Beyond driverless cars: our take on the UK's Autumn Budget 2017

by Hannah Miller and Richard Stirling

This week Philip Hammond unveiled his first Autumn budget, in which he laid out his vision for the UK to become a world leader in innovative technologies including artificial intelligence (AI). Oxford Insights’ view is that the budget is a good step in the right direction - but investment in AI still does not go far enough.

The emphasis on driverless cars may capture the zeitgeist, but there are lots more interesting things going on in the UK tech and R&D sectors that are equally (or more) worthy of government funding. Image from UK Department for Transport's flickr page

The emphasis on driverless cars may capture the zeitgeist, but there are lots more interesting things going on in the UK tech and R&D sectors that are equally (or more) worthy of government funding. Image from UK Department for Transport's flickr page

Investing in innovation for the future of the economy was the key theme of this week’s budget. Hammond emphasised the economic benefits of innovation, with AI forecast to increase productivity by up to 30% in some industries, and increase GDP by 10% by 2030. The Government’s forthcoming Industrial Strategy will emphasise public investment in important areas for innovation such as research and development, and digital communications.

Key points:

  • £75 million set aside to fund key recommendations from the independent AI review, including establishing ‘data trusts’ to enable better data access;
     
  • UK to found world-first Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to ensure “safe, ethical and ground-breaking innovation in AI and data-driven technologies”;
     
  • New AI fellowships to be created, including 450 PhD research posts.

Following the Prime Minister’s recent commitment to invest in the UK tech sector, we were expecting a focus on innovation in this week’s budget. We welcome the additional funds for developing AI in the UK, however the £75 million pledged is likely to be dwarfed by other countries jostling to be world leaders in AI, such as China and Canada.

The UK comes from a position of strength in the competition to be the best in the world in artificial intelligence because we have world class research universities, a broad spectrum of skills, and a flexible capital market. These things make the UK one of the best places in the world to start a business and hire talent. To remain competitive, the Government needs to invest, and invest more, in AI.

We welcome the Budget’s emphasis on investing in digital skills and human capital. Creating a bigger and richer cadre of experts on AI is a terrific investment. It will need to be supplemented by related efforts to ensure that the UK gains the most it can from its investment beyond the life spans of PhDs and fellowships. We expect that the 450 PhD students will include outstanding international talent, and we hope they will have incentives to stay in the UK. We would also like to see better opportunities for newly-minted PhDs to work for the UK’s universities and governments, and not only for the richest tech companies in the UK and abroad.

Especially with the right follow-up policies, the new fellowships and PhD posts created will likely provide much greater pay-off longer term than investing in specific companies or technologies - such as driverless cars. Hammond’s focus on driverless cars is puzzling, as there are many more applications of AI and machine learning in which UK has better starting conditions. Going forward, the Government would do well to look to areas where the UK currently possesses comparative advantage, such as machine learning in healthcare, or applications in agriculture. The emphasis on driverless cars may capture the zeitgeist, but there are lots more interesting things going on in the UK tech and R&D sectors that are equally (or more) worthy of government funding.

Finally, we welcome the announcement of the world-first Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The ethical issues around AI and other new technologies are some of the biggest questions facing mankind today, and it is great for the UK to be at the forefront of grappling with these. We spoke about the importance of ethics in our response to the Government’s AI review, where we argued that ethical and regulatory frameworks for AI are critical, if AI is to be a force for good in society.

The UK is currently well-positioned as a global leader in AI. Acknowledging the importance of innovative technologies such as AI for the future of our economy, as this budget does, is an important step. To ensure that the UK remains at the cutting edge going forward, the Government will need to sustain and deepen its commitment to AI.