AI must shake off its buzzword reputation

As the global economy looks to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic, much emphasis has been placed on AI and machine learning. However, despite the constant stream of headlines and focus of the technology in Clubhouse discussions, most businesses in the UK do not have a solid understanding of AI and how it can be applied most effectively. Put simply, AI has become a buzzword and not a reality for British businesses.

In order for the huge potential of AI and machine learning to be unleashed, the UK Government must put in place an ambitious plan that reaches all businesses and regions across the country.

The first step must be one of education. The Government must promote the role of AI as the new currency of innovation. Recent plans that have been reported in the media indicate that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has backed proposals to bring AI technologies onto the battlefield and highlighted the importance of the technology in beating domestic and foreign terrorism. Whilst this may be a vital application, such initiatives add to the hysteria around AI as a mystical force, rather than a business tool. Instead, the Government must put its weight behind an education campaign that illustrates how small and medium sizes businesses can adopt the technology and the benefits that its application will bring.

In leading the charge, Whitehall can illustrate that the processes of AI will enhance enterprise performance, raise sales, lower costs, automate customer management, save time, limit flaws and advance data collection & processing. Despite the confusion surrounding it, the core aim of AI remains straightforward: to provide more flexible, adaptive, and interactive solutions that suit customers’ interests. Businesses, large and small, that are keen on leveraging AI early will be powerful enough to attain the benefits of a range of operational competencies and achieve a competitive edge.

Regulating the use of data

Alongside ignorance, question marks around governance for AI and data need to be addressed for it to be implemented and understood more effectively. The ethics of some applications of AI have been called into question in recent years. Issues surrounding Facebook, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the use of AI and fake news to interfere with elections has dominated the public consciousness. These issues have rightly contributed to a concern around the technology and led many to claim that it is a force for bad.

The regulatory landscape must address these concerns for its potential to be unleashed. These concerns will only become bigger problems without greater ethics-related governance on issues like facial recognition and data mining. Since data fuels AI systems, and as high-quality data sets are needed to have AI properly work, companies are making increasing use of data with or without the knowledge of their users and customers. However, at the same time, the successful use of AI is predicated on public trust. The public wants to know how and why AI is benefiting them, and, most importantly, how their data is being used. Organizations need to craft a reasonable balance between the data that is needed to have AI properly work and public confidence that data is being used in a reasonable manner.

Whilst many organizations have taken it upon themselves to create their own principles and guidelines to develop AI for good, it must come down to Governments to do their part and effectively regulate the use of data. It is necessary to institutionalize AI ethics into law, which will regulate AI and its impact.

It is worth keeping a close eye on the European Commission, which is due to release its AI rules next month. However, with the UK exiting the EU last year, the Government must lead the world by example and put in place its own framework. The first step is to establish a common set of definitions on what AI actually is. Given the lack of understanding in policy circles, regulators must listen to experts from industry and academia to educate themselves on how AI is being deployed and challenges it is facing. A huge step would be to enforce the liability of AI owners, developers, or manufacturers for the actions of their own AI systems.

Establishing global leadership

In addition to addressing ethical concerns, the UK Government must also encourage businesses to adopt AI through a series of incentives. Current policy holds back SMEs that receive funding from venture capital – a move that has significantly slowed down the uptake of new technologies including AI. Instead, the Government should boost financial support for R&D investment through the tax credit scheme which is crucial to facilitating innovation and risk-taking.

The Government currently offers limited tax claims for the use of data. Across the retail, telecommunications and healthcare industries to name a few, data is becoming utilized at a breakneck speed. Those companies who participate in unique areas of predictive analysis or improvements in its performance in organizing and retrieving data can claim tax relief. Simply handling larger volumes of data opens the door to R&D claims. However, we must go further and revamp the R&D rules. For instance, current rules do not allow data costs to be included in claims.

In the budget this month, the Chancellor announced a broad consultation of the entire R&D tax relief system. As part of the review, the Government must consider bringing data and cloud computing costs into the scope of relief alongside a number of other policy options and priorities, to ensure that policy changes provide support to businesses across the economy in a fair way and that taxpayer money is effectively targeted towards activities that drive the best outcomes for the UK economy.

During the Second World War, Alan Turing introduced the world to the potential of computer intelligence. We must fulfil his legacy and establish the UK’s global leadership in AI. As we emerge from the Covid crisis, the Government must reward and nurture those firms that are creating innovative solutions to the country’s biggest challenges. Rewarding effective use of AI and data is the perfect place to start.

Radeep Mathew, Head of Consulting, Leyton

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