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The Future Role Of AI And The UK National AI Strategy

by Bernard Marr
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The UK Government recently announced its first-ever National AI Strategy – a 10-year plan aimed at staking a place for the country among the world’s AI superpowers.

One organization that will help to turn the AI strategy into action will be the Alan Turing Institute, which was set up in 2015 as a national research center for data science and artificial intelligence. The institute takes its name from the highly influential British mathematician and computer scientist. Among Turing’s many notable achievements, he is considered to have played a crucial role in cracking Nazi codes during the Second World War thanks to his development of the Enigma Machine. In other words, the institute has big boots to fill!

The institute has just announced the appointment of Professor Mark Girolami as its first chief scientist, and I had the pleasure to speak to him just as he is settling into the first few days in the post. We discussed the plans that the institute is putting together to break new boundaries in AI and data science, as well as some of the fascinating projects it has already been involved with – including the world’s first 3d-printed bridge.

Girolami moves into the chief scientist role following a stint leading the institute’s program in data-centric engineering. It was here that he oversaw the “datafication” of the 3D-printed steel pedestrian bridge, which spans a canal in Amsterdam.

Much of this was made possible thanks to a £10 million investment from the Lloyds Register Foundation.

He told me, “The institute has been in ‘start-up’ mode since 2015 – it’s been evolving and developing, and it was clear that at this time, the appointment of a chief scientist who would take responsibility for its overall scientific strategy and its execution … should come into effect.

“The institute has this strapline which says we believe AI and data science will change the world … I would argue that it already has changed the world; we are living in a world that has been transformed because of AI technology that is driven by our ability to gather data at levels we’ve never had before.”

Among the other projects that have already been undertaken at the institute are initiatives to create AI-powered air traffic control systems for UK airports, and digital twin systems in use by rail services and aerospace design.

As with many research establishments in recent times, the institute, and Girolami, found their focus diverted to tackling challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The starting point for this was a repurposing of work that was being carried out with the aim of monitoring and improving air quality in London. Video feeds and sensor loops that were being used to monitor footfall in areas where particulate levels were high were used to monitor compliance with lockdown and social distancing regulations, which then allowed authorities such as Public Health England and Transport for London to make interventions to improve rates of compliance, with the eventual aim of reducing the overall spread of infection. These interventions included widening footpaths and public thoroughfares, or moving bus stops when their locations contributed to bottlenecking and the build-up of large groups near each other.

Moving on from that, Girolami tells me, “That’s just one project the Turing Institute has played a role in over the last couple of years … what I’ll be doing in my first 100 days [as chief scientist] is looking to see what are the global grand challenges that would benefit from world-leading expertise … from the data science and AI technologies.

“They will then form the ‘north star’ that will define everything we will do over the next five to 10 years.”

 So far, it’s fair to say that the UK has not done a great deal to establish itself as a global AI superpower. DeepMind, the London-based deep learning specialist responsible for creating the AI that beat a professional player of the board game Go, is probably the nation’s best-known achievement – and that group has been a subsidiary of Google since 2014.

The government’s plan is clearly to change that – with a slice of the $13 trillion that it’s predicted that AI will add to the global economy by 2030 being an obvious incentive.

Girolami tells me, “It’s fantastic that the government has issued a national strategy, there’s also going to be another AI strategy coming from the [UK] Ministry of Defence, so it’s absolutely clear that AI technology is going to be pervasive across the national landscape. It’s certainly welcome, and what you’ll find in the strategy is the ambition for the UK to be a technological powerhouse – that’s the phrase used – and that’s an ambition that I and the Turing Institute share.”

He’s also aware, however that technology is only a part of the solution. The institute will also be involved with the equally essential planning and thinking around ethical and regulatory issues that it’s essential we as a society get right if we want to benefit from AI.

“It’s absolutely clear that this is something that all undergraduates should take a course in – the technology is the easy part … the structure, governance, legal aspects, ethical aspects, political aspects … these are the hard part. That’s one of the reasons why at the Alan Turing Institute, we have programs on public policy, for example … how do we ensure the safety, ethical characteristics of AI programs and their deployments, how do we ensure privacy, security, provenance … are there inherent biases in the data that will then get propagated into the AI technology … I think that’s the big rock we need to get the sledgehammers at and keep working away at, and that’s how we’re going to see the big successes.”

You can click here to see my conversation with Mark Girolami, newly appointed chief scientist at the Alan Turing Institute, in full.

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