Six per cent of DSIT officials now ‘completely dedicated to work on AI’

Head of science and tech department says that proportion of staff now focused on artificial intelligence is ‘not surprising, given the quite fundamental nature of the technological change’ taking place

A total of 6% of civil servants that work for the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology are now “completely dedicated” to programmes and projects focused on artificial intelligence.

This equates to 120 people out of a total headcount of just over 2,000, according to the department’s permanent secretary Sarah Munby.

Giving evidence parliament’s Science, Innovation and Technology Select Committee, the DSIT leader said that – in addition to those that are now “in teams completely dedicated to work on AI” – there are “other teams across the department, such as the online safety team, that also spend a significant amount of time on AI”.

The tally of 6% now focused entirely on AI – which represents about one in 17 of the total departmental workforce – “is not surprising, given the quite fundamental nature of the technological change that we are currently undergoing,” Munby said.

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Efforts are also ongoing to raise the tech skills of the remaining 94%, she added.

“This is not just about AI,” Munby told MPs. “That is only one of the technologies that we want to see upskilled across both the department and the wider civil service. You might know that there is an initiative this year to ensure that every civil servant across the system gets seven hours of training related to data… We are making sure that we implement that in the department. That is a really important foundation, but we also have a whole range of different levels of skill-building on these issues, including apprenticeships, which can be at postgraduate level for our staff.”

She added: “We need a balance, where everybody is sheep-dipped and we have people who have a background from outside the service and who are really close to the cutting edge of this frontier technology.”

The department’s secretary of state, Michelle Donelan, told the committee that part of the work to upskill civil servants will be to ensure officials can spend time outside Whitehall.

We have also started an expert exchange programme,” she said. “We are going to make sure that we are getting civil servants out into industry a lot more, so you have that two-way street and you are updating skills. We do not just rely on our in-house expertise.”

Sam Trendall

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