Fourth Industrial Revolution rhetoric: mere cant?

Philip Hammond’s Spring statement, as UK chancellor, reached, predictably, for the rhetoric of the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

Not for the first time. Whenever he gets the chance to say the UK is in the forefront of artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and so on, and so forth he takes it. He might be taking his “spreadsheet Phil” moniker a bit too seriously.

This nationalistic appropriation of AI/machine learning functions as a fig leaf for Brexodus, it almost goes without saying. “Don’t worry about Brexit, we’ve got the AIs and the hashtags to keep us warm”, is the gist of government patter here, whether from Hammond or Amber Rudd, home secretary. How much any of them know about technology is anyone’s guess.

Hammond seems to believe Matt Hancock, secretary of state for culture, media and (also) sport, is himself a product of the software industry — of which he is, admittedly, a scion. This is Hammond, speaking in the House of Commons this week:

“Our companies are in the vanguard of the technological revolution.

And our tech sector is attracting skills and capital from the four corners of the earth.

With a new tech business being founded somewhere in the UK every hour.

Producing world-class products including apps like TransferWise, CityMapper,

And Matt Hancock.”

Hilarious. And Theresa May, the prime minister, is always keen to get in on the 4IR act. Her speech in Davos, to a half-empty hall, was long on technology rhetoric, and short on detail about what the global elite are interested in – viz Brexit.

Now, there is no denying the UK does have some unusual strengths in AI, at least in terms of academic research, and the start-ups therefrom. One can only wonder at the world-class work undoubtedly going on at GCHQ under the AI banner. The UK must, surely, have an advantage to squander?

Hopefully, the forthcoming House of Lords Select Committee report on artificial intelligence will provide a balanced, cool, rational, non-flag waving description of the state of the art in the UK, and offer some policy that will make a positive difference to our economy. But it will only do so if it takes the measure of some of the AI scepticism expressed in the committee’s hearings towards the end of last year. And appreciates that there are different sides in the debate on AI among people who know what they are talking about. It’s not all Tiggerish enthusiasm, whether nescient or not.

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