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UK invests £18.5m to boost diversity in artificial intelligence

Funding for artificial intelligence will go towards conversion degrees, scholarships for under-represented groups and online learning in the UK

The government has announced an investment of up to £18.5m to support efforts to enhance diversity in artificial intelligence (AI) and data science roles.

Part of a wider plan to upskill the UK workforce as part of the AI Sector Deal to position the country as a leader in use of the technology, £13.5m of the total funding will go towards up to 2,500 AI and data science conversion courses for professionals who have degrees in other disciplines, as well as 1,000 scholarships.

The programmes will aim to support applications from professionals returning from a career break and looking to retrain, as well as under-represented groups in the digital workforce, including women and those from minority ethnic or lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Around £5m will be invested into the Adult Learning Technology Innovation Fund, to be launched in partnership with innovation foundation Nesta, which will seek to encourage companies to use AI and automation to improve online learning platforms aimed at helping adults retrain.

“The UK has a long-standing reputation for innovation, world-leading academic institutions and a business-friendly environment. Everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to build a successful career in our world-leading tech sector,” said digital secretary Jeremy Wright.

“Through these AI and data conversion courses and our modern Industrial Strategy, we are committed to working with the tech sector and academia to develop and maintain the best AI workforce in the world,” he added.

Speaking at the CogX event in London on 10 June, AI skills champion and professor at University of Southampton, Wendy Hall, emphasised that diversity will help with the design and development of AI technology, and said that the topic is getting a lot of attention within the government’s AI strategy.

“We’ve got a talent pipeline that is not diverse in gender – and that is so important, especially given the bias issues. We are all biased anyway, but if you have a [limited] subset of society building the algorithms, that is not good for society – and we absolutely have to make that part of the ethical framework for AI,” Hall said, in reference to the prevalence of the young, white, male stereotype in the digital industry and in AI roles in particular.

“In terms of how we regulate AI, diversity needs to be right up there [in terms of priorities]. Companies must take a diverse approach and have an interdisciplinary team. Even small startups can surround themselves with people and apply different ways to ensure they are thinking about their products from a diversity point of view.

“Diversity is a big area of focus for the UK government. The things we have tried in the past 30 years haven’t shifted the dial enough, so we need to do things that will make a difference quickly,” she added.

Also at CogX, London Mayor Sadiq Khan criticised the government for not doing as much as it should in terms of AI readiness.

The UK is one of the best placed in the world to take advantage of AI for public service delivery, according to a study by Oxford Insights in partnership with the International Development Research Centre.

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