5 Dec 2018

At the latest Zebra Project event hosted by Taylor Vinters, experts in the field of AI discussed the UK’s noble ambitions for the new technology and what companies need to think about before embracing it.

The UK Government’s hopes for Artificial Intelligence (AI) are large-scale and impressive.

Its near £1bn AI Sector Deal likens the new technology’s potential to that of Gutenberg’s printing press, the invention that single-handedly transformed the spread of information to the masses and ignited the enlightenment and scientific revolution.

Achieving such ambitions – echoed once again in last month’s Budget – will not happen though without a clear, structured plan carefully coordinated and overseen by the growing number of people with skin in the game.

While the government’s financial commitment is indicative of its dedication, private investors are flooding into the sector too. A total of $12bn was invested in AI by venture capital funds in 2017 but in just three months this year $3.4bn was raised, suggesting last year’s figure will be surpassed.

The UK’s Industrial Strategy identified AI and data as one of the four Grand Challenges facing the nation. But, as discussed at the recent Taylor Vinters Zebra event, if we are truly to be a world leader in this area it is imperative that businesses and government are aligned.

Clear as Data

Any company considering harnessing the power of AI – effectively a complex algorithm able to solve complex problems and digest reams of data – needs to have a clear goal about what it wants to use the technology for.

Like any product creation process, ideas should seek to solve a genuine problem if they are to gain traction with the public.

The starting point to all of this is data. Not only does your company need to have rights to access and use data, it also needs to be able to interpret that data and identify which pieces are useful.

Boasting about the amount of data you have is pointless if you do not organise that information and identify exactly which data it is useful to analyse.

Once this is done, the next step is analytics – essentially the analysis of the data you have identified as useful in the hope of spotting useful patterns.

For instance, a taxi app might want to analyse its average pick-up time, its average ride time, the number of active users (a definition of active will also be needed) and active drivers.

In this example, the taxi company is then in a better position to decide which data is optimal to track using automation and AI to analyse it. This could lead to it knowing when and where to put more or fewer taxis at which times.

All of this takes investment into in-house talent and patience while the system being implemented is perfected. This can often lead companies to look for a quicker solution.

Cash Boost

With new AI companies being founded in the UK on almost a weekly basis, the appetite for purchasing and investment in this space by larger global corporates and venture capital firms is extremely high. Some experts predict worldwide spending on cognitive and AI systems will surpass $19bn this year, helped by recent transactions such as Microsoft’s purchase of Lobe, its third AI acquisition of 2018.

But as Eleanor Matthews, co-founder of WorkFutures, said at our recent Zebra event, before securing a big deal, it is important to remember that AI is “extremely complex and buying it in is not straightforward”.

“AI represents a family of technologies and it also needs to slot in as part of an eco-system of technology, people and business capability that exist to deliver the business process” she added.

David Benigson, chief executive and founder of Signal Media, characterised AI as a “lever to solve a specific problem”.

“It can be used to do any repeatable task, like contract automation and analysing sentiment,” he said.

And crucially, Mr Benigson reassured the panel that introducing AI into a company doesn’t need to lead to a reduction in headcount.

“There is no evidence of AI taking jobs,” he said. “It is a good lever for creating value to an end user.” To this end it is about finding the right AI to work in harmony with your already established workforce, not least to ensure actual application of the AI purchased.

Mr Benigson’s company has been a beneficiary of the UK’s forward thinking in terms of the role AI can play in society.

Signal Media received £250,000 from Innovate UK and Tech UK to help develop its business, which is an artificial intelligence media monitoring and reputation management company working with some of the UK’s largest companies, including Premier Inn owner Whitbread and tour operator Thomas Cook Group. This level of funding from government is impressive and echoes the confidence bestowed in Signal Media by private investors who have helped it raise $26.6m in total, according to Crunchbase.

National Dynamics

The UK government appears proactive in its funding for the development of AI as a national expertise, something that can only be a positive for entrepreneurs either in the space or looking to break into it.

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in last month’s Budget that an additional £1.6bn would be made available to support funding in new technologies such as AI, nuclear fusion and quantum computing.

Such funding is extremely important but it will be imperative that the government monitors regional imbalances. At present, some UK regions are being left behind and Westminster appears relatively unconcerned. There are pockets of trailblazing work in cities such as Manchester, Edinburgh, Leeds and Bristol but making sure the government funding benefits the whole country is extremely important.

At the Zebra event, technology specialist Dr Chris Moore from the Department of International Trade expected there to be “more announcements from the government in support of AI over the next year”.

He also cited a KPMG report on AI, highlighted the recent creation of a new $3.5bn fund via the British Business Bank to ensure more fast-growth businesses have access to the capital they need to become the next UK unicorn – those with a valuation of $1bn and above.

techUK’s AI specialist Sue Daley concluded that the UK boasted excellent collaboration between industry, academics and stakeholders in the AI sphere.

But she suggested if the UK really is to be a world leader, it needs to promote digital skills to a more diverse audience and perhaps identify a niche, such as in the ethical space, given the dominance in AI by much larger nations such as the US and China.

The UK has the funding and it has the expertise. Now we just need to make sure those two things work in harmony to make sure the nation makes the most out of the potential benefits of AI.

Find out more about The Zebra Project here.