Is AI really the answer to everything? Creating a level playing field for innovation

The Evening Standard is currently running a series on artificial intelligence (AI), examining how London is leading the race to become the global capital for machine learning. This week, regular technology commentator Rohan Silva delved into the advances being made by DeepMind, the headline-grabbing AI company behind AlphaGo—the computer program that can beat humans at the Chinese board game, Go. Silva states that “London is the global powerhouse of AI”. It’s exciting stuff, attracting media attention, investment, jobs and economic growth.

You can’t deny that our thriving metropolis of technological innovation is doing great things for the capital and the industries it serves. However, as we excel and grow at these elite heights of technology, the digital divide is broadening. Innovation is key to success and we must always innovate to survive, but there’s often so much emphasis on cutting-edge technology that the basics are left behind. As Silicon Roundabout continues to advance, other key tech hubs across the county are standing still.

The need for speed

Access to high-speed broadband is a problem that continues to rumble on, despite involving relatively simple technology in comparison to AI development. The Guardian has reported that one million ‘forgotten homes’ in the UK that do not get fast enough broadband. Britain remains a global laggard, ranking 31st behind most of Europe, Thailand and New Zealand.

Innovation is meant to raise standards for society. The government’s lofty ‘Industrial Strategy’ – announced back in November 2017 – sets out a grand plan to drive the economy forward and create a better Britain for us all.

However, there are basic elements and rights being missed, as just how important high-speed access is can often be overlooked. Connectivity drives economic and social improvement. Look at the invention of the printing press—it connected people to news, information and knowledge. Subsequently, the railways physically connected rural and urban areas to create opportunity, increase employment and enable those all-important beach holidays

In 2018, rural areas (and even some major cities) across the UK are being left behind, hindered by a lack of connection to opportunities that their lucky counterparts in more connected cities are reaping. Education, business, healthcare and other public services all require fast broadband to function effectively. In a world where the transfer of large amounts of data is critical for success – be that software, HD video or other information – the digital divide is holding many parts of the UK back.

Innovators needed

It’s not just broadband. Basic digital evolution across vital elements of our lives is not taking place fast enough. Education and healthcare are two key examples where it’s needed most. Alan Mark, the Conservative MP for Havant, penned a very pointed piece in City AM this week claiming that the “NHS is overdue a digital revolution”. He makes the important point that “as the fourth industrial revolution accelerates – driven by artificial intelligence, robotics (etc.) – we must act now to ensure that the NHS doesn’t fall behind.”

High level innovation is paramount—AI, virtual reality (VR), robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) are all driving much-needed change, opening amazing opportunities for those who can access it. However, we need to get the basics right. As a nation which classes itself at the forefront of tech innovation, we have a duty to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to connect and benefit from this innovation.

With the Government’s new Industrial Strategy building pace, the country sets to benefit far more if we’re starting from a solid foundation, before we get too far ahead of ourselves.