UK becomes Unicorn Kingdom, where AI fairy dust earns King's ransom

Dungeon master Sunak talks up 'funky' Silicon Valley sales pitch while schools left without maths teachers

Opinion Political leaders are given to the odd flight of fancy, but yesterday UK prime minister Rishi Sunak created a whole new fantasy realm in which his dreams for the nation's future could flourish unhindered by encounters with reality.

He calls it the "Unicorn Kingdom", or UK for short, where the nation leads the world in tech development, attracting mountains of investment from around the globe.

It would all be so funny if it were not real. But it is, at least in the fact that he really did say it.

Yesterday, the UK government announced a £10 million ($12.43 million) spending boost for AI, in a desperate effort to seem on trend with the large language models of the OpenAI ilk which promise to transform business, medicine, and government beyond our imaginations, or press the red button triggering a doom cycle in the fall of civilization, depending on your perspective.

But Sunak was also on hand to woo British businesses enjoying the combined effects of Brexit, the Ukraine war and post-Covid record inflation written all over their balance sheets.

The Prime Minister promoted the UK's GREAT campaign, relaunched in 2021 to showcase "the very best of British in everything from science and technology to sustainability, culture, and creativity," according to an official statement.

Sunak highlighted the campaign's recent visit to California, with all the conviction of a private schoolboy selling his recent job placement to his classmates.

"We just launched a campaign in… Silicon Valley. Just talking about, you know, our companies what they were doing. A lot of ministers were out there the other week, and it was a huge success, right. And it was called, what was it called?" he said, turning to an aide whom we can only assume would rather have been in Sudan than owning up to a moniker which seemed such a good idea after three glasses of Champagne and a transatlantic flight.

"Yeah, Unicorn Kingdom, right," Sunak plowed on. "We just launched a campaign… and we tried doing it in a slightly more funky way this time, but it definitely seems to be working."

To be fair, the British prime minister probably meant unicorns as in startups achieving a billion-dollar valuation – of which the UK claims to have 144 – rather than mythical creatures beloved by medieval cartographers and makers of pastel-colored children's toys alike.

But this is Britain in the 2020s, and at this stage it is hard to tell.

Flip to the Upside Down – or the real world, as UK citizens are forced to call it – and the picture is very different.

Teachers are striking. For more pay, yes, to make up for the inflation which has ravaged their pay packet, according to unions. But behind the dispute also lies an endemic recruitment problem in mathematics and sciences. According to the specialist publication TES, nearly half of secondary school pupils are taught mathematics by non-specialist teachers. The problem stems from the fact that the UK has not met its recruitment targets to attract and train mathematics teachers for more than a decade, even though it decided to lower the bar by 39 percent.

The government's £100 million ($124 million) for AI, which comes on top of an earlier announced £900 million ($1.1 billion) to build a supercomputer designed to train and run homegrown AI models, may be welcome. However, unless the nation builds fundamentals for success in tech into its population, it will not be sustainable, or the success may be bought up and moved elsewhere, as the saga of processor designer Arm shows.

But that's a long story, and it's way past Rishi's bedtime. ®

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