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Artificial intelligence research boosted by £300m of public money

The UK government will invest £300m in artificial intelligence research as it seeks to fend off competition from France and Germany and secure its status as Europe’s leading centre for “deep tech”.

The new AI sector deal, announced on Thursday, follows last year’s publication of a government review of the UK’s artificial intelligence industry. The review found that only 5 per cent of international venture capital funding in the sector went to British companies in the five years to 2016.

The government will hope to stimulate private companies with the new investment programme, which will be directed through its publicly-funded Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The investments will be overseen by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which declined to specify a timeline for when the funding would be released.

“Artificial intelligence is at the centre of our plans to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business,” said Matt Hancock, culture secretary. “We have a great track record . . . but there is so much more we can do.”

Britain has long sought to position itself as a leader in cutting-edge data science and artificial intelligence research, as the home of well-known businesses, including Deepmind, which was bought by Google for £400m in 2014.

However, concerns have been raised that Brexit could upend London’s status as a hub for technology start-ups and entrepreneurship, especially after a reduction in funding from the European Investment Bank.

The AI sector deal announced on Thursday includes plans to establish a new £9m centre for data ethics and innovation to examine the possible structural changes to jobs, data privacy and safety that could result from the new technology.

“As with all innovation there is also the potential for misuse which puts the whole sector under scrutiny and undermines public confidence,” said Greg Clark, business secretary.

Private companies and universities also committed on Thursday to investing in AI.

Rolls-Royce has partnered with the Alan Turing Institute to explore how data science can be applied to supply chains and predictive maintenance, while Global Brain, a Japanese venture capital group, will open its first European headquarters in the UK, with plans to invest £35m in “deep tech” start-ups.

The University of Cambridge said it would open a new £10m supercomputer to boost AI research, adding to the UK’s current stock of 15, according to a list compiled by Top500, a group that maps computing power around the world. 

Britain’s lack of supercomputers, which can support the faster processing speeds required to crunch vast amounts of data, is seen as a key factor hindering AI businesses.

Earlier this month, British chip designer Arm Holdings said it would team up with HPE, the US enterprise computing group, and SUSE, the German software company, to build three new supercomputers in the UK.

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