UK minister Matt Hancock: new data and ethics centre will position UK as global leader in AI

The UK government wants the UK to be at the forefront of the digital revolution, powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

The digital minister, Matt Hancock, was discussing government strategy to do just that at TechUK’s AI Ethics conference this week.

“We need to make sure we harness the power of AI for the good of society. That means allowing freedom but ensuring a proper framework is in place,” said Hancock.

The impact AI is having in the UK

In conversation with TechUK’s deputy chief executive Antony Walker, Hancock explained how AI is very much a part of the work going on in the public sector and the government.

“AI is having a major impact in business in industrial strategy, transport in terms of autonomous, in the Department of Work and Pensions in terms of decision making.

“It is being applied across the public sector with local councils using automated chatbots for replies to public queries.”

This is why the government sees the need in a centre for ethics and AI. Named the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the project was announced in the Autumn Budget earlier this year, with the purpose of supporting companies developing AI technology in the UK.

“I have autonomous development companies tell me they don’t want to make ethical decisions. [Instead they] want a framework and deliver what we can against it,” he explained.

“In developing this new centre, we are aiming to lead the world. Develop the technology and develop the framework around where it can be grown.”

The UK government AI strategy

The UK is regularly top of the list when it comes to AI. Earlier this year, research by venture capital firm Asgard revealed that the UK is the number one hub for AI startups.

In addition, the new Government Readiness for AI report by Oxford Insights was published this week, putting the UK top in taking advantage of the potential of AI. Hancock said this was because of the “intense and brilliant tech ecosystem” developed in the UK.

But in order to champion and influence the tech ecosystem in the UK, the new data and AI centre won’t just become another regulator, according to Hancock.

He explained how the UK already has a data regulator, in the form of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who regulates data usage and privacy. In addition, the UK benefits from having research centres dedicated to AI, such as the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, at the University of Cambridge.

Instead, the aim of the centre is to provide leadership; “leadership of thought, the leadership of communication, bringing people and society with us as we go on and develop this technology.”

As well, Hancock said it will also oversee changes. “Not be a regulator, but propose regulatory changes for rules and regulations right across the board,” he said.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will be funded with £75m set aside in the budget to ensure the UK is a leader in artificial intelligence. But, Hancock said this isn’t something the government can do alone.

“There is potential transformative value for AI to improve people’s lives. But people are also worried about if it gets out of hand. We can’t solve that in government alone – it needs civil society, commercial, business and academic interest.

“The world is moving fast, technology is moving faster and we’ve got to shape it now for the benefit of all mankind.”