UK puts £200m on table for dynamic purchasing system to supply public sector with AI

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The UK government hopes to set up a dynamic purchasing system to help Blighty's public sector buy artificial intelligence services, with an estimated £200m on the table over four years.

According to a tender notice, the whole shebang, once live, will give the public sector the opportunity to buy an extensive range of AI services from a "comprehensive" number of suppliers. It will allow public-sector customers to "access a wide range of competition in an emerging market," apparently.

Organisations that might benefit from the system include central government departments and the wider public sector, including fire and rescue, health, charities, housing associations, and local government.

For the uninitiated, a dynamic purchasing system is the UK government's fancy label [PDF] for an electronic system through which government officials and bureaucrats can obtain commonly available goods and services – and, crucially, new suppliers can join at any time.

Although the headline figure for total procurement is £200m, the tender documents break it down into £25m in the first year, growing to £50m in year two "in line with targeted growth strategies". Years three and four are also expected to hit £50m, which intelligences, artificial or otherwise, might notice does not seem add up.

Using a dynamic purchasing system for AI may raise a few eyebrows. It is usually a vehicle for goods that are "commonly available on the market" [PDF].

The tender does not help because it does not exactly define what it means by AI, and the definition is up for debate. Some play it fast and loose with the definition, where they slap the label on statistics on steroids and others are more strict. Yet others believe it will more transformative to humankind than the harnessing of fire. Will we be seeing consumable services like Otter.ai transcription or mega projects war-gaming trade negotiations? Who knows.

But public sector employees can be assured that whatever the government ends up buying, they will not be replaced. In guidelines issued in June, it said: "Artificial Intelligence is a technology that has the potential to greatly improve our public services by reducing costs, enhancing quality, and freeing up valuable time of frontline staff."

However, the concern might be that they have so much free time they struggle to justify their position on the payroll. In 2017, a report by think tank Reform estimated that nearly 250,000 public sector workers could lose their jobs to robots over the next 15 years because machines would be more efficient and save billions of pounds.

Vendors can join the purchasing system even after the government has set it up. The deadline for their participation is set for March 2022. ®

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