‘We want AI to be successful because of our regulations’

Speaking at CogX 2023, Michelle Donelan unveiled the UK’s plans to become a pioneer in AI regulation, amidst a global technological race.

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The Secretary of State for the DSIT (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) emphasised at the London CogX AI Expo this week that the UK’s priority for AI is to set safe guardrails that can foster innovation.

During a speech interrupted by protesters from Fossil Free London, who accused the Conservative Party of funding Big Oil, Donelan made the case that the UK has a booming tech sector ideal to transform the country into an AI epicentre.

Her speech, delivered to a largely empty London O2 Arena, follows the release of the first progress report of the Frontier AI Taskforce. The body is designed to develop a sophisticated safety evaluation capability for the UK.

Speed of tech growth

“In nominal terms, the value of our digital sector alone is now worth more than the entire UK’s GDP in 1970,” notes Donelan. “It is testament to our universities, to our startups, our investors and our tech campuses, our regional clusters and above all, to the spirit of innovation that is alive and well in Britain today.”

Donelan also acknowledged the speed at which the tech sector in the UK has expanded. Since last year’s CogX, the UK became one of just three countries with a tech sector worth over $1 trillion, alongside the US and China.

She also emphasised a competitive edge the UK has over Europe, mentioning that the UK is now home to twice as many AI companies as any other European nation.

“We are on the cusp of a tech revolution”

According to Donelan, AI represents a tech phenomenon as transformative or more than the birth of the internet. She used her speech to highlight “bold new policies that put the UK on track to become a true science and technology superpower by 2030, insisting that AI is crucial to this mission.

These words carry important implications for startups. It’s small, innovative businesses that make up 88% of the AI sector in the UK. These same companies are waiting to understand how the UK’s approach to AI regulation will impact their strategies.

Rafie Faruq, CEO and Co-Founder of Genie.ai, tells Startups, “Regulations typically hurt rather than improve market competition and access to commerce. However, the need for AI regulation is clear. The question is whether it can be done in a way that promotes rather than reduces business.”

Donelan was keen to emphasise that AI regulations needn’t be a burden for UK businesses. “Safety is going to be the determining factor in the race to become a world leader in AI innovation, and we here in the UK are not waiting,” she insisted.

“We don’t want AI to be successful despite our regulation. We want it to be successful because of our regulations. But the reality is that we don’t have years to play with, the stakes are too high.”

To prepare the UK for the task ahead, the DSIT has also announced the creation of one of Europe’s most powerful supercomputers in Bristol, named Isambard AI.

Posting on Twitter, Donelan explained that the independent Future of Compute Review found that to achieve the UK’s ambitions for AI grandiose, the country needs to vastly increase its computer capacity.

Isambard AI will serve as a national facility to help researchers carry out critical work into the safe use of AI and will help safely train Large Language Models that are at the forefront of AI development today.

The computer is backed by a £900 million investment announced in March.

Where do AI startups stand?

“While dollars or pounds might be the easiest way to measure the success of tech, I actually think that when we talk about having to refer to the most valuable tech sector in the world, we are in fact talking about people,” said Donelan.

As AI regulatory policies continue to develop, startups hope that a people-centred focus – including programs like TechNation’s visa program – continues to be born out.

“The government has been quite good at supporting AI startups through the InnovateUK program,” reflects Faruq. “This is actually a major success of the government’s initiatives over the last decade, proving that this area of investment has culminated into an important part of the UK’s economy.”

However, he warns, “Now that times have changed, the government needs to focus on more critical infrastructure to support AI. This includes investment in AI talent on all levels – both in startups and at universities, otherwise the talent is eaten up by large incumbents.”

The UK has the right ingredients to become a leader in AI. What will turn these ingredients into a coherent recipe, however, will be the tangible political will to support all the right stakeholders who can make AI a tech success story.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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