U.K. Unveils $1.4 Billion Drive Into Artificial Intelligence

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. tech giants, European telecoms firms, Japanese venture capital and the U.K. government has put together a 1 billion-pound ($1.4 billion) investment into the U.K. artificial intelligence industry, as governments weigh how to compete with China.

The deal comprises a total of 300 million pounds of private financing, 300 million pounds of new government spending in addition to 400 million pounds the state has already announced.

“Artificial intelligence provides limitless opportunities to develop new, efficient and accessible products and services,” Business Secretary Greg Clark said in an emailed statement Thursday.

The plan is the fourth so-called sector deal announced under the government’s Industrial Strategy, a flagship policy that Prime Minister Theresa May said is designed to get the economy "firing on all cylinders.” Previous deals have been announced in the life sciences, automotive and creative sectors.

In prioritizing AI, Britain joins several other nations that see the emerging technology as central to their future place in the world, such as China, which last year set a goal of becoming the world leader in AI by 2030.

Antony Phillipson, the U.K. Trade Commissioner for North America and Consul General in New York, said in an interview ahead of the announcement that the U.K. could not compete with China in terms of total funding or scale of some government-run AI projects. Instead though, he said, Britain could be at the forefront of discussions around ethics, safety and regulation.

The European Commission said Wednesday it needs to invest at least 20 billion euros ($24 billion) in artificial intelligence research by 2020 and should pledge the same amount each year.

As part of the U.K. government’s program, Canadian VC firm Chrysalix will set up a U.K. office and invest 110 million pounds in AI and robotics. Japan’s Global Brain, which has invested in similar businesses, will open a European headquarters in the U.K. and invest 35 million pounds in technology startups over the next five years.

Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines Corp., and Facebook Inc. are also making undisclosed commitments, along with consulting firm PwC and pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc.

Cambridge University

As part of the deal, the University of Cambridge has agreed to open an AI supercomputer worth 10 million pounds, and make it available for businesses to use. The government said it will fund 1,000 new PhD places for those working on AI and related subjects, and train 8,000 new computer science teachers for U.K. secondary schools.

It is also investing 9 million pounds in a new Center for Data Ethics, which will research principles and codes of conduct for AI safety and ethical use of machine learning. Rolls Royce Holdings Plc will jointly run these projects.

"If we are going to maximize the opportunity of innovation in these sectors, you need the right balance between innovation and regulation," said Phillipson, adding that the new center at the Alan Turing Institute would help advise regulators on how to strike this balance. He also pointed to research from a government-appointed committee lead by Wendy Hall, a well-known computer scientist from the University of Southampton, that AI could add 654 billion pounds to the U.K. economy by 2035.

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