23 August 2023

Britain and its startups should lead the Age of AI


The age of Artificial Intelligence isn’t coming, it’s here. At the Startup Coalition, we talk regularly to startups already using AI to detect cancer, sequence as yet undiscovered drugs and improve customer service. The debate is no longer if, but when, AI will have succeeded in completely transforming life as we know it. 

And it’s clear too that AI could make or break the UK’s economy. We already have a strong innovation ecosystem. We know this because we can see the numbers – over 1500 high-growth startups contributing more than 20,000 jobs and £1bn in revenue to the economy – and because the Startup Coalition has been meeting and talking with founders and startups almost every week this year. 

So just as the UK led the first Industrial Age it is poised to do so in the AI Age. But to do so we need to capitalise on our lead.

How policymakers harness and guide the development of AI will be key to our success or failure. Government has made a good start – from the entrepreneur Ian Hogarth’s appointment as Chair of the Foundation Models Taskforce, leading research into AI safety – to the UK’s hosting of the Global AI summit this winter. But there’s also been a lot of confusion, noise and chaos that threatens progress. Startups can sense this. And while all work on the big meaty topics – like safety – is welcome, the shared vision for what progress looks like should come from everyone in the market, not just a minority. 

Debating whether to develop AI is about as useful as arguing whether gravity pulls down. America, India, China – these countries are not debating, they are acting. The question is how can we react to turbocharge our own AI ecosystem whilst ensuring the people of the UK benefit. That’s why it’s critical that the best and brightest startups are at the table, why work on the future of AI policy must involve both sides of the political spectrum, and why we are officially launching new work on AI – a collaboration between both industry and think tanks and organisations focused on AI – with the Startup Coalition, Onward, and the Tony Blair Institute at the helm. 

Both Onward and the Tony Blair Institute are leading UK organisations that have honed in on AI and shaped the policy debate. We plan on fusing their thought-leadership and expertise with the know-how of industry to create practical – and tested – solutions.

The UK’s AI startups are set to be one of our greatest economic strengths in the coming years – and to give the UK the best chance at success, we’re crossing political aisles, industry lines, and even international borders to work with the best and brightest startups, investors, and thought leaders – all of whom want to see AI startups and the greater UK economy succeed. We’re asking and answering questions on the mind of every Minister, MP and official – from the practical needs of the ecosystem to how to mitigate concrete harms like misinformation and bias.

From discussions on the existential risks facing generative AI, to how to currently mitigate hallucinations or AI-produced deep fakes, our joint project will cover everything the Government’s Foundation Models Taskforce and Office of AI are currently wrangling – and more. 

And we’re not forgetting to drill into basics – what do all AI startups need to succeed? Without concrete discussions on how to increase their access to data, attract more high-skilled talent, and ensure secure investment opportunities, the UK’s AI startups don’t stand a chance. The building blocks of the startup ecosystem are equally as important as the AI-specific issues facing it. That’s why our project won’t miss the wood for the trees when growing a successful UK ecosystem. 

Making sure AI founders can safely and competitively innovate won’t be easy – but startups would be the first to tell you it hasn’t been easy getting the incredible innovation we have seen today to the market so far. And ultimately, it’s not about easy or hard – we have to act now or miss out forever.

With the trust and knowledge of partners like the Tony BIair Institute and Onward, and the diverse startups that make up the UK’s AI ecosystem, we’re sure we can take on challenge.

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Kir Nuthi is the Head of Tech Regulation at the Startup Coalition, formerly Coadec.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.