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UK aims to become a global AI superpower

To regulate or not to regulate

12 October 2021

The UK Government has, in September 2021, announced its National AI Strategy. The Strategy sets out a ten-year plan which the UK Government claims will advance innovation, resilience, productivity and growth by collaborating with international partners and ensuring the UK's governance and regulatory regimes are fit for purpose.

What is AI?

There is no single definition of AI. The UK Government sets out the following definitions/explanations in the Strategy:

  •  'Machines that perform tasks normally performed by human intelligence, especially when the machines learn from data how to do those tasks'.
  • 'General purpose technology' or technologies that have many possible applications and can transform the whole economy.

However, these definitions remain imprecise and will raise some questions and challenges. The legal landscape surrounding AI creation and use also remains relatively undefined in the UK. From a regulatory perspective, the autonomous nature of certain AI systems generates uncertainty in relation to liability, safety and operational resilience. The transparency, fairness and the impartiality of the decisions reached by AI systems are also a potential concern.

Strategy goals and possible consequences

The UK Strategy sets out a number of goals for the next ten years, including:

  • Growth in the number and type of AI discoveries that are designed, commercialised and exploited in the UK.
  • Increased productivity from the use of AI.
  • Establishing a trusted and pro-innovation system for AI governance.

The Government has drafted its Strategy based on the view that access to talent, data, and finance will drive progress and AI discovery; that AI will become a mainstream part of the economy; and that governance and regulatory regimes will have to keep pace with the rapid evolvement of the AI ecosystem.

This Strategy is published alongside other recently published consultation papers which review the use and governance of AI. For example, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is currently consulting on the data protection framework, seeking views on, inter alia: the use and reuse of personal data for research (including AI development); explicitly authorising the use of sensitive personal data (special category data) for bias detection and mitigation in AI systems; and the challenges with the data protection framework in developing and using AI.

The three strategy pillars

The Strategy identifies three pillars which the Government believes would make a significant difference to AI development and use and thus, the Government hopes, make the UK an AI and science "superpower" in the next ten years.

Pillar 1 - investing in the long-term needs of the AI ecosystem

The Government aims to build on existing areas of research, development, commercialisation and use of AI. Areas of focus include:

  • Developing, attracting and training talented people to work in AI, increasing diversity and closing the skills gap through postgraduate conversion courses.
  • Seeking to attract the best AI talent (researchers, entrepreneurs and investors) from around the world through a global talent visa route.
  • International collaboration on research and innovation to share ideas on AI.

The Government states that it will also take a number of other steps to support this pillar in the coming months including: launching a new National AI Research and Innovation Programme; publishing a policy framework setting out the Government's role in enabling better data availability in the economy; consulting on the potential role for a future national 'cyber-physical infrastructure' framework; and evaluating funding for innovative firms developing AI technologies in the UK – a report is due on this in Autumn 2022.

Pillar 2 - ensuring that AI benefits all sectors and regions

The Office for AI and the public body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will launch a programme with the stated aim of ensuring that all sectors and regions benefit from AI, through:

  • Supporting large and SME businesses to use AI and help AI developers to build new products and services for these businesses.
  • Creating a pathway for AI developers to set up new companies, products and services.
  • Facilitating engagement between businesses and AI developers so they can meet each other's needs.
  • Incentivising investors in new AI market opportunities, products, and services.

The Government plans to build an open repository of AI challenges to identify and design solutions; publishing research on the factors that impact the diffusion of AI across various sectors and regions; and publishing the Ministry of Defence AI Strategy and establishing a new Defence AI Centre.

Pillar 3 - governing AI effectively

Existing UK regulation and legislation were not designed with AI in mind. Certain aspects of the development and use of AI in the UK have been governed by 'cross-sector' legislation and fall under the supervision of different regulators.

The Strategy references the House of Lords' view in 2018 that AI-specific regulation was, at that stage, inappropriate and that the existing sector-specific regulators were capable of considering the impact of AI on their sectors. It goes on to highlight challenges created by the absence of an AI-specific regulation, including potential overlap between several regulatory requirements, which may cause confusion and subsequent neglect or non-compliance with those requirements.

The Government has therefore announced that it will be taking a number of steps to ensure that the national governance of AI technologies encourages innovation and investment, whilst protecting the public. These include: piloting an AI Standards Hub to coordinate UK global engagement in AI standardisation; and supporting the continuing development of new capabilities around trustworthiness, acceptability and transparency of AI systems through the national AI Research and Innovation Programme. The Strategy also refers to the Government's ongoing work with The Alan Turing Institute and a number of regulators on the need for increased capacity for regulators to assess AI-based products and services and to collaborate with one another to tackle regulatory overlap.

Will there be UK AI regulation?

The question of whether UK AI regulation will be introduced remains unanswered. The Strategy's references to possible reliance on voluntary technical standards alongside 'traditional' regulation, and to collaboration amongst regulators, may indicate a reluctance to publish cross-cutting AI regulation. However, businesses will need to await the proposed White Paper, which will be published in early 2022, for further information on proposals for the UK's national position on governance and regulation of AI.

International businesses developing their global AI frameworks will also follow the UK's AI Standards Hub with some interest, and will hope that the UK Government maintains its stated aim of engaging in global dialogue on standardisation in relation to AI governance and ethics.