Photo by Emily Wang from Unsplash.

UK National AI Strategy 2021–2031

Summary and immediate thoughts — is this a gift to artificial intelligence and technology policy wonks?

This article is an attempt to summarise part of the UK National AI Strategy released the 22nd of September 2022.

Before doing so I thought to clarify what a policy wonk is:

I am wondering whether this strategy is a gift to artificial intelligence (AI) and technology policy wonks as it has a wide range of threads to follow in the coming year pertaining to AI policy from the UK.

You will see.

The National AI Strategy in the UK was presented to the British Parliament by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The strategy is a 62-page document readily available online.

It was jointly published by the Office for Artificial Intelligence, Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The PR release from the UK government can be found here:

Three pillars of the UK National AI Strategy

This national strategy has three pillars.

  • Pillar 1: Investing in the long-term needs of the AI ecosystem.
  • Pillar 2: Ensuring AI benefits all sectors and regions.
  • Pillar 3: Governing AI effectively.

It begins with statements from the secretaries of DCMS and BEIS whereas I find the following statement from DCMS to be of interest:

“This National AI Strategy will signal to the world our intention to build the most pro-innovation regulatory environment in the world; to drive prosperity across the UK and ensure everyone can benefit from AI; and to apply AI to help solve global challenges like climate change.”

— Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The overall headline is also that this is the UK’s ten year plan. As such I take it as a strategy from 2021–2031, also reflected in the title of this article.

Backdrop for this new national AI strategy

The strategy mentions that it builds on the 2017 Industrial Strategy and the 2018 £1 billion AI Sector Deal that both boosted the UK’s global position in the field of AI. It must be said that there are various other strategies and initiatives that complement this, such as the .

Three assumptions behind strategy

The strategy states in the executive summary that it makes three assumptions. I have for brevity:

  • Key drivers are access to people, data, compute and finance;
  • AI will become mainstream in much of the economy effort must be taken to ensure value in different sectors and regions;
  • Governance and regulatory regimes of AI will need to keep pace.

Three aims within the strategy

The UK’s National AI Strategy aims to [with added bold and ]:

  • Invest and plan for the of the AI ecosystem;
  • Support the transition to an across all sectors and regions;
  • Ensure the UK gets the national and international governance of AI technologies right .
Screenshot by author of illustration from the UK National AI Strategy

Wow this strategy has action points

It was refreshing to see actual action points in a national AI strategy.

Unlike several other national strategies this strategy has action points. This is far more structured than most other national AI strategies that I have read.

You can access the strategy for a detailed overview of the action points that looks like this:

Screenshot of action points by author

I would like to highlight a few points from the various categories I found interesting.

Short term (next 3 months):

  • ;
  • Draft National , through the NHS AI Lab;
  • Publish the , through the Ministry of Defence.

Medium term (next 6 months):

  • Implement the ;
  • Roll out to attract the to the UK;
  • to support local innovation in developing countries;
  • Pilot an to coordinate UK engagement in ;
  • Establish to increase government’s awareness of AI safety.

Long term (next 12 months):

  • Undertake a ;
  • by continuing existing interventions across top talent, PhDs, AI and Data Science Conversion Courses and Industrial Funded Masters;
  • Work with partners in , and invest in GPAI to shape and support AI governance in line with UK values and priorities;
  • Work with The Alan Turing Institute to update guidance on AI ethics and safety in the public sector.

Introduction and more to follow…

The UK believes sees being competitive in AI important to amongst other things:

“…shared global challenges such as net zero, health resilience and environmental sustainability.”

It is important to note that this document sets out strategic intent, but that:

The UK wants to be the best place to live and work with AI, as well as the best place to study AI.

They also mention democratic values as important to their overall strategy:

Later in the introduction of the strategy it mentions that it will be linked to :

  • The Plan for Growth and recent Innovation Strategy;
  • The Integrated Review;
  • The National Data Strategy;
  • The Plan for Digital Regulation;
  • The upcoming National Cyber Strategy;
  • The forthcoming Digital Strategy;
  • A new Defence AI centre;
  • The National Security Technology Innovation exchange (NSTIx);
  • The upcoming National Resilience Strategy

Opportunities and challenges

The importance of diversity is again stressed in that it has moral, social and economic reasons for why the UK should care. Ensuring that people from different backgrounds can thrive in the new economy; people from different backgrounds are included; diversity can lead to a wider range of AI services.

