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Artificial Intelligence Sector Deal

Volume 639: debated on Thursday 26 April 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement today in response to the Government’s publication of the sector deal for artificial intelligence—a major collaboration with industry to secure the UK’s global leadership in AI and data.

AI holds transformative potential for every aspect of our lives—from how we travel to how we work and live—and for every sector of the economy. For the UK, the prize is clear: potentially adding 10% to our GDP by 2030 if adoption is widespread, with a productivity boost of up to 30%. In pursuing that prize, we start with strong foundations. The UK was recently ranked first among OECD countries in the Oxford Insights Government AI readiness index and is home already to globally recognised AI companies, including DeepMind, Swiftkey and Babylon Health. This success is supported by the UK’s strong combination of world-leading universities that drive skills and research and development, a thriving venture capital market for AI that leads among economies of comparable scale and trusted universal public institutions such as our NHS that can pioneer data-driven innovation and connect the power of AI to the public good.

The sector deal that we have published today on outlines how we are intending to build on those foundations and on the independent review led by Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti, reflecting that review’s spirit of partnership and consultation between the Government, industry and academia. In skills, we have made it the UK’s ambition to be home to the world’s best and brightest minds in AI. We will support the Alan Turing Institute’s plans for expansion to become the national academic institute for AI and data science.

We will create 200 additional PhDs in AI and related disciplines by 2021, rising to 1,000 Government-backed PhD places at any one time by 2025. We have set a target of 200 places for an industry-funded AI master’s programme and we will introduce an internationally competitive Turing fellowship programme in AI. We are also doubling tier 1 exceptional talent visas to 2,000 a year to attract the brightest minds to the UK. In infrastructure, we will ensure that the ambition of our AI sector is matched by the means of delivery in communications, in data and in supercomputer capacity.

In telecoms, we are investing more than £1 billion to create a country with world-class digital capabilities from 5G mobile networks to full-fibre broadband. In supercomputer capacity, we are pleased to announce that, as part of the sector deal, the University of Cambridge will make the UK’s fastest academic supercomputer, capable of solving the largest scientific and industrial challenges at speed, available to AI technology companies. This complements Government support for start-ups’ access to hardware via the Digital Catapult’s machine intelligence garage and builds on Cambridge’s existing track record as a hub for AI and technology.

We are also investing in data, because data is infrastructure; just as roads help us to reach a destination, data helps us to reach a decision. For AI systems, data is the experience that they learn from to be able to process information and interact usefully with the world and its citizens. This Government have always valued the economic benefits of pioneers having access to high-quality public datasets, but some of the most useful datasets for AI are those that organisations are reluctant to share with others, perhaps because they have commercial value. The world’s first centre for data ethics and innovation will therefore work to unlock the usefulness of that data, while protecting its value for those organisations and, most importantly, keeping people’s data secure. We want AI-led growth to be both empowering and inclusive, and that applies to our approach to data. This also informs our commitment that the benefits of AI should be felt across the whole country.

The sector deal makes a commitment to establish clusters and regional tech hubs designed to power AI growth across the entire country. We will invest £21 million in Tech City UK over four years so that it can expand into Tech Nation, thus transforming the UK from a series of stand-alone tech hubs into a powerful network that can place the nation firmly at the top of the global tech rankings. The new Tech Nation’s AI programme will operate in two or three key clusters where there is existing AI expertise and a potential to provide the mentoring, growth and support that is needed for ambitious AI businesses to thrive.

Industry shares our ambition to link promising AI clusters into a powerful network of high-growth AI businesses, and the sector deal confirms that. For instance, Barclays is launching the bank’s first Scottish Eagle Lab in Edinburgh, in a new partnership with the UK’s largest tech incubator CodeBase, to help AI businesses go from start-up to scale-up.

Taken together, these measures send a signal to AI business, science and research communities around the world. The UK will attract talent, invest and lead on standards and ethics. That message is made clear by the investment of industry that, along with investment from the Government, forms a total package of almost £1 billion. That sits alongside the £250 million already allocated for connected and autonomous vehicles, and the £1.7 billion that has been announced for the cross-sectoral industrial strategy challenge fund thus far.

Our ambition in AI will not stop at this sector deal. This is only the start of UK plans to seize the opportunities of modern technology and to ensure that it follows the highest ethical standards. By so doing, we will ensure that we can build a Britain that is fit for the future. I commend this statement to the House.

Ordinarily, a shadow Minister is expected to take no more than half the length of time taken by the Minister, and they certainly should not exceed five minutes maximum. But I simply say to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) that it is not obligatory to take that full length of time, and he need not think that he is doing the House or the nation a gross disservice if he takes less time.

I am grateful for that guidance, Mr Speaker.

