Artificial intelligence (AI) and a UK-based quantum computer by 2035 to help drive innovation featured among the announcements made by the chancellor of the exchequer in his Autumn Statement today.
Along with setting out economic priorities and the headline tax cuts announced, the government is also exploring the use of AI and other cutting-edge technologies, including quantum, in the public sector. These are part of a plan that includes research and development tax cuts to help drive innovation in the UK.
“The UK hosts many of the world’s leading universities and the government provides the most generous support for business R&D [research and development] in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] as a share of GDP through tax relief and public investment,” said the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.
Earlier this week, the government unveiled an AI incubator called i.AI. It comprises what the chancellor described as “an elite team of technical experts at the heart of government”. The aim of this team is to help departments harness the potential of AI to improve lives and the delivery of public services.
The chancellor has now announced plans to invest £500m in ensuring universities, scientists and startups have access to the computing power they need to help make the UK what the government describes as an “AI powerhouse”.
In the Autumn Statement, Hunt stated that the National Quantum Computing Centre is supporting government and industry to explore how quantum computing could be applied. He said the government has also launched a catalyst fund to bring together quantum innovators and government departments to identify and develop near- and longer-term applications.
“The government is also building on the £2.5bn 10-year National Quantum Strategy by publishing an ambitious set of quantum missions, including a mission to have accessible, UK-based quantum computers capable of running one trillion operations by 2035. Other missions focus on quantum networks, medical applications, navigation and sensors for infrastructure,” he said.
An update to the National Quantum Strategy, published today, shows that by 2035, the government aims to have the world’s most advanced quantum network at scale deployed in the UK, which it said would lead to the future quantum internet.
The strategy also includes plans to use quantum sensing applications in the NHS by 2030.
Discussing the government’s approach to innovation, Accenture managing director Maynard Williams said: “Next-generation technologies represent a significant opportunity to showcase the UK as a leading science and technology player on a global scale – and business leaders are unanimous around its potential.
“Indeed, recent Accenture research found the overwhelming majority (96%) of UK executives agree next-generation computing will be a major driver of breakthroughs in their industry over the next decade. While there’s clear consensus on the capacity of the technology, less than half (45%) of business leaders anticipate making significant increases in the resources they dedicate to such technologies as it stands.
“Next-generation technologies – for example, quantum computing – are not only advanced and complex, but require skills that are hard to find and in high demand. To bridge this gap between ambition and action, attention to skills – as well as infrastructure – will be key. Supercomputing certainly needs time to mature, but it’s clear it will have a major role to play in helping companies effectively transform modelling and reduce feedback loops, accelerating the likes of materials and energy innovation.”
However, some commentators are concerned that the UK may be spreading itself too thinly when it comes to fostering science and technology innovation.
Discussing the focus on UK innovation, Rosalind Gill, head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), said: “A barrier to growth is lack of consistent focus on specific economic strengths. The UK cannot be world-leading in every area of scientific advancement.
“Therefore, to distinguish itself from the major global trading blocks of the US, Europe and China, the UK must make, and commit to, choices about the areas where it does want to establish a world-leading status. Attempts to prioritise strengths through a succession of strategies have failed to gain momentum or longevity. The UK needs a clear, long-term economic plan, genuinely shaped collectively by businesses, universities and policymakers.”
There is also a risk that the financial initiatives on innovative tech outlined by the chancellor will not help smaller businesses. KPMG’s head of technology, Ian West, said emerging technologies were often out of reach financially for small organisations.
“If businesses across the UK are not equally able to use innovative technologies, large organisations with greater resources will accelerate their market lead, resulting in potential digital inequality,” he said.