Artificial general intelligence is mentioned in passing as a challenge.

DeepMind, GraphCore, DarkTrace and Benevolent AI are mentioned alongside the statement that UK has the 3rd highest number of AI companies in the world.

The strategy mentions what the government has invested in:

Before discussing the three pillars it is important to and it would be preferable for you to read the strategy yourself to find other points that I might have missed.

Pillar 1: Investing in the long-term needs of the AI ecosystem

Their approach is to build, use and inspire.

Build: Train and attract the brightest and best people at developing AI.

Use: Empower employers and employees to upskill and understand the opportunities for using AI in a business setting.

Inspire: Support all to be excited by the possibilities of AI.

The strategy states that retaining AI talent is difficult. ‘Understanding the UK AI Labour Market’ research was done by the Office for Artificial Intelligence. Generally there was a lack of suitable talent and lack of diversity in the field.

One aspect of this is changes in visa routes:

  • A new ;
  • A new scale-up route;
  • The new Global Business Mobility visa.

UKRI AI Innovation Programme

It is worth mentioning that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has plans related to AI:

It has five aims:

  1. Discovering and developing transformative new AI technologies;
  2. Maximising the creativity and adventure of researchers and innovators;
  3. Building new research and innovation capacity to deliver the ideas, technologies, and workforce of the future;
  4. Connecting across the UK AI Research and Innovation ecosystem;
  5. Supporting the UK’s AI Sector and the adoption of AI.

International collaboration on Research & Innovation

It is worth mentioning the UK will participate in Horizon Europe. Focus is also given to implementing the US UK Declaration on Cooperation in AI Research and Development.

Otherwise as elsewhere stated it seems there is an , especially relating to data flows . In pillar 2 they also mention the Global Partnership on AI (GPAI).

Action points for Pillar 1

Within the first pillar there is a summary of 12 action points. They can be lengthy so I made an attempt here at them:

  1. Launch a new National AI Research and Innovation Programme;
  2. Lead the global conversation on AI R&D
  3. Develop a diverse and talented workforce
  4. Publish a government policy framework for data availability in the wider economy.
  5. Start consultation on future national ‘cyber-physical infrastructure’ framework.
  6. Publish a report on the UK’s compute capacity needs to support AI
  7. Wider review of our international and domestic approach to the semiconductor sector.
  8. Evaluate the state of funding specifically for innovative firms developing AI technologies in the UK .
  9. Protect national security through the National Security & Investment Act while keeping the UK open for business with the rest of the world (protecting against hostile foreign investment.
  10. Include provisions on emerging digital technologies, including AI, in future trade deals.

Otherwise access to data and increasing compute capacity is mentioned (). Still there is an explicit mention of a promised policy framework to come:

As such this list alongside details in the strategy alludes to various threads of activity in the UK AI landscape.

Pillar 2: Ensuring AI benefits all sectors and regions

AI-enabled economy

The wording used here and throughout the report is the There is a wish to diffuse AI In short:

  • Supporting AI businesses;
  • Understanding AI adoption in organisations;
  • AI for government innovation;
  • Leveraging public sector capacity.

There is a wish for more commercialised products and services:

“The UK has historically been excellent at developing new technologies but less so at commercialising them into products and services.” (p. 40)

The UK wants to use AI to support mission-led policymaking, health and achieving net zero are mentioned.

  • “…the Office for AI will publish research later this year into the drivers of AI adoption and diffusion.”

Office for AI and UKRI will launch a joint programme that will:

  1. Support identification and creation of opportunities for businesses;
  2. Create a pathway for AI developers to start companies;
  3. Ensure responsible AI products together with AI developers;
  4. Incentivise investors to learn more about new market opportunities in AI.

Intellectual property and public benefit

The IPO published its AI and IP call for views in 2020 and responded March 2021. This work will be further enhanced going forward:

The UK wants to protect IP and use AI for public benefit.

Missions

UK has an Innovation Strategy published the 22nd of July .

They mention Imagenet, CIFAR-10, MNIST, GLUE, SquAD and Kaggle. Then they argue dataset challenges can be important for innovation missions in AI.

