The UK has published its National AI Strategy representing a step-change in the national industrial, regulatory, and geo-strategic agenda.
Whereas AI has previously been discussed under the remit of other strategies (such as the Industrial Strategy and within the framework of Digital Regulations), here AI takes centre stage. This development is the maturation of perspectives and debates from various governmental bodies, NGOs, and academics but also an acknowledgement and response to the growing societal concerns around the ethics of AI.
The document begins with ageostrategic aspirational idea of Britain as a ‘global AI superpower’. This is expressed both in terms of the economy and the regulatory environment, which is mentioned explicitly with ‘pro-innovation’ as the guiding principle: ‘This National AI Strategy will signal to the world our intention to build the most pro-innovation regulatory environment in the world’.
To forward this vision three themes are outlined: ecosystem (investment and planning for leadership in science); sectors and regions (support transition to AI-enabled economy); governance (ensure national and international governance to encourage innovation and investment). Each theme is truncated into short-term (next three months), medium term (next six to 12 months) and long term (over 12 months) actions and objectives.
Among many other things, the strategy puts a spotlight on issues such as data availability, the cyber and physical infrastructure needed to enable AI use, and skills. There is a growth agenda, with specific sectors marked for special attention (health and social care, defence), and a call to ensure that all the regions of the UK are included.
The clearest signal from the National AI Strategy is that it places innovation at the forefront. Innovation is read into all other streams, such as a vehicle for economic growth and competitiveness globally. Indeed, research is discussed in the context of adoption by industry and in terms of ‘catalytic contribution’ to national aims and challenges, such as in health and net zero.
The skills agenda is two-pronged, with both the facilitation of talent via visa provision, and in the national educational programmes. Innovation underpins the governance agenda, which is explicitly discussed in terms of enabling innovation.
UK as an alternative ecosystem of trust?
The UK has proposed a National Data Strategy that in some ways steps away from the European framework and inches closer to a US approach to privacy, and is much more focused on economic outcomes and innovation.
There is a particularly delicate balancing act between incentivising innovation and indirectly encouraging isolationism and degradation of individual rights.
There is risk and opportunity here.
The risk is isolationism. The concern is that the UK will become isolated in its regulatory and innovation ecosystem, but where industries will choose to follow larger regulatory or market ecosystems – similar to how EU GDPR became the de facto global standard.
An example of this is the issue of data flow continuity. If the UK does indeed move away from the EU’s data regime, damaging isolation of the UK in the international digital space will occur. Given the desire to be a global leader, these possibilities are counter to the stated aims of the Strategy.
The opportunity is that the UK becomes an alternative ecosystem of trust. The opportunity is for the UK’s regulatory-market norms to become a preferred ecosystem for innovation and trust. The UK’s approach may be thought of as an alternative trust scheme that is as trustworthy as the EU but more pro-innovation.
Through the UK’s various influence mechanisms: soft power through language and culture; a permanent seat on the UN security council; the Commonwealth; a sufficiently large regulatory-market ecosystem can emerge.
The UK together with Canada, India and Australasia would rival the EU and perhaps even become the de facto global norm. However, to provide this level of assurance the UK will need to have robust alternative frameworks in place and an accepted regulatory system.
Revision of data protection
Data protection provisions in the UK have been largely aligned with those of the European Union, with the UK taking a leading role in the development and implementation of the EU’s approach to data protection, throughout its years as a Union member-state.
It has been an open question whether the UK would move towards a data protection regime that is ‘lighter’ than the EU approach. Although talk is mainly of ‘revision’ and ‘review’, the signs are that the UK is seeking to position itself as less stringent regarding data protection.
One dimension of this is regarding data as an enabler: opening access to data; data standardisation; and the cyber-physical infrastructure support are all included in the Strategy. This is critical because access to quality and sufficient data is crucial to the development of AI.
It is hoped that a more open regime with respect to data protection will increase the use and possibilities of innovation with respect to AI.
Another dimension is data protection as a value. European GDPR claims that data protection is a fundamental right and given such an explicitly stated value the prominence of data protection in data governance is understandable. In effect, the UK strategy is challenging the primacy of data protection as the foundational value of data governance by putting forward other values and opportunities.
This raises the question is the National AI Strategy simply pro-innovation or is it a step back in terms of data protection rights? It is critical to explore, at length and through consultation with all stakeholders, how relaxing of some data protection provisions may impact innovation.
Accountability to citizens
Clearly innovation does bring societal benefits but potentially at the expense of individual citizen rights – if the frameworks that evolve are not ethical and robust. Whilst aspects of the GDPR may have been seen to be onerous, nevertheless the concept of ‘privacy by design’ is to be commended.
As such any replacement system does need to retain this intrinsic concept whilst potentially rebalancing and reframing the systems that achieve this.
Ethical innovation requires both interdisciplinary subject expertise and global diplomacy if it is to be achieved. In addition, those boundaries over which the UK will not step need to be more clearly articulated if we are to establish alternative data custody systems.
New approaches to AI development and data protection are there to be seized but require a sophisticated analysis and resourcing to properly document and develop ethical AI innovation.
Emre Kazim is the co-founder of Holistic AI
Charles Kerrigan is a Fintech Partner at CMS