20 October 2021
Artificial Intelligence

George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on the future impact of artificial intelligence on the economy and society.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (George Freeman)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; to be back on the Front Bench to make the case for science and technology in this country; and to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who has done his constituency and constituents a service by raising these important issues, and in exactly the spirit of our late and lamented colleague, Sir David Amess. We need in this place constituency MPs who speak for the fears, worries, anxieties and concerns of their constituencies, as my hon. Friend eloquently has. I hope to address some, if not all, of the points he made. I reassure him that they were well made and well heard and are important to the Government as we set out our plans for the UK to be an AI powerhouse.

I am framing my new role as Minister for Science, Research and Innovation around two key projects. First is the mission to be a science superpower. In many ways we already are, but we need to maintain that to be able to grow a modern, innovative, prosperous and high-skilled economy. Secondly, crucially, is to ensure that, off the back of the pandemic, the opportunities created by Brexit and debt challenges owing to the global financial crisis and the pandemic itself, we build a much more innovative, productive, high-skilled and competitive economy by harnessing technology and innovation, to make the UK an innovation nation.

Fundamental to my mission is to make sure that the benefits currently enjoyed—not only, but heavily—in the golden triangle are spread so that we can build clusters of new sectors, new jobs, new companies and new technologies all around this country. That means not only in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, strengthening the Union, but in constituencies such as mine, which is not 40 miles from Cambridge but feels 100 years away, and like my hon. Friend’s, which hear of this technology revolution but do not see the opportunities on their own doorstep. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for so fluently raising these issues.

Of course, we already use AI across whole rafts of our society and economy to huge public benefit. I have seen, through my own career and as the former Minister for Life Sciences, the incredible power of AI software in looking at genomic and phenotypic records and very quickly—in a way that no number of scientists on their own could—identifying opportunities for new drug discovery or targeting drugs at the right patients, which has huge benefits for patient safety. In cyber-security, AI is right on the frontline of our ability to counter some quite mischievous and dark forces, in terms of both national security and economic fraud. AI already plays a crucial role for the environment. For example, in agritech, using AI with satellite data helps to identify where to apply chemicals in isolated parts of a field; rather than spraying a whole crop or field, AI identifies, by field patterns and visual optics, where chemicals need to be applied. In fact, the use of AI in plant genomics allows us to develop a whole raft of drought and disease-resistant crops, helping sustainable development.

In air traffic control, thankfully, huge computing power is applied to ensure that planes never bump into each other; it is important to have pilots when there is an emergency, but actually the AI at the heart of our electronic air traffic control system is keeping us all safe. AI is also used in other ways, including in the gaming sector, which is a huge driver of innovation and opportunities in this country, often rather below the horizon. I dare say that there is probably a cluster of games entrepreneurs in Don Valley. The gaming industry in this country is huge and drives a lot of innovation in AI that then has applications in healthcare and broader industry.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about public trust and confidence. I am positive about the importance of this technology for creating opportunities and jobs but, crucially, the public must be with us, and they must have confidence in our regulatory framework. I am glad that he referred to the report of the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, which I led with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). In that report, we argue that leaving the EU presents an opportunity for the UK not to race to the bottom but actually to race to the top: to set values-based regulation for innovation that reflects the values of the people of this country.

In a whole raft of new technology sectors, the world is grappling with how to regulate: AI, autonomous vehicles, nutraceuticals, functional foods, clinical trials and digital health. We are respected internationally as a setter of standards. As my hon. Friend made clear, standards must be embedded in the values that go with the Union Jack around the world. If we can regulate with values in a way that supports innovation, I am very confident that his constituents will benefit.

That goes right to the heart of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor’s historic commitment—it is the first time in my life that I have heard such a strong commitment from Conservative leaders—to end the low-wage economy that is reliant on overseas labour. The only way to do that is by harnessing innovation to create a more productive, more competitive economy. That is the way to raise the living standards of all of our constituents—my hon. Friend’s and mine. Having heard the Chancellor and the Prime Minister announce that groundbreaking commitment at party conference, I am not sure that it has yet sunk in: that the Conservative party is absolutely determined to raise the living standards of people around the country, to raise wages and to move on from a 40 or 50-year cycle of economic boom based on very cheap labour. That is good news for my hon. Friend’s constituents as well as mine.

The computing revolution led to huge fears that we would see the automation of everything and mass redundancy, but in fact the UK has become a huge global software and computing power, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. I am confident that, if we deal with the issues that my hon. Friend raised and get the regulation and skills environment right, we will similarly become a powerhouse for new AI industries.

I will deal with the important points that my hon. Friend raised on skills, public trust, levelling up and ensuring that these technologies create jobs all around the country, values and security. In fact, I will go this afternoon to the Pacific Future Forum in Portsmouth to join leaders from the economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. There I will highlight the UK’s commitment, through our global science superpower mission, to an international framework for the safe use of AI and to using our collective liberal democratic economic heft and values to ensure that the west is developing these technologies without inadvertently leaving ourselves open to dark forces.

