UK govt's £17.3m AI-boffinry cash injection is just 'a token amount'

Blighty's machine learning and robotics strategy lags behind other countries, say experts

AI is at the forefront of the UK government’s digital strategy, and believed to be crucial to the nation's future post-Brexit.

A recent study by Accenture estimated artificial intelligent systems could add up to a whopping – and borderline unbelievable – £654bn (US$802bn) to the British economy by 2035.

Well, you've gotta spend money to make money. So, Blighty's government has announced it is looking into fostering a thriving AI industry in the UK – and pledged £17.3m ($21.2m) to bankroll machine learning and robotics research at universities. But is that enough?

The funding is better than nothing and shows the government is at least thinking about how important these technologies are, said Nick Taylor, professor of computer science and deputy director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. However, it’s not a “great amount,” he added.

“This funding indicates that the government recognises how important AI and robotics are to our future," he said. "AI and robotics are advancing so rapidly at the current time that we could easily exhaust any amount of research funding that was directed towards them."

That 17 million quid will go to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and filter down to several UK universities for a range of projects including developing robots for surgery and nuclear environments.

Of those funds, £6.5m ($8.0m) will be pumped into the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (UK-RAS) network. It’s a small amount, considering robots are particularly expensive. Not only does it require expertise but costs of hardware need to be factored in as well.

Zoubin Ghahramani, professor of information engineering at the University of Cambridge, told The Register that AI is thriving in the UK, with academic institutions, startups and big companies from DeepMind and Amazon to Apple and Microsoft being major investors. Ghahramani’s own upstart, Geometric Intelligence, which he cofounded along with Gary Marcus, Doug Bemis and Ken Stanley, was acquired by Uber for an undisclosed amount.

While he applauds the UK government’s investment, he told us: “It’s a relatively small step in the right direction, compared to the hundreds of millions invested by Canadian and US governments.”

DARPA, the US defense research arm, often readily dishes tens of millions of dollars for individual robot projects. In 2009, it awarded $32m (£26.1m) to develop the LS3 robot, and a further $10m (£8.1m) to test it.

The LS3 robot looks like a giant robo bull, complete with four sturdy legs and a barrel-like body. It’s designed to help US soldiers carry 400 lbs (181.4 kg) of gear on their missions, but was shelved in 2015 for being too noisy and not stealthy enough to use in reality.

A cash injection of just under £20m into the UK is dwarfed by the $1.1bn (£900m) spent by the US government on AI in 2015.

The UK funding is a “token amount that couldn’t hope to put us on the same level as Google or Microsoft,” Kate Devlin, senior lecturer in the department of computing, and sex robots expert at Goldsmiths University, told The Register.

“The only bright side I can see is that the government is recognising the importance of AI research in academia – rightly so – as that's often how big corporations acquire their technology and their expertise,” she added.

Leslie Smith, professor of computer science at the University of Stirling, agrees. “It's not much in comparison with the spend of large companies and the US [Defense department] on these areas," he said.

“To me the question is more like: how can we get the best leverage for this sort of sum of money? How can we get companies to work with UK academics to make the most of this investment? Not unrelated to this is the issue of ensuring that the money generated from the application of these technologies sticks partly to the Universities, and partly to the UK itself rather than being exploited [elsewhere].” ®

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