What are government’s AI priorities for 2024?

The UK has the potential to become a leader in the deployment of AI in the public sector, according to Imran Shafi, Director for AI Policy for the UK Government, at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. 

As Director for AI Policy for the UK Government, Shafi is responsible for cross-cutting AI policy development – including the UK’s strategic domestic and international approach to AI. At the most recent Big Data and AI World event in London, he took to the stage to share the UK Government's top AI priorities in 2024 - setting out what progress has been made and what's in store for the future. 

People power 

As AI deployment increases in almost every aspect of our lives, it must be accompanied by the necessary training to enable people to develop the skills needed to use this technology effectively and get the most value out of it, Shafi explains. 

"We're looking at introducing scholarships for people who decide to do data science at university and reforming the school curriculum to include AI. We're also thinking about how to give lifelong learning to people already in work to make sure that they can take advantage of AI -  ensuring that the whole of the UK workforce is competent as opposed to just the younger generation. Right now it feels like a 15 year old can work out how to use ChatGPT much more easily than people my age.”

Getting regulation right

Shafi highlighted the progress being made on regulating AI. In a bid to avoid heavy-handed legislation that may prevent innovation, the government published a white paper stating that it is allowing existing regulators - such as the Health and Safety Executive, Equality and Human Rights Commission and Competition and Markets Authority - to tailor regulation approaches depending on how AI is being used in their sectors.

“It’s about ensuring there’s the right regulation for the right sector,” Shafi said. “Since the whitepaper, each regulator has been stepping up their work on AI in their specific sector and will be publishing their plans and priorities by the 1st April.”

Shafi emphasised the importance of government’s pro innovation stance on AI regulation. “Our approach has to be really careful. We don’t want to burden start-ups by accidentally favouring established players because it’s easier for them to meet compliance requirements.”

Safety first 

Shafi highlighted the UK’s commitment to continue working with governments internationally to consider how effective safety assessments, and robust governance and accountability mechanisms can be defined to enable the safe scaling of frontier AI by developers. The UK hosted the first AI Safety Summit last year and according to Shafi, the intention is for this event to run every six months given the rapid pace of developments in the field.  

Shafi called attention to the AI Safety Institute, which was set up at the start of the year and is the first state-backed organisation focused on ethical and responsible AI for public interest. He said it is now the biggest AI safety research body in the world with about 30 researchers, a number that is expected to double in the coming months. 

“We're at the very foothills of this but I think it’s going to be one of our key strengths. Because of the fact that we've been able to move so quickly, it’s positioned the UK as a global leader on AI safety.  We've got a lot of people from around the world coming to the UK and saying they want to set up something similar.”

Building use cases

"We are inevitably going to see different speeds of AI deployment across government departments," Shafi said. "The key is working out how to enable them to take risks and fail because sometimes we can get stuck in a bit of a blame culture."

He emphasised the need to focus on "finding new ways of innovating within departments." Work is underway on this, Shafi added, pointing to an announcement made last week by the Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden to spend £110m to roll out uses of AI in public services. "The idea is to build a proof of concept to in a few areas to show what's possible and to demonstrate the impacts and benefits in people's lives. Once we've got that, we can see how the rest play out." 

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