Microsoft: The UK can lead in AI, but the ‘window of opportunity’ is closing

Chris Bishop, Lab Director at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, has voiced his excitement and concern about the AI industry in the UK.

The UK has a long heritage in artificial intelligence and that history is helping establish it as a leader. A new AI startup is founded every week and Silicon Valley giants like Google are paying out large amounts of cash for the likes of DeepMind (acquired for £400m).

Microsoft Research in Cambridge has been researching AI, machine learning, and deep learning for around 20 years. Their work has found its way into various products and services including, recently, the ‘Seeing AI’ app which is a groundbreaking talking camera app for individuals with visual impairments.

A potential roadblock

While everything looks great on the surface, there’s a potential roadblock coming up.

The shortage of AI talent is well documented. I’ve reported about companies stealing talent from academia, and the huge salaries being given to people with the right knowledge — which are higher than most startups and universities can afford to match.

Bishop is also concerned about how this will impact future generations.

In a blog post, he wrote: “AI is fast becoming a battle for supremacy and the UK must compete for the best talent, or we risk losing out on a game-changing generation that will drive innovation in healthcare, manufacturing, finance and many other industries.”

The UK government is aware of the importance of AI and defined it as being one of the ‘industries of the future’. In the last three years, the number of AI jobs in Britain has soared by 485%

Ensuring sustainability

In the budget announced last month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer allocated £75 million for AI research and development.

“While we welcome last month’s Budget announcement that the government is to significantly increase funding for AI, we need initiatives that go further to increase the number of computer science students in every school in the country, and that will double the number of PhD students, if we are to capitalise on this window of opportunity,” comments Bishop.

Microsoft, for its part, is partnering with universities and other teaching institutions to ensure it doesn’t poach talent and increase the current skill gap problem. Some of the company’s researchers even continue roles in universities.

Further helping to ensure sustainability, Microsoft also funds some PhD scholarships, sends researchers to co-supervise students in universities, and offers paid internships to work alongside teams at Microsoft on projects.

The stance Microsoft is taking should be commended and we hope other companies follow to ensure the UK continues to produce world-class talent and remains a leader in AI. If not, the government may need to provide more than just funding and seek legislative methods of ensuring the long-term health of the industry.

What are your thoughts on the AI industry in the UK? Let us know in the comments.

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