‘Government must open the doors to AI experts – and not pretend we have the capability internally’, committee chair says

Speaking at an event with techUK taking place at the Conservative Party Conference this week, influential backbench MP – and foreign affairs committee chief – Alicia Kearns calls for action on AI

Foreign affairs committee chair Alicia Kearns has urged the government to recognise its own lack of internal expertise in artificial intelligence and work on building better partnerships with the commercial sector.

Speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event held in conjunction with techUK, the influential backbench Conservative MP for Rutland MP urged AI experts in the room to consider standing as MPs, in order to “upskill” parliament and prepare it for a future in which AI will become much more prominent.

“If any of you in this room of conservatives and if any of you are passionate about AI or experts, get into parliament, because this is what we need, we need people who can bring expertise, we need people who understand tech and AI,” she said. “Government has to put their hands up and not pretend that our civil service has this capability within them – because that is not what we have, we need the tech experts who are going to break through, who are going to be unicorns and shake up thinking in the room.

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“So, I think we actually probably need some sort of formal mechanism that creates a proper government private partnership, where we open the doors, we share data that might be useful, and we really do something that is an innovative partnership where we show that we trust the private sector. Let’s do it on AI.”

Other panellists at the event, including the vice president of external affairs at Microsoft, Hugh Milward, agreed with the need to upskill in order to keep pace with technological change and global competition.

“I can’t do anything but agree with you on skills, not just our parliamentarians, maybe our regulators as well,” Milward said. “But I think the upscaling in particular of the workforce – we can’t ignore the workforce.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to make the UK a “science superpower” and the government set out its pro-innovation vision for AI with a white paper in June. In November, the UK will host the first global summit on AI to discuss how it can be developed and adopted safely – but some in the tech sector fear the summit will yield little result unless solid agreements are reached with the countries in attendance.

Kearns also told the event, headed ‘Does AI offer a new global role for Britain’, that the UK has only done a “half job” on industrial strategy and urged the government to take “solid action” and “follow through” at the global AI summit in November.

“We need to be component-specific about what is going to keep us safe, we then need to go from components to looking at the wider market where we actually take solid action, if we’re going to be serious players and keep ourselves safe,” Kearns said. “So let’s decide on how much we are going to stand up, let’s not just hold an AI summit and then not actually follow through, because that’s the worst thing we can do.”

Kearns said it was essential that the UK is joining and “winning” the global race to “make the rules” on AI, but that she believed the UK is “really bad” at delivering on missions that cut across government departments.

“It is an absolute nightmare,” she said. “Part of the reason I left the civil service was because I was the person who refused to be told that there were limits, that we couldn’t really work across departments, all this kind of nonsense.  We are really bad at this: where there is the political will, you can make it happen. But we need to make sure this becomes apolitical, so that we don’t end up with some kind of bouncing ball.”

Kearns told the crowded fringe event that from a geopolitical perspective, it would be beneficial for the UK to identify niche industries to specialise in, such as AI, in order to hone in on an effective industrial strategy that could see the country compete with superpowers such as the US and China.

“In this country, we see industrial strategy as a bad thing,” she said. “It is not a bad thing: when we are in a place with geopolitical conflict, this is a conversation we need to have. And the government did say they have a strategy, they announced it two years ago, but they did it a half job.”

This story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome

Zoe Crowther

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