Big names hurl millions of pounds at scheme to hoist UK's AI knowhow

We're Europe's tech hub, crows minister, but investment weedy compared to the US and China

Google's DeepMind is among 11 companies to fund artificial intelligence masters degrees in the UK under a government-backed range of training programmes, including fellowships and PhD centres.

The move comes as an analysis commissioned by Tech Nation showed venture capital funding in AI in the UK had increased sixfold in the past five years and 17 per cent last year.

The government's training programmes, announced today, will see 200 new AI masters places at UK universities funded by companies.

This includes names like DeepMind and Nvidia, startup Amplyfi, old firms like Cisco and BAE Systems, along with government-fave Accenture. There will also be five five-year fellowships at the Alan Turing Institute.

Some 1,000 PhD studentships will be offered at 16 new, AI-focused Centres for Doctoral Training, funded by £100m from government, £78m from Rolls Royce, AstraZenica, BT, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, and £23m from the universities.

Each centre will have a different focus – some in specific areas, such as healthcare, environment, music, and speech and language, and others in the foundational tech or implications, such as trust, accountability and ethics.

The extra support for training and skills was one of the main recommendations in the government's AI Sector Deal, which was published in April 2018 based on a 2017 review of the field by computer scientist Wendy Hall and Facebook AI veep Jérôme Pesenti.

Alongside the announcement, Tech Nation published a study carried out by Dealroom into VC investment in AI in the UK to bolster the case for splurging on AI training.

This put investment in AI startups at $1.3bn in 2018, about six times as much as AI firms raised in 2014 and up from $1.2bn in 2017. Keen to emphasise that the UK punches above its weight in Europe, the study pointed out these UK firms raised almost as much funding as the rest of region combined.

"These statistics are further confirmation that the UK is Europe's undisputed number one tech hub," said digital secretary Jeremy Wright. "We are determined to make the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business and through our modern Industrial Strategy we are using the power of technology to change people’s lives for the better."

However, the UK will be competing with the US, where, according to a separate Tech Nation study, more than $81.3bn was invested in AI up to 2017, followed by China, with $14.8bn invested, and Israel, at $14.1bn. The UK's figure for investment at the end of 2017 was $2.9bn.

AI is seen by observers as a political battleground for China and the US – former UN deputy general secretary Lord Mark Malloch-Brown said last month that there is a fight for advantage in AI, which some believe is a "winner-takes-all competition". ®

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