Lords urge government to develop national AI strategy

Select committee claims opening up public data could ‘curb power of tech giants’

Whitehall should give AI developers more access to public data and amend procurement rules to prevent the power of “data monopolies” such as Amazon and Facebook from snowballing, a Lords committee has said.

It urged government to develop a national policy framework for AI, closely linked to the Industrial Strategy that was published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy last year.

The House of Lords select committee on artificial intelligence made a series of recommendations today, including changes to Whitehall procurement, a focus on education, skills and training, and avoiding the “monopolisation of data by big technology companies” through regulation and more access to data for smaller companies and academia.

The committee said the “current AI boom” was being fuelled by access to large quantities of data, and it warned that large companies that control such data – often US-owned wealthy companies that can buy data or create their own – “must be prevented from becoming overly powerful within this landscape”.

The Competition and Markets Authority was asked to review the use of data by big tech companies operating in the UK. But the Lords also called for greater access to public sector data for AI researchers and developers, to allow them to compete with established giants.

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“In many cases, this will require government departments and public organisations making a concerted effort to digitise their records in unified and compatible formats,” they added.

The NHS and the Ordnance Survey were picked out by the peers as public institutions with particularly comprehensive data collections, but they highlighted problems, for example that many NHS records are still in paper form and digitisation would be expensive and time-consuming.

In a report published this week, and put together after interviewing experts, the committee praised some initiatives already taking place in government to boost the AI industry. It welcomed the introduction of a GovTech Catalyst team – which oversees a £20m fund to help tech firms deliver innovative solutions to public sector problems – and said it hoped it would be able to “open the doors of Whitehall to the burgeoning AI development sector in the UK”.

It also highlighted to the independent report on growing the UK’s AI community published last October, which recommended greater use of AI in the public sector.

But it called for public procurement regulations to be reviewed and amended “to ensure that UK-based companies offering AI solutions are invited to tender and given the greatest opportunity to participate”. Government should “be bold” when procuring AI systems, and should provide support to businesses to convert ideas to prototypes, it added.

The committee also recommended the establishment of an online bulletin board, where challenges from across Whitehall and the rest of the public sector – identified by the Government Office for AI as having the potential for AI-based solutions – are advertised.

Start-ups and academia
Elsewhere in the report, the peers called for “strategic leadership” from government on AI, to avoid developing “overlapping and conflicting” policies and institutions. The Government Office for AI, they said, should develop a national policy framework for AI, which should be “in lockstep with the Industrial Strategy”.

They also said the Government Office for AI should coordinate work between the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the GovTech Catalyst team and the national research centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (the Alan Turing Institute), as well as the AI Council it was established to support.

The report also touched on the difficulty for government in attracting AI experts, because it can’t match the salaries offered by the private sector.

Lord Clement-Jones, committee chair, said the UK would be able to take advantage of the benefits of AI and lead on its “ethical development” internationally – if it took up the recommendations put forward by the Lords committee.

He added: “The UK contains leading AI companies, a dynamic academic research culture, and a vigorous start-up ecosystem as well as a host of legal, ethical, financial and linguistic strengths. We should make the most of this environment, but it is essential that ethics take centre stage in AI’s development and use.

“AI is not without its risks and the adoption of the principles proposed by the committee will help to mitigate these. An ethical approach ensures the public trusts this technology and sees the benefits of using it. It will also prepare them to challenge its misuse.”

Sam Trendall

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