The Chancellor opened his Autumn Budget statement looking forward to “A future that will be full of change; full of new challenges and above all full of new opportunities.”
As is traditional, his set-piece speech was prefaced by trails, tasters and teasers. For those with an eye on tech and innovation, there was not just one but three separate packages of announcements in the last week, with not-insignificant funding commitments.
So, before the Chancellor even got to his feet today, we knew about:
- A package of measures to support growth and talent in the UK tech sector, including:
o An increase in the number of Exceptional Talent Visas from 1,000 to 2,000, to attract international tech specialists to work in the UK
o £21m for Tech City UK, the organisation which supports the UK’s start-up ecosystem, to expand its network and become ‘Tech Nation’
o £20m to stimulate the growth of GovTech start-ups and provide innovative solutions to public service challenges
o £20m towards a new CyberFirst training programme for 14–18 year olds.
- A commitment to have driverless cars on the road by 2021 and trails for Budget announcements of £75m investment in AI, £100m in computer science teaching and £160m in 5G mobile networks.
- A taster for the Industrial Strategy White Paper (due on Monday 27 November) that included:
o a pledge to increase public and private spending on R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, with an extra £2.3 billion of government investment to start from 2021–22
o a promise of investment in four “Grand Challenges”: AI and the data economy; clean growth; healthy ageing; and the future of mobility.
At the despatch box, a further £20bn worth of tax relief over 10 years for innovative businesses and scale-ups was also announced. So far, so good for tech. But what of the readiness of the society into which these investments will be made, start-ups supported and innovations developed and delivered? Interventions like the GovTech fund and the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges are shrewdly designed with a threefold purpose: to provide economic stimulus; to accelerate UK global competitiveness in cutting-edge technologies where we already have a significant strength; and to develop improved, innovative services for the wider public good.
But there is much to do to ensure that the benefits of this high-tech future, as well as its economic advantages, are felt equally throughout society. Encouragingly, the supporting Budget documents include a commitment to establishing a “Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to ensure safe, ethical and ground-breaking innovation in AI and data‑driven technologies”. But this must also be accompanied by a programme of proactive engagement work if the public are to trust, and therefore adopt, the new services and products being designed for them in every sphere of their lives.
Recent evidence suggests there is a long way to go. Just this week, Sage published results from their “Optimism and Ethics” AI survey. It found that 43% of US respondents and 46% of those in the UK admitted that they have ‘no idea what AI is all about.’ Interestingly, 81% of their respondents still felt optimistic about its possibilities. But beneath this optimism, when you ask the public for views on some of the specific new services and products being built with AI and other emerging technologies, trust is an increasingly important issue. Take, for example, driverless cars. Earlier this year, the Harvard Business Review cited a survey of German car buyers that found only 5% would trust a fully autonomous vehicle; the RAC reported on a survey that found only 18% of respondents believed technology firms could be trusted to build self-driving vehicles and securely deal with connected data; and a US survey found that trust in autonomous vehicles had actually reduced since the previous year.
The Chancellor’s vision of driverless cars on UK roads by 2021 was greeted with scepticism by the BBC’s technology correspondent this week. And it would be easy to think that we have years to work on this trust thing as we wait for the technologists to deliver the goods. Yet a ComRes survey for the Information Commissioner's Office earlier this month found that only 20% of the UK public have trust and confidence in companies storing their personal information. Data – whether personal, or produced by personal, household or other connected devices – is the foundation for the transformative potential of AI, machine learning and the Internet of Things. There is an immediate job of work – indeed something of a Grand Challenge – ahead for the government, the tech industry, the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and groups across civic society and the charitable sector to tackle the issue of trust together, and to ensure that public engagement and inclusion keeps pace with the speed of tech-driven change the Chancellor wants to embrace.