Why the prime minister backs artificial intelligence and why that could be good news for the East

  • Watch our report on AI on why the technology might not be as apocalyptic as some fear and might actually be good news for the East.

Sixty years ago the then-Labour opposition leader Harold Wilson outlined a vision for Britain.

At a Labour Party Conference, he delivered his famous 'White Heat' speech. The UK would become a scientific powerhouse, boosting the economy and reshaping society by creating new opportunities for working people.

He said: "In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society.

"The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no placefor restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry."

Credit: PA

Fast forward 60 years, and technology has again become the delivery mechanism for transforming the country.

Rishi Sunak wants the UK to become a global leader in artificial intelligence.

Fresh from a trip to the US where Mr Sunak tried to position the UK as a major player when it comes to AI regulation, on Monday he gave a keynote speed to London Tech Week, saying the technology had the power to improve not only the economy, but people's lives.

"We’re harnessing AI to transform our public services - from saving teachers hundreds of hours of time spent lesson-planning, to helping NHS patients get quicker diagnoses and more accurate tests. AI can help us achieve the holy grail of public service reform: better, more efficient services," he said.

But what does it mean for people living in the East of England?

BT, which has been researching AI for decades thinks it means new jobs, and a boost to the local economy.

At its Adastral Park-base in Martlesham in Suffolk dozens of other business work on it, and it's already leading to new jobs that didn't even exist a matter of months ago.

Zoe Webster, the telecommunication firm's director of data and AI, explains.

"Some of the work they’re doing is looking at some of the advances in generative AI, the form of AI that can generate new forms of content, images and video," she said.

"They are looking at how to detect deep fakes for example; other forms of AI include seeing if it’s possible to detect bugs in software before it goes live. As software underpins most of the economy being able to spot issues before it goes into production will be really handy."

So does this mean more jobs in Suffolk? The short answer: potentially.

"AI is going to continue to be one of the biggest impact technologies that we’ve ever seen," said Zoe Webster.

"We are going to need people to develop this stuff to adopt this stuff safely and to make sure we’ve got the right guard rails around it as well, so I think like most new technologies it leads to new jobs in the end and AI will be no different.

"For example, a job that’s come up in the last few months relating to generative AI is a prompt engineer. This didn’t exist a few months ago, so we’re going to see more more jobs like that, jobs that we can’t imagine right now."

So with AI likely to be a major growth area, it is important to grow the skills base.

The UEA in Norwich agrees. It has just partnered with tech giant Google to offer students training in AI skills.

Gerard Parr, a professor in telecommunications engineering at the UEA, said AI skills would be in huge demand.

He says currently there are around 3,000 companies working in artificial intelligence and that is only going to continue to grow.

"You can think of various sectors where it could be very, very powerful... and we really want to give our students the exposure to these tools, because it's really important for their employability, given what's happening in industry itself it gives our students skills that they can take anywhere in the world.

"I think we have a real opportunity to help businesses in this region... it's important for us to see where there are opportunities to help companies in the region grow as well as maybe attracting foreign direct investment to come in and set up here."

But many tech experts have become concerned at AI's potential threat.

Concerns that AI may threaten humanity - much like the plots of films like The Matrix Credit: Warner Bros

Cambridge graduate Matt Clifford, the PM's own digital adviser, suggested AI could soon become a threat to human life.

Prof Neil Lawrence, of the University of Cambridge, said while there was obviously a need to regulate against the kind of apocalyptic scenario usually associated with a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, there are other areas we should be more worried about.

"I don’t think we have to think about human level intelligence to understand that AI or algorithmic decision-making have already massively disrupted us."

Prof Lawrence, a member of the AI Council, points to the story of Molly Russell, the teenager who died after suffering from “negative effects of online content”.

"We’ve already seen within the national conversation within the UK, that the conversation is starting to be dominated by the tech giants," said Prof Lawrence.

"I'm very worried about a world where, as we move forward, those voices are dominating a conversation because the notion that the tech giants are the right people to talk about an equitable future around AI seems quite similar to me to the idea that we should consult with turkeys about how we should eat at next Christmas."There is an existential threat about AI and it’s an existential threat to the business models of those companies.

"I’m not saying that they are doing it consciously, but it’s convenient for them to distract us into the notion of future and perceived threats to take your mind off the very, very real problems that we are facing today, with the proliferation of digital technologies taking decisions about us on the basis of our personal data."

Tracie Farrell "If your system you deploy AI is already has inequality, AI is not going to fix that, it’s probably going to make it worse" Credit: ITV News

Dr Tracie Farrell of the Open University agrees that creating an equitable future could be a bigger challenge.

There have long been concerns that a move to AI and greater automation will lead to huge job losses. Working out how to prevent such large scale impacts should be a priority for Number 10, she argues.

"In order to understand the impact on the economy, you need to know how does the economy work now, who is it working for and who is it not working for?

"Because if the system in which [we] want to deploy AI is already biased or prejudiced or leads to inequalities, AI is not going to fix that, it’s probably going to make it worse.

"So you need to work harder to get a sense of what’s happening now so you can understand what is likely to happen with AI because that’s just as important in prioritising regulation in the future."

But for others there are plenty of reasons for us to be optimistic, especially on the field of health. Recently AI has been used to create new antibiotics, and create potential treatments for cancer, but it could also be used to improve care.

Professor Neil Lawrence adds: "There are existing capabilities that we have, and are not deploying, that people are dying as a result of.

Prof Neil Lawrence: AI can enhance care in the NHS Credit: ITV News Anglia

"We already know how to do well structured data systems how to share information across the health service, how to understand who's sick and in which hospital and yet we don’t have these systems in our existing hospitals.

"It means nurses and doctors are struggling to spend the time with patients having to spend the time doing data entry - something they’re not trained for, something they're not interested in.

"With this new generation technology it's also possible we could have the machines be much more responsive to the doctors' and nurses' needs.

"The machines could interact - the doctors are enhancing the human, caring side, and [machines] take care of the administrative, filing copy side."