Building Scotland’s AI powerhouse
Professor Michael Rovatsos, Director of the Bayes Centre, responds to the Scottish Government's Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
As AI is firmly establishing itself as a key technology that will transform how we live and work, everybody is asking themselves how people, businesses, and governments can prepare for the future challenges and opportunities it brings.
Scotland’s Artificial Intelligence Strategy is an ambitious plan to establish Scotland as a powerhouse for AI, with a focus on making sure it is used in ethical and inclusive ways. Like many other similar initiatives across the UK and around the world, this strategy identifies key areas for development, such as skills, data infrastructure, and collaboration between the public, private, and third sectors, but it puts a unique focus on making AI “a force for good, and a catalyst for positive change”.
In doing so, it asks a fundamental question: What action do we need to take to make sure AI benefits everybody in society? It does so at a time where society is going through an upheaval, induced by the Covid-19 crisis, that goes way beyond what most of us in western, affluent societies have experienced in their lifetimes.
Whenever society and technology are changing rapidly in transformative ways, our collective ability to develop new solutions is put to the test, and we must create new structures to be able to innovate as a society. At the University, we embarked on a journey in this direction over four years ago, when we proposed to establish a network of innovation hubs designed to boost the regional economy through the use of data and AI.
This may seem like an obvious thing an institution would do that has been at the forefront of AI since the 1960s and nowadays hosts over 400 researchers in this area. But what was fundamentally new about this approach was for a University to reimagine its role in society as a core contributor to the innovation landscape and focus on partnering with government, industry, entrepreneurs, and citizens to turn our excellence in research and education into tangible benefit for everybody.
Less than three years ago, the first of these hubs opened its doors – the Bayes Centre, a place where now 500 researchers, students, and entrepreneurs from over 40 organisations work side by side, generating ideas and opportunities, developing new products and services, but, most importantly, educating and supporting each other on their personal journey through innovation.
The Bayes Centre
The Bayes Centre was an experiment in creating the right environment for innovation to happen. We brought in leading academic experts and students in data science and AI from across the University into a single physical space – recognising that you need to “stand on the shoulders of giants”, as Issac Newton once said, if you are going to aim high.
We invited corporates, start-ups, and SMEs that are leading the way in AI innovation into the Centre to give them access to researcher and student talent at the University. We supported young tech businesses on their journey to success by hosting them in incubators, accelerators, and running investor showcase events where they can pitch their ideas to hundreds of investors from around the world. We created a range of online learning programmes for professionals, students, and entrepreneurs of all backgrounds to give them access to data and AI skills. And we brought in innovation experts, such as The Data Lab, Nesta, The Alan Turing Institute, and EIT Digital, to enable our community to access the support these partners provide in Scotland, the UK, and across Europe.
The experiment has paid off. Within just two and a half years, we have helped create almost 400 new jobs, upskilled over 7,000 people, enabled companies to raise over £90 million of funding, and attracted over 50 companies to join our ecosystem. This has been made possible by doing many of the things the National AI Strategy recommends.
We have created opportunities for people and organisations to get hands-on experience of AI, attracting £38m of public and private investment in collaborative data science and AI projects. Our annual tech investor showcase EIE has created the “international market square” for investment into new AI ventures, second in size only to similar events in London in the UK.
We have helped the public to develop their understanding of AI through online resources, e.g. our data ethics MOOC that has engaged over 6,500 learners. We seek out and identify new opportunities, engaging with over 300 data and AI tech startups that have applied to our accelerator programmes, and supporting over 40 of the best ones among them from across the globe.
Through an investment of over £100m, the University has established a scalable data infrastructure and platform that provides safe and secure data access and computing facilities of a scale beyond anything other places in the UK have to offer. Talking to many of the key industry players, investors, governments, and innovation agencies in the AI arena has connected us to the international business and policy landscape. The combined experience of all these activities have allowed us to understand how key elements of Scotland’s future “AI playbook” should be articulated.
But, most importantly, we have established a structure and culture that enables us to leverage the capabilities of those around us, with the Bayes Centre as an organisation of only around 30 people acting as the connecting element between our many partners, and running a small number of additional activities that close the gaps between and amplify everything others are already doing.
Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, almost all of our activities have of course been run virtually, and experiencing an unabating interest in our activities throughout this difficult time has been both encouraging and heartening, given the devastating impact on people and businesses we have witnessed around us throughout this period.
With over 900 people attending our tech investor conference during lockdown, almost 150 AI startups from around the world and PhD students from the university applying to our incubation and acceleration programmes, as well as 15 new courses being added to our online learning porfolio, we have seen that new technologies do not only provide opportunities, but also a beacon of hope for the people of Scotland and across the world.
Ongoing conversations with further partners who want to co-locate with us and the growth of organisations we are already working with suggest that we might even face challenges to accommodate everybody who wants to join us when we all return to the Centre physically over the next few months.
Innovation is complex and difficult, but ultimately rewarding, and the National AI Strategy is a call to arms to raise our collective ambition in terms of the role Scotland can play in AI on the global stage, and how it can thrive through the use of AI. We have experienced first-hand that there is no lack of great people and ideas in Scotland, and that an environment like the one we have helped create in Edinburgh with substantial support from the Scottish Government has the potential to become one of the world’s best places for AI innovation.
There are still roadblocks that need to be overcome to unlock the value of AI for society. We need to lower the financial threshold for upskilling our population in AI through financial support that makes participation in training programmes as easy for a working professional or unemployed citizen as it is for a young person deciding to study a relevant subject at College or University. We need to create a much stronger, nationwide proposition to attract tech investment, both through scaled-up national AI investor events, and through incentives for ethical business investment, capitalising on our collective focus on AI for social good. An internationally prominent, concerted industry outreach effort is needed that will bring those AI industry leaders to Scotland that can help us close the gap between Scotland and its competitors in terms of inward investment.
Significant efforts, driven by our local £660m programme of investment through the Edinburgh and SE Scotland City region Deal’s Data-Driven Innovation programme, will soon add further innovation hubs like the Bayes Centre to our ecosystem that is translating Scotland’s strengths in AI research to areas such as health and social care, finance, business, the arts and social sciences, food, climate and agriculture. Building on this major investment and our world-leading skills base, we have a unique opportunity now to create a National AI Institute that will coordinate the activities of these and other relevant centers across the country in close collaboration with government and industry partners to deliver the National AI Strategy, led by the envisioned AI Alliance.
Our way out of the Covid-19 crisis has been hailed by many as a “triumph of science”. But further global challenges lie ahead, from the looming climate catastrophy and deepening geopolitical tensions, to the widespread rise of global distrust in politics, business and the media. Almost certainly, AI will play a key role in addressing all of these, but it is becoming clear that this will only happen through a “triumph of innovation”, if we use science, knowledge, and investment wisely to create novel solutions that benefit all of society.
With the National AI Strategy, the Scottish Government has demonstrated a commitment to helping our nation not only to benefit from, but also to shape our AI future. Now is the time to bring together people, resources, and investment to make this happen, building on existing strengths and raising our ambitions to drive change and prosperity.
This piece was first published in the Scotsman newspaper on the 14th May 2021