“To this end, the government will develop a repository of short, medium and long term AI challenges to motivate industry and society to identify and implement real-world solutions to the strategic priorities.”

Net zero and climate change

They mention shared international challenges like health, climate change and poverty. Net zero is again mentioned with a reference to the The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. They write:

Health and AI

Straight away the £250 million investment43 to create the NHS AI Lab in NHSX is mentioned.

The NHS AI Lab is creating a National Strategy for AI in Health and Social Care in line with the National AI Strategy expected to launch early 2022 setting a direction towards 2030.

Public sector as a buyer (purchasing and procurement of AI)

This relates to how AI procurement can benefit citizens, but also about modernising Armed Forces:

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) worked closely with colleagues in the Office for AI and across government during drafting of guidelines for AI procurement.

The CCS is also piloting training workshops on purchasing AI.

Actions for pillar 2

Within the first pillar there is a summary of seven action points that I have :

  1. Launch a programme as part of UKRI’s National AI R&I Programme to exploit commercialisation interventions
  2. Launch a draft National Strategy for AI in Health and Social Care
  3. Innovation Missions incorporating AI tackling big, real-world problems such as net zero. Complemented by bilateral and multilateral agreements in energy and with ecosystems in developing AI nations;
  4. Build an open repository of AI challenges with real-world applications;
  5. ;
  6. Publish the Ministry of Defence AI Strategy.

Pillar 3: Governing AI effectively

“[The] Government’s aim is to build the most trusted and pro-innovation system for AI governance in the world.”

They have outlined several points to achieve this:

  • Establishing an AI governance framework
  • Enabling AI products and services to be trustworthy
  • Growing the UK’s contribution to the development of global AI technical standards ;
  • Building UK regulators’ capacities to use and assess AI;
  • ;

Regarding the last point it is stated clearly that:

“The UK will act to protect against efforts to adopt and apply these technologies in the service of authoritarianism and repression.”

They also state they will defend human rights.

What does pro-innovation governance of AI mean in the UK?

In their strategy they describe what means in three points:

  1. That the UK has a clear, proportionate and effective framework for regulating AI that supports innovation while addressing actual risks and harms;
  2. UK regulators have the flexibility and capabilities to respond effectively to the challenges of AI;
  3. Organisations can confidently innovate and adopt AI technologies with the right tools and infrastructure to address AI risks and harms .

Although admittedly these points and their meaning are not very clear. The first point seem to point to the proposed EU AI Act as a framework for high-risk AI. The second point speaks to increasing UK capabilities, and this could mean hiring more people to assist in responding or technical systems for doing so. The third is a clear expression that the intention is for UK government to use innovations in the field of AI.

They make it clear that AI is currently unregulated.

A sector-led approach regulating AI?

This strategy outlines several points on why the UK is taking a sector-led approach.

  1. The boundaries of AI risks and harms are grey, it is constantly changing.
  2. Use cases for AI, and their wider impacts, can be highly complex in their own right. They argue for limitations on cross-cutting legislation.
  3. Individual regulators and industries are already starting to respond to the risks of AI. They argue in the strategy that:
  4. AI is not the only ongoing technology change, they argue for a focus on use cases.

They also however admit that challenges have surfaced and I have shortened these into bullet points:

  • Inconsistent or contradictory approaches across sectors;
  • Overlap between regulatory mandates, creating uncertainty about responsibility;
  • AI regulation could become framed narrowly around prominent, existing cross-cutting frameworks (data protection), while risks are broader;
  • Multilateral, multi stakeholder fora internationally, and global standards development organisations could overtake a national effort to build a consistent approach.

They ask the question in the strategy whether current efforts are adequate. They look at a few alternative options:

The strategy is not certain regarding these points, yet argues that they must be explored.

Capacity to assess AI

Together with the The Alan Turing Institute the government is exploring what AI capacities that exist in monitoring and assessing products and services. Especially for cross-sectoral AI systems.

They mention Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum,

Technical standards

The UK will support international efforts in developing technical standards.

They will pilot an AI Standards Hub to expand the UK’s international engagement and thought leadership.

Additionally they will develop an AI standards engagement toolkit to guide multidisciplinary UK stakeholders to engage in the global AI standardisation landscape.

