Our recent past has been defined by ever-accelerating technological progress. Digital technologies have advanced rapidly, diffused across societies and ushered in a new era by providing the modern infrastructure required to collect data at scale. In the coming decades, artificial intelligence (AI) will have consequences that compare to the Industrial Revolution. Twenty-first-century leaders face a strategic choice that will define their country’s future: move early and lead this revolution, or let the moment pass?
Those who make the right call and quickly adapt will thrive. Those who do not will be left behind. Most governments were slow to adopt earlier waves of innovation. But the sophistication of today’s technology provides an opportunity to reimagine the state. By building on the AI-era infrastructure of cloud, compute and high-value data, a wholly new concept of the state is possible: a state that is truly strategic, harnessing the power of science and technology to perform its functions better and at lower cost. A state that empowers citizens, rather than directing them.
At present this is a choice where the potential price of change may be high. But the reality is that in time this will be the only way to govern effectively. The nature of the challenges we face means we don’t have an alternative. Our institutions need updating, and our public services need improving. In an age where people can access nearly unlimited information at their fingertips, a failure to act will widen the disconnect between what they enjoy in some parts of their lives and what they experience with government. The risk? Lower trust that the government can deliver.
Added to this are problems we face as a species that do not lend themselves to simple solutions. Progress is not being made as quickly as we would like as the number of “disruptive” scientific discoveries – that is, those that take a field into an entirely new direction – begins to plateau. Climate change, medical breakthroughs, energy security and other areas require us to think beyond business as usual.
In response to multifaceted challenges, we need to use technology, incentives and systems that can contend with complexity.
Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold system is an example of how AI represents an opportunity to make progress on incredibly complex problems. Before AlphaFold it took a PhD and around $100,000 to determine the shape of a single protein, the fundamental building block of life that can unlock new drug development. Using machine learning targeted at a specific challenge, AlphaFold was able to discover the shapes of all 200 million known proteins – equating to around 1 billion years of research. We don’t have a billion years to solve these problems, so doing science at digital speed is a necessity.
The recent AlphaMissense model builds on AlphaFold to predict the harm potential of 71 million “missense” variants: genetic mutations that can sometimes cause diseases like cystic fibrosis or even cancer. Both databases have been made freely available so researchers can use these discoveries across multiple disciplines.
These are just two examples that could unlock once-in-a-generation discoveries in biology. But if the UK is to stand the greatest possible chance of making the potential of these discoveries a reality, there are actions the government should take right now. With its AI Safety Summit approaching, there is no better time for the UK to move to secure its future.
Invest more in digital infrastructure, including the compute and health sectors. The benefits of investment could be significant: as Joe Harrison of the NHS recently set out, every £1 spent on technology generates around £4 in saving.
Treat data as a competitive asset. Many of the giants of the modern economy have built their business on data, and countries need to capitalise on what they can create. For example, the UK Biobank has helped stimulate biomedical research and biotech, while innovative work by Moorfields using AI on eye scans is helping change the field of ophthalmology and how we diagnose disease.
Continue to improve private-public collaboration. Policymakers can look towards the work Google DeepMind has done with the NHS as a success story.
In all of this, there can be no trade-off between AI safety and progress. We need both. In many areas we already have well-developed regulatory systems for AI, but the forthcoming AI Safety Summit, the UK government’s Frontier AI Taskforce and the establishment of the Frontier Model Forum are important steps towards starting an open discussion on the risks of AI, as well as developing state capacity in this fundamental technology.
This is an important conversation to get right – not just for the UK, but for countries everywhere. Getting it wrong risks missing out on the upsides of this new wave of innovation. For the UK, this technology presents a major opportunity for a country that is already towards the front of the pack. By grasping the chance now, the UK can seize the opportunity to reimagine the state, stimulate scientific discovery and solve some of the challenges it faces. This window won’t last long, so we need to move now.