The time is right for universities to make the most of AI

Universities are very much at the forefront of efforts to extract the most value from artificial intelligence, writes Dame Wendy Hall

October 18, 2017
Meccano robot
Source: Alamy

Artificial intelligence has been around as a concept for a long time but, in reality, the latest surge of technological development in AI is likely to see automation continue to escalate and accelerate.

The machines we are building today are so much more powerful than ever before in terms of their processing power and storage ability, and because of the huge amounts of data available, we have vastly improved our capacity to build intelligent systems that can learn and begin to “think” for themselves, although it’s still an open question as to whether they will ever really be able to outperform the human brain. As a result, we are seeing a huge surge in automation in every walk of life and so the government’s review of AI in the UK, which has just been published, is going to be even more crucial if we are to realise its full potential and achieve the positive benefits that it can deliver.

I am very honoured to have co-chaired this review, alongside Jérôme Pesenti, chief executive of BenevolentTech, at a time when AI is set to make major changes to the way that we live and work. I am particularly keen to ensure that we use it to inform the establishment of initiatives and programmes to help us extract the most value from AI for the UK, with universities very much at the forefront of those developments; that includes an emphasis on increasing and improving our skill levels to prepare the workforce for the number of jobs that the industry will need for the future.

It’s also about putting the UK on a firm platform when it comes to data capture and sharing and the development and exploitation of intellectual property into commercialised products and services.

As part of our review, we made 18 specific recommendations including a number that focus on ways in which universities, research institutes, industry and government can come together to better prepare us for the AI landscape of the future. Universities are on the “front line” to help prepare and upskill the country’s future workforce but they are also key to the future of research, development and commercialisation of AI to benefit the economy and society as a whole.

We’ve emphasised the importance of skills and the need to increase the UK’s expertise through industry-funded master’s programmes in AI and master’s-level conversion courses with funding and other forms of support coming directly from industry. AI is where the new “big salary” jobs will be but the demand from industry for new talent is already outstripping the supply so we need to continue to create additional courses and places for generating new talent in the UK while improving the responsiveness of our skills training system to the demand.

At the same time we have to reduce the gap between industry and academia, attracting the best talent from around the world to the UK and creating more opportunities for women and other under-represented groups.

We have also made recommendations to increase the uptake of AI to help organisations and workers understand how AI can boost their productivity and make better products and services, including public services.

Data sharing and access is another key area that we have concentrated on so we can ensure that people and organisations can be confident that use of data for AI is safe, secure and fair, making more data available from publicly funded research. We also want to build on the UK’s strong record in cutting-edge AI research with targeted proposals including making the Alan Turing Institute a national institute for AI in the UK.

Now is the time for us all – scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs and the government – to come together to address the issues about how AI is going to impact society and seek ways to ensure that we’re able to deliver the great breakthroughs that the technology has the potential to deliver for the benefit of society.

Dame Wendy Hall is Regius professor in computer science at the University of Southampton, and co-chair of the UK government review Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK.

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