They also engage with:

  • Open Community for Ethics in Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (OCEANIS);
  • OECD’s Network of Experts Group on Implementing Trustworthy AI.

UK also contributes to ISO/IEC.

AI Assurance

The UK is exploring how to assure compliance with standards and regulations.

To support the development of a mature AI assurance ecosystem, the CDEI is publishing an AI assurance roadmap. In addition to this:

Actions for Pillar 3

Again I will try to give you the actions points in a somewhat shortened format:

  1. Develop a pro-innovation national position (White Paper, early 2022);
  2. Publish the CDEI assurance roadmap;
  3. Pilot an AI Standards Hub;
  4. Continue our engagement to help shape international frameworks;
  5. Support the continuing development of new capabilities;
  6. ;
  7. ;
  8. Work with The Alan Turing Institute to update the guidance on .
  9. Coordinate cross-government processes to accurately assess long term AI safety and risks (technical expertise and infrastructure).
  10. “Work with national security, defence, and leading researchers to understand .”

Quantitative indicators for this strategy

Apparently, as a cliffhanger of sorts, the strategy then alludes to indicators that it will use to track this strategy that will be published separately:

“We will publish a set of quantitative indicators, given the far-ranging and hard-to-define impacts AI will have on the economy and society. We will publish these indicators separately to this document and at regular intervals to provide transparency on our progress and to hold ourselves to account.”

According to this last section the recently established Office for Science and Technology Strategy, National Science and Technology Council and National Technology Adviser will also contribute to strategic efforts.

So… That was the 62-page UK National AI Strategy.

Immediate Thoughts on the UK National AI Strategy

I have three immediate thoughts on the strategy without to intricate reflection

Great to see climate change and net zero ambitions included while sustainability could be more explicitly explored

Again it is a bit disappointing to see another AI strategy that does little to discuss sustainability. The word ‘sustainability’ is mentioned once in the introduction never to be repeated. ‘Sustainable’ is mentioned twice. Then again several topics related to the sustainable development goals are discussed.

Why was this almost ignored and the timing not considered?

More strategic work on this is needed to ensure sustainable artificial intelligence.

It does not matter much whether we can trust AI systems if we keep reducing the biological diversity on our planet while disregarding growing social inequalities and we may need a more concerted effort on this front.

On the other hand climate change is mentioned and there are related points:

Optimistic numbers are mentioned too:

Yet is included or referred to in this strategy.

It makes me wonder… When will this be addressed properly by the UK?

Where is the money?

As TechCrunch pointed out there is a lack of new money announced to back up the strategy:

“Notably there’s a lack of new money being announced to back up the strategy. […] But there’s no word on how much funding the government might put into supporting the development of AI from here on in…” Natasha Lomas

Many I have discussed the UK AI Sector deal with found it useful that funding was announced in the strategy to back up the action points, yet this is unclear in this new strategy.

International collaboration?

Only the US agreement with UK is referred to in this document, and one would hope the UK had more clear plans for other partnerships going forward. Of course the UK collaborates with a wide range of countries to the listed initiatives, yet perhaps other regions could be mentioned more prominently.

Especially in light of the recent disagreements with France regarding the AUKUS agreement one would hope this strategy was more integrated with nations in Europe that have strong AI communities. This is equally important for Germany, Spain etc. It would perhaps make sense for UK to attempt to reintegrate with Europe to a greater extent also in their efforts within the field of AI.

Is this a gift to artificial intelligence and technology policy wonks?

The clear answer is of course yes!

This is one of the most comprehensive national AI strategies that I have ever seen .

Quick reminder:

So perhaps the answer was obvious from the start?

Then again we should be asking:

  • Is this a gift to the planet?

The answer to this question is not clear, with a stretch the answer could be ‘maybe’.

It is positive that the strategy embraces climate change, net zero and human rights.

It is less fortunate that it does not map out or include to any great extent the sustainable development goals.

What do you think?

Overall I think this is one of the better national strategies I have read in the field of AI, and it remains to be seen how it will be executed.

I hope this was useful and please feel free to leave a comment or message me directly on Twitter.

AI Policy and Ethics at www.nora.ai. Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own. twitter.com/AlexMoltzau

AI Policy and Ethics at www.nora.ai. Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own. twitter.com/AlexMoltzau