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UK should be much further ahead in AI, says London mayor

Sadiq Khan calls on the next prime minister to prioritise preparations around the potential impact of artificial intelligence

London mayor Sadiq Khan has urged the next UK prime minister to prioritise work around artificial intelligence (AI) and to prepare for the technology’s impact at a local and national level.

“I call on the next prime minister – whoever that may be – to give AI the attention it deserves,” Khan told delegates at the CogX event on the first day of London Tech Week (10 June).

He said “chaos” around the UK’s departure from the EU has caused the government to sideline preparations around AI. The UK should be a lot more prepared for making the most out of the technology, he added.

“Brexit seems to have drained central government resources and attention away from one of the most important debates of the day,” said Khan.

Last year, the UK government launched the AI Sector Deal, a multimillion-pound investment programme to position the UK as a leader in AI, he said, and the programme has since been boosted with extra funding.

“There is no doubt that, as a country, we should be much further ahead than we are now, not only in terms of making sure we can make the most of what AI has to offer, but in terms of educating the public,” said Khan.

“It must ultimately fall to government working with tech businesses and leaders to ensure that AI adoption is always steered towards augmenting, not replacing, human thought and endeavour, that citizens will always be at the heart of AI design, and that the public can be reassured that AI will not lead us to some dystopian future, but to a better one for us all.”

The mayor went on to mention the efforts London is making to educate the public about AI and encourage public debate about the issue. This includes a partnership with cities such as Amsterdam and Helsinki to develop an AI framework to ensure greater public accountability.

According to Khan, cities such as London are best placed to take advantage of AI because, compared with national government, local administrations are closer to people and can adapt quickly to their changing needs.

But he stressed that the government should “tread extremely carefully” with AI and other data-driven technologies, such as machine learning.

“There is no question that the rise of machine learning and AI in city government, and around the world in general, raises many ethical and privacy issues,” said Khan.

“It is crucial that we secure, rather than undermine, the confidence of local citizens. People have to have trust in tech if we are to make the most of it.”

Read more about AI in the UK government

London is home to more than 750 AI firms – more than twice as many as its closest European rivals, Paris and Berlin, combined, according to statistics from the mayor’s office.

Khan said the private sector must work with government at a national and local level to make the most of AI.

“I want us to continue to lead by example in London to show how we can use AI effectively and to show how it is possible to bring the public with us, but the truth is that if we’re going to get this right, we must all work together,” he said.

AI has been adopted in a range of citizen services in London, including chatbots offering customer services, as well as prioritisation of council home repairs and maintenance, traffic signalling and demand-responsive transport to ease congestion.

Taking that further by developing “imaginative ways to use big datasets” is a key area of focus of the London Office for Technology and Innovation, which launches today (10 June) to strengthen the innovation ability of boroughs across the capital through a collaborative approach.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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