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Balancing regulation and innovation to ensure the UK remains a global leader in AI

The EU has taken a lead in regulating artificial intelligence through its AI Act - the UK government needs to respond or it risks losing the UK's status as an AI innovation frontrunner

The recent approval of the EU’s AI Act signals a pivotal moment for Europe and its budding status as a global standard-setter in artificial intelligence. However, it also serves as a wake-up call for the UK. Despite a strong start, hosting the world’s first global safety summit on AI in November of last year, the UK has now fallen quiet in comparison to its mainland counterpart and is at risk of losing its standing as a frontrunner in AI innovation.

The discourse surrounding AI in 2023 largely revolved around the threat it poses, with many warning against the technology’s “existential risk”. This year’s focus has been much more practical, looking at regulation, adoption, and the framework we can create for businesses to see the tangible positive impacts that AI can bring.

Europe is surging ahead with comprehensive regulatory frameworks and the rapid growth of new AI companies such as France’s Mistral AI. It is time for the UK to confront the reality that its early momentum may not be enough to sustain its leadership in the rapidly evolving landscape.

Without proactive measures to bolster its position and encourage safe innovation, we risk losing our competitive edge to those who are actively defining the trajectory of AI development and deployment.

Startup ecosystems

The UK, and in particular London, still stands as one of the best destinations in the world for technology businesses and startups. According to recent rankings, London ranks equal second globally with New York, trailing only behind Silicon Valley, in terms of having the best startup ecosystem for tech companies to flourish.

London also continues to lead as Europe’s largest tech hub, with its startups having raised almost as much investment in 2023 as the next three European cities – Paris, Stockholm, and Berlin - combined. On top of this, the UK remains the world’s third largest tech economy, behind only the US and China – adding to its allure as a hub for international pioneers and small businesses alike.

AI is advancing at an unprecedented speed, and the UK must ensure that its light-touch approach to regulation does not tip into becoming a completely hands-off one
Gavin Poole, Here East

However, keeping this status requires continuous adaptation. Success on both a national and global level demands a delicate balance between innovation and regulatory agility. Robust frameworks are invaluable in ensuring the responsible deployment of generative AI, but must also be careful not to stifle the very innovation that propels us forward.

Last year, the UK government stressed the importance of an innovation-friendly attitude to AI, avoiding restrictive rules or standards that might stifle progress rather than encourage it. However, AI is advancing at an unprecedented speed, and the UK must ensure that its light-touch approach to regulation does not tip into becoming a completely hands-off one.

Rather than kerbing progress, as some believe, governing frameworks can create a safe environment for businesses to implement and experiment with emerging technologies. Understanding AI is not just about constraining it, but helping build supportive foundations and pillars on which businesses can lean.

Responsible innovation

While excessive restrictions can impede the creativity and potential of AI-driven enterprises, a lack of oversight risks undermining public trust and feeding ethical concerns. Success is not just about clearing the path for the big tech giants leading the charge, but about creating and nurturing an environment where these new disruptive models can be used by smaller businesses and startups to drive value and gain a competitive edge.

In this context, regulation should be viewed as a facilitator of responsible innovation - as a way of making sure humans remain in the driving seat. By implementing clear guidelines and standards, the government can provide businesses and organisations with the confidence and certainty they need to invest in emerging tools and technologies.

The UK government’s AI regulatory framework outline, published in February, puts forward a “pro-innovation” approach. It’s promising to see this awareness around the need for guidelines, but the non-legislative principles are focused on the key players involved in AI development.

To encourage inclusive innovation, the UK must involve as many voices as possible when shaping the regulatory landscape. This means actively engaging with not only the big tech corporations, but startups, educational institutions, and smaller businesses as well.

As we have already witnessed, targeted investment in research and development can stimulate the creation of AI tools that have the potential to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from reducing pollution to optimising workplaces and aiding in healthcare solutions. Recently we have seen an NHS AI tool identify tiny cancers missed by human doctors and the development of a new tool that can predict which breast cancer patients are more at risk of post-treatment side effects.

Next-generation talent

Another key part of ensuring success and growth involves investing in the next generation of talent. The government’s recent announcement of over £1bn in funding for doctoral students in future tech fields is a step in the right direction.

As we look ahead, we must continue to facilitate this collaboration between academia and industry, ensuring that students gain practical experience in these increasingly important sectors and that businesses have access to the talent of the future to protect and grow our economy.

Ultimately, striking the balance between regulation and innovation will require close collaboration between policymakers, industry leaders, and academic institutions. The UK cannot afford to rest on its laurels nor underestimate the challenges ahead. The EU passing its ground-breaking AI Act is a wake-up call for the UK - a reminder that we must adapt and evolve our guidelines to stay ahead of the curve.

The ideal scenario is a framework that fosters growth and invests in local talent and future potential, to further cement our position as a global leader in AI innovation.

Gavin Poole is CEO of Here East.

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