People don’t want to go to Rishi Sunak’s AI party

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As his time at number 10 Downing Street likely ticks down by the day, prime minister Rishi Sunak needs a legacy. 

His three immediate predecessors all count Brexit, in one form or another, as their prime ministerial footprint but Sunak is eyeing something different altogether; Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

The man never misses an opportunity to bring up the transformational power of the technology, or Britain’s role as a “world leader” in the sector. 

Let’s examine what exactly the UK is doing in the world of AI and what Sunak is eyeing for its future. 

First off, it’s important to note that nailing down the exact size and value of the UK’s AI market is essentially impossible. 

Why? Because the technology is integrative to a fault, meaning almost any business in any sector could make sufficient use of it for people to classify it as an AI operation. 

We already know it is used across the board in consumer-facing industries, such as enabling faster payment methods in online casinos or by online retailers helping buyers on their purchase journey.

But any company in any industry could, in theory, integrate AI into its operations to some degree and that creates a problem in defining the sector’s boundaries.

To perfectly illustrate the issue, take an email note last week from Global AI Ecosystem, a self-styled “first of its kind” open source knowledge sharing platform.

The email claims: “the UK AI Economy is valued at £1.36 Trillion, Projected to Reach £2.4 Trillion by 2027, Placing it Number 3 in Global AI Race.”

For perspective, that would mean the UK AI economy is worth more than four times the market cap of the *ENTIRE* FTSE 250 index. 

The report goes on to highlight over 8,900 UK companies working in the field of AI. Looking closer, some of these include, A1 Clutches, “the Midlands’ no. 1 clutch repair and gearbox installers” and Germany-based sewage specialists, Hermes Technologie.

Economic thinktank CBI Economics counts a more realistic number; around 3,011 UK-based AI companies, but even that seems too many.

Add to that the fact that every company with a certain headcount and bankroll – think any sector from car manufacturers like Rolls Royce to consultancies like Deloitte – will be looking at or already implementing AI into its processes and you get the picture that it’s a sector that can neither be defined nor define itself. 

That hasn’t stopped Rishi Sunak pushing it on his agenda though. 

Even before he came to office, the National AI Strategy was laid out as a government priority in 2021.

The rubber really hit the road however with chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s spring statement this year, promising everything from funding boosts for both AI and quantum computing, an AI sandbox to test new technologies, an annual prize for AI innovation, and a major framework to ensure safety and best practice. 

The reasons for UK strategy being quite so bold and Sunak weaving it into every narrative is because of the competition. 

Global technology behemoths with much bigger cheque books and greater infrastructure for growth such as China, the US and India are already flying well ahead of the UK’s AI market in terms of size. 

Microsoft alone announced a $10bn investment into ChatGPT developer, OpenAI earlier this year. 

There is, of course, still plenty of appetite for capital investment into the UK’s AI activities. According to UK Tech, UK AI companies have secured £18.8bn in private investment since 2016 and from January to October last year, British AI startups raised a record $3.6bn.

But much of the growth will be regulation-dependent and that’s as much of a global responsibility as it is the UK’s. The PM unveiled a white paper on the subject back in March, but it’ll be at international congresses and symposiums where the real progress is made. 

Sunak said as much at Japan’s G7 summit earlier in the year, calling for “guard rails” to be set up to enable the safe growth of the technology. 

His passion project, according to Westminster insiders, has been an AI summit hosted by the UK this year which will take place on 1st and 2nd November at Bletchley Park where Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of modern computing, worked during World War Two.

The two-day event was warmly welcomed when the PM hobnobbed with the heads of OpenAI, Google DeepMind and Anthropic in late May.

Only, if recent developments are to be believed, the real big players may not even show up. Joe Biden has reportedly confirmed he will not attend and amidst a quietly brewing international scandal between China and the UK, the country’s leader Xi Jinping may also be a healthy scratch.

This where Brexit once again rears its familiar, ugly head. 

After leaving the EU in 2020, the UK is locked out of key forums between the EU and U.S. such as the Trade and Technology Council (TTC), where AI governance plans are negotiated on a bilateral basis.

Think not being invited to the cool kids party, only to try and throw your own but no one shows up save a few family members. 

According to Politico, a “CERN for AI” is another of Sunak’s ideas. This would consist of a collaborative international research body like the one that examines particle physics but that, for the moment, seems to have gone quiet. 

Various things here do not portend well for Sunak’s AI vision and UK-based companies are starting to jump ship to what they deem better technological climates to do business.

Softbank-owned UK-based chipmaker Arm is counting down to a Nasdaq IPO before the end of the year and there has been a general slowdown in the growth of UK tech start-ups in recent years, though numbers are slowly on the up.

The most interesting and dramatic questions around the UK and AI centre around Sunak’s premiership. Will his summit be a dud? Is his ‘tech bro’ persona enough to win young voters or business confidence in the lead up to the general election in 2025? Could AI success keep him in number 10?

But the real questions around AI; its safety and regulation, its potential and the UK’s role in it haven’t even begun to be answered and will last long after Rishi Sunak walks out of number 10 for the last time.