From self-driving cars to new drug discoveries and devices which know what you want before you do, AI has the potential to transform our lives as fundamentally as the printing press and electricity.
It is estimated AI could add $15.7 trillion to global GDP by 2030. No surprise then that the UK government’s industrial strategy identified it as one of four areas where Britain can lead the world.
But this looks at best optimistic when Britain is a minor player in an AI arms race dominated by the US and China. China is now second behind the US in AI patent filings and is home to three of the seven biggest AI companies in the world: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. No prizes for guessing where the other four are based.
Their vast number of users means the tech giants in both countries have an ocean of data on which to train the computer algorithms which drive artificial intelligence. Every day Google processes around 3.5bn searches while around 83% of Chinese smartphone users now use Tencent’s WeChat platform for everything from messaging friends to booking medical appointments.
We can’t compete on talent either. Google alone has spent almost $4bn acquiring AI related businesses including the British AI startup DeepMind. The UK has always punched above its weight in research and ideas. But in an era of open source innovation, intellectual property is hard to protect.
Yet there is one important area where Britain does lead and that is trust. Our justice system is regarded as the world’s best. Our professional services power our national exports. Political corruption barely registers next to other countries. And our universities rank among the world’s elite.
It is certainly a commodity in short supply elsewhere. With the notable exception of Apple, US companies have traded their users’ privacy for convenience. While they have protested the sharing of their information with governments, they have systematically used people’s personal information for their own profits. Chinese tech companies work so closely with their government that citizens can have little trust that their private activities will remain hidden from state censure.
So here is Britain’s opportunity.
The establishment by the UK government of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to advise on the ethics of AI, promises to be unique in the world. Not just because it is asking the questions about transparency and accountability but because it will have the ability to ensure we reach answers that will sustain public trust. By developing world leading standards of governance and an ethical approach towards AI we can help our technology firms stand apart.
Some might argue that by holding our AI companies to stricter standards than their rivals we risk strangling innovation. But that’s like arguing that a train is constrained just because it runs on rails. Only within these constraints will this technology fulfil its potential.
Public trust in AI will be crucial in a world where algorithms increasingly control many aspects of our lives. This is Britain’s chance to lead and we should grab it with both hands.