PlaqueTec, Carina Niamh, founder and CEO of HelixNano, Bindi Karia founder and CEO, Bindi Ventures Limited and Charles Songhurst founding partner of Katana Capital to explore the opportunities for the US and the UK, the ambitions for AI in China and the growing pressure for effective regulation.

Healthcare is an example of a sector undergoing unprecedented innovation. The rate of new discovery and disruptive change has been brought by the speed, scale and ability to generate, collate, curate and analyse data. The US has shown remarkable innovation in biotech.  Boston for example, is now one of several nationally significant US hubs supporting a broad based biotech industry. The UK has strong potential with several top global biotech and life sciences companies, and a unique and very significant opportunity in the form of extensive longitudinal data generated and held by the NHS.  The data resources of the UK combined with globally leading academic research institutions, patient driven charities and strongly emerging biotech companies puts the UK in a good position – it’s future success depends on being able to bring together healthcare professionals with expertise in data analytics and providing the sector access to the right capital and incentives to ensure the UK can remain competitive.   For both the US and the UK, the next major task for the application of AI in healthcare is regulation of the sector in ways that drives standards, transparency and public trust.

Much was made of the contrasting development of AI technologies in China and the US, and their differing approaches to innovation.  The ambitious state led protectionist strategy in China was seen to have advantages in providing a national data resource and an integrated ecosystem of linked social media. While the US doesn’t have the strategic state led approach it has the advantages of a global market leader.  The top multibillion tech companies are mainly American and then Chinese.  The UK meanwhile has a record of selling nascent companies to the US and of failing to provide the necessary risk capital or the right levels of sustained investment for companies as they reach their first 5 years and grow further.

The UK does not have the protection explicit in the Chinese model and implicit in the American model but the UK will see growth in industrial digital technologies and the spread of AI across a number of sectors including fintech, cybersecurity and biotech and there is potential for these technologies to increase manufacturing growth and create jobs.  

What can and should the UK do? Firstly, recognise and understand our existing strengths and then: - build investment in universities outside the South East of England; create a new position of Minister for Technology; consider forms of protectionism; secure better take up of US investment in Europe and make more of our cultural links with the US; innovate business models and ways to commercialise; develop better expertise and understanding in the public sector; invest in skills and education and support immigration to address the talent shortage.

The case was also made for the UK to explicitly aim to develop the global £100 billion tech companies as the means to drive and sustain the right levels of capacity and to remove barriers to an exponential increase in performance.

There was pushback from the audience with calls for more political debate to counter a tech based cyber romanticism. Would better support for the next wave of smaller companies be a more effective way forward – do we want to mirror the concentration of economic power as expressed in the US?  Regulation and governance were agreed as major areas for development with calls for the tech industry and governments to work together to develop good regulation. But in order to regulate governments need to know more and to understand more. That means understanding the exponential power of global tech companies and the implications for sovereign states and a better understanding the forces of AI already at work.

Liz Greenhalgh, Conference Impact Lead
7 December 2018