It is always good to see the Minister in her place. She certainly knows how to pack the House with her statements. I am sorry that I am not able to respond to the detail of her statement, but it only came to me by email at 11.25 am, so I was not able to see it in advance. None the less, it is good of her to show up and present her plans, which were first presented to The Times, rather than to Parliament. It is welcome that the Government have now decided to step into the breach where a policy should be. It is a shame that the Minister has allowed the French, the Americans, the South Koreans and the Chinese to get there first, but better late than never.

From what I can divine from what the Minister said to the House, no new money has been announced today. Rather, a top-down earmarked amount of cash has already been handed out to research councils. That is fine as far as it goes, but it is an awful long way short of the £1 billion of funding that President Macron has just announced to support artificial intelligence in France.

As the Minister knows, a strong AI sector in this country will be built on three basic foundations: good networks, which support the internet of things; trust, which supports big data; and skills, which require a great education system. Today, our science spend is, I am afraid, in the second league, our digital networks are lamentable, our framework of trust is hopelessly out of date—in fact, we still have no date for the Data Protection Bill returning to this House—and our skills base is alarmingly thin. Indeed, the Government prayed in aid Jérôme Pesenti in their strategy this morning, but he was told by the Government that he was not allowed to look at the maths curriculum, as he told the House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Committee when he was giving evidence to its inquiry. That is why we call for science spend not at 2.4% of GDP, but up at 3%. We think there should be universal provision of networks at 30 megabits per second, a Bill of digital rights to restore trust and a national education service to restore the skills base.

In the interests of brevity, Mr Speaker, I have some specific questions for the Minister. First, the sector plan makes great play of a £2.5 billion investment fund delivered by the British Business Bank. Is this just for AI, or for innovation generally? Is it DEL—departmental expenditure limit—funding or loan guarantees? Is it intended to deliver grants or loans? When does that money come online? Is it, in other words, spin over substance?

Secondly, the Minister will know that artificial intelligence will accelerate the destruction of existing jobs, so when will we have a White Paper on the future of work? This will be a G20 agenda item in November. We have heard nothing about the Government’s plans to explore this and put in place adequate protections for workers today.

Thirdly, where is the strategy to harness Government procurement, with a cross-Whitehall futures unit, to use the power of Government to drive forward this agenda? That is the way that every other western, and eastern, nation drives its science and tech investment. Why are the Government not doing this?

This morning, the Bank of England published figures showing that this Government have presided over the worst productivity figures since the late 18th century. If we are to be masters of the fourth industrial revolution, as we were of the first, the Government will have to do an awful lot better than this.

I apologise if the right hon. Gentleman received my statement such a short time ago. That was certainly not my intention. I shortened my statement in anticipation of Mr Speaker’s wish for brevity, and perhaps that delayed matters.

It is a shame that the right hon. Gentleman’s response was pretty overwhelmingly negative, given that we start from a good base in this country with our world-leading institutions and our state of readiness. Oxford Insights, which I mentioned in my statement, has put us at No. 1 across the world on its Government AI readiness index. He referred to other countries, predominantly in Asia, which are indeed investing hugely in this area. [Interruption.] He mentions Macron from a sedentary position; he also mentioned him in his response. We are of course delighted that President Macron is also seeing the potential for AI. There is nothing wrong with that. We are a global-facing country. It is great that our partners in Europe are also committing to this agenda.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of data and digital performance in this country. The UK is in a very competitive position in terms of digital performance. We now have 95% access to superfast broadband, which was delivered by the end of last year. Only yesterday, I was at a meeting with all the successful parts of the country that bid for the 5G test bed and pilot programme, which will put us in a pivotal position to take advantage of the internet of things. These test beds and pilots extend right across the country, from the Orkney Islands to the south-west of England, and a new wave of bids will be announced this summer. We are very determined on this front.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the British Business Bank. I can assure him that this is new money that will be provided to tech start-ups and tech scale-ups via both equity finance and loans. I remind him that as of September last year, the British Business Bank had supported, through a combination of loans and equity finance, very many tech companies to the tune of £350 million. We are building on success.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the future of work. This is an extremely important issue. Of course, we recognise that we are in for a fast ride here. The pace of technological change is such that momentous changes that are not always predictable can potentially displace groups of workers. We are very cognisant of the need to smooth the path through continuous training. The industrial strategy has at its heart improving the world of work and access to retraining throughout people’s lives, so that no one is left behind by these technological advances.

Finally, on that critical subject, the Government’s response to the Taylor review and the consultations that we announced at the beginning of the year will be out at some point this summer, and I am sure that the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman about the future of work in the context of technological advance will be taken extremely seriously.