I will summarise where we stand and why this is such an opportunity. At the moment, the UK ranks—believe it or not—third in the world in terms of the development and deployment of AI technologies, behind only the USA and China. That is an extraordinary global advantage. AI is going to be as transformational as computing, and we are currently in bronze position in the Olympic medal table. We have a huge lead. It is important that we do not drop that lead, and that we build on it to create a prosperous economy. A third of Europe’s AI companies are here in the UK, which is twice as many as any other European country. We are also third in the world for AI investment, behind only the US and China, attracting twice as much venture capital investment into AI companies as France or Germany. We are in a very strong place in the global race to harness AI.

I turn to the points my hon. Friend made on skills, because they are very important and the Government take them seriously. Since the AI sector deal that we launched in 2018, we have been making concerted efforts to improve the skills pipeline, not just to ensure that those vital high-technology skills are there for industry but to ensure that all—his constituents and mine—have an opportunity to participate in this economy. That is why we have increasingly focused on reskilling and upskilling: so that, where there is a level of displacement, there is redeployment rather than unemployment.

That is why, through the Office for Artificial Intelligence and the Office for Students, we have funded 2,500 more postgraduate conversion courses. Those include courses particularly for students with a background not in science, technology, engineering or maths and students with a near-STEM background. There are also 1,000 scholarships for people from under-represented backgrounds, particularly women, black and disabled students. Those courses are available across the UK and, as my hon. Friend referenced, Sheffield Hallam University within the Sheffield city region is leading in this, and is one of the universities delivering those courses, which are hugely popular with students. I see that no Opposition Members are present, but Government Members will be pleased to remember that at the recent Conservative party conference the Chancellor announced that the programme will be doubled, creating 2,000 more scholarships.

South Yorkshire is quite a powerhouse in AI, with Sheffield University. There are 16 sectors for doctoral training in AI across the country, of which Sheffield is one, training 1,000 more PhDs. There is the Sheffield centre specialising in speech and language technologies—an area where the university has long pre-eminence. Like so much of the UK, South Yorkshire is in the process of reinventing itself and its economy, and I have every confidence that it will do it as well as everywhere else, not least because of Sheffield Robotics, a leading company and employer in that region.

Sheffield’s advanced manufacturing research centre currently offers more than 300 apprenticeship places to local jobseekers in the AI sector, so there is a lot to be proud of and confident of in the region. We are also seeing applications of AI at the Centre for Child Health Technology in Sheffield as part of the Olympic Legacy Park, where AI is being put to use to assist clinicians in identifying tumours via scanning. In the national AI strategy, the Government committed to supporting the National Centre for Computing Education to ensure that there is a wider reach and access to AI courses for people all around the country.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the Government gripping this matter strategically, and I want to reassure him on that. The Council for Science and Technology wrote to the then Prime Minister in 2013 to advise on what it called the coming age of algorithms and the need for new research to look into these matters. The Government created the Alan Turing Institute, which is now the national hub of expertise on AI and data science. Following the independent AI review in 2017, we created the Office for AI and now the independent AI Council.

We also announced at the time the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which is really important and goes to the heart of some of my hon. Friend’s concerns. If we are to lead in harnessing these new technologies we need to lead in regulation based on values and ethics, and reflect them as he did in his speech. I am very pleased that the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation was a recommendation from the Royal Society and the British Academy in their separate data governance report. Earlier this year, to improve public discourse on AI the CDEI engaged widely with the public and published its findings in June. We are committed to trying to grow that conversation. It recommended that the Government develop a standard for transparency on algorithms in the public sector, which I am delighted to say is work now close to completion. We have to lead this through the public sector as well as the private. That, again, speaks to the importance of values.

The international dimension is vital. I reassure my hon. Friend that in my first four weeks I have already chaired meetings with other western democracies on the importance of research security, because AI can be used for industrial espionage and intellectual property theft. It is an issue that we take very seriously, and I am jointly responsible with the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for the Office for AI, which develops a cross-Government approach. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley referenced, the national AI strategy sets all that out.

We have required regulators such as the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Competition and Markets Authority, the Financial Conduct Authority and Ofcom to specifically consider the risks and benefits of AI within their sectors. Earlier this year, through the CDEI and the Office for Artificial Intelligence we set out with other regulators a project to remedy skills gaps in terms of knowledge of AI in the regulatory landscape. Every regulator will need to think about how it uses AI, and the risks of AI in its sector. Internationally, we have set up the Global Partnership on AI, the first multi-lateral forum, and we co-chair the data working group. The UK is playing a leading role in international discussions on AI ethics and potential regulations, including at the Council of Europe, UNESCO and the OECD, which is partly why I am going to the Pacific Future Forum this afternoon.

Time is against me, but I hope that I have addressed some of my hon. Friend’s points, and reassured him that we take them very seriously. We will harness the benefits of the technology to create those hundreds of thousands of jobs only if we bring the public with us, which we are committed to doing.