Order. Before I take questions on this statement, I should advise or rather remind the House that there is a further statement to follow, but that statement is not likely to absorb much time in the Chamber, not least on account of the 39 Back-Bench Members who wish to contribute to the principal debate of the day, on customs and borders. I would not want colleagues to be taken unaware, and therefore I am taking the unusual step of indicating that the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), together with the 39 Back Benchers who wish to speak in that important debate, should really as I speak be beetling across to the Chamber, because it would be most regrettable if they had not arrived for the start of the debate, which they so eagerly sought and of which I am myself in eager anticipation.

I thank the Minister for her statement. I did not require artificial intelligence to establish DeepMind’s view on Brexit. When I googled “DeepMind” and “Brexit”, it came up immediately with the company’s concerns about the impact of Brexit. How will the Minister ensure that the IT innovation that currently flows around the European Union can continue post Brexit? How will she ensure that top-flight companies such as DeepMind can continue to attract EU citizens to work in that important sector? Finally, she will be aware that the EU investment fund for British start-ups, which was investing £500 million in 2016, has dropped to £53 million. Much of that money would have been spent on artificial intelligence. Is she confident that Government funds will be able to replace that?

The right hon. Gentleman makes some very serious points. We are committed to making the UK a destination for global talent and equity finance and venture capital in the years to come, post Brexit. As he says, we already have companies that have invested substantially in the UK; he mentioned DeepMind, and we have many others. We have doubled the number of exceptional talent visas to 2,000, and we are offering scientists who have come to this country on tier 1 visas full settlement rights at three years. I mentioned in my response to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) that, post the EU investment in this country and AI, the Chancellor has announced substantial additional moneys available through the British Business Bank to replace over the long term EU funding that will be lost once we leave the EU.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. In Scotland, we believe that this should be the best place to live, work and do business. While we welcome this announcement, a number of questions have to be answered.

We welcome the investment by Barclays in the Edinburgh CodeBase hub, but we want to know what the Government are going to do that is new. As has been pointed out, there is no new money here, and the statement is short on detail and the level of ambition required. The Minister talked about making data secure for people, but are the Government taking seriously people’s right to own their own data in the future?

It is important that 5G is developed to take advantage of AI. Are the Government considering licensing spectrum and an outside-in approach, to make sure that the outlying parts of the nations of the UK, which normally get served last, have a fair shot at getting that connection early? In terms of the customs union, what work has been done to mitigate the negative effects of a hard Brexit on our ability to take advantage of AI trading? What work has been done on the effect on jobs, and does the Minister agree with the Scottish Trades Union Congress that workers should be collectively involved in how automation is introduced?

Finally, on the digital skills gap, what news is there of young people, particularly girls and young women, being encouraged into the sector, and how will we attract the brightest and the best, given the current immigration shambles, particularly the situation facing EU nationals? Will the Minister work with the Scottish Government to set positive targets on immigration, and what discussions has she had with the Scottish Government about these proposals?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I fail to address all his questions, for want of time, but I appreciate his positive response to the sector deal. On 5G, I take his point about the licensing of spectrum. The Department is undertaking a telecoms infrastructure review looking at, among other things, the way we license spectrum to make sure it is the most efficient at reaching all the areas currently underserved, including in many parts of Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman asks about jobs and the digital skills gap. We are addressing this through the sector deal and our wider industrial strategy—for example, by placing an emphasis on reskilling throughout people’s lives. He asks particularly about diversity and women. We have launched the tech challenge charter to engage businesses in both AI and the wider technology sectors and to encourage them to commit to looking closely at their recruitment, retention and progression policies— to make sure that women and girls are supported throughout—and to publishing their data in a transparent manner.

I have not personally had discussions with the Scottish Government, but I am sure the Secretary of State has, and I look forward to working with them and Scottish colleagues across the House to make sure that Scotland gets its fair share of the benefits of the sector deal.

Artificial intelligence is coming—we cannot stand in its way—but we must enhance it to the benefit of workers in this country. In that regard, however, the statement was woefully inadequate. The companies developing AI are looking to cut their bottom lines by cutting the number of people they employ: driverless vehicles, aeroplanes with no pilots—the list is becoming endless. What will the Government do to come up with a strategy not just for the UK—the way the Minister put it sounded esoteric—but for people and jobs? We need an AI strategy that will benefit workers in this country.

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, just as there will undoubtedly be some job displacement as a result of technology, let alone AI, so new jobs will be created. We are looking at this. I mentioned the response to the Taylor review by colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who are looking at this. We are taking it extremely seriously and will come forth with more developments on our projections in due course, but be assured: new jobs will come and replace many of the more routine and repetitive jobs, and we will be upskilling people so that they can take advantage of these new opportunities.