Britain has AI talent, but it’s not enough

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It’s the kind of insanely ambitious investment that seemingly only happens in Silicon Valley, at the top of a hype cycle: Pre-product, loss-making artificial intelligence startup raises $1.05 billion from SoftBank, Microsoft and Nvidia to fund a dizzying ambition for global dominance. . This deal was sealed last week in London when Wayve, which develops software for autonomous vehicles, announced Europe’s largest fundraising for AI startups.

If a British tech company wants to match Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s desire to create its own Microsoft worth more than $1 trillion in the next decade, Wayve is probably as good a bet as any. As a global pioneer in embodied AI – interacting and learning from the environment – ​​Wayve could sell the software for millions of self-driving cars if it spends its money wisely and executes its plans impeccably. “Embodied AI will be an industry that spawns billion-dollar companies,” said Alex Kendall, co-founder and CEO of Wayve. “And it is certainly our ambition to be one of them.”

Wayve’s seven-year history highlights the strengths of the UK technology industry: fundamental research from a leading university; early funding from a vibrant startup funding community; and a flexible post-Brexit regulatory regime that accommodates new technology. But Wayve’s latest funding round also exposes one of London’s lingering shortcomings: the growth capital needed to accelerate the company’s expansion comes from abroad. If Wayve delivers on its promise, it will now be foreign investors who benefit the most.

That may not matter much to Wayve, which has already opened an office in Silicon Valley and has outgrown the UK, as it must indeed if it wants to be a global market leader. “Our roots in Cambridge and London are very important to me personally. But we are a global company building a global product,” New Zealand-born Kendall, who was a star academic at Cambridge University before founding Wayve, tells me in a video interview from Seattle.

It was a good month for London’s reputation as a global AI hotspot. Last week, two fast-growing US companies – Scale AI, a training data company, and CoreWeave, an AI-focused cloud computing provider – announced they were opening their European headquarters in London. In addition, CoreWeave is investing $1 billion in data centers in Great Britain. Hunt has also been busy this week delivering the UK’s achievements to technology leaders at the chancellor’s Buckinghamshire estate in Dorneywood.

Britain has several top universities producing AI researchers, as well as global talent magnet Google DeepMind, which is among the strongest industrial AI labs in the world with more than 2,000 employees. “Ultimately, talent is still the most important thing in this sector. London is incredibly important,” said Jordan Jacobs, managing partner of Radical Ventures, a Toronto-based specialist AI investment fund.

But before British politicians indulge in too much congratulations, it’s worth noting how quickly the AI ​​industry is developing in the rest of the world, particularly in China, France and the United Arab Emirates, and the question to what extent the benefits of the AI ​​revolution are spreading through the rest of the economy.

At the top of the AI ​​food chain, the giant American tech companies still dominate. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the seven AI-obsessed US tech companies – Microsoft, Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Meta, Nvidia and Tesla – spent $200 billion on research and development last year – about half of the total equivalent public and private sector spending in Europe. US startups also captured 73 percent of the $42.5 billion invested in the AI ​​sector globally last year, according to data firm CB Insights. In such a US-dominated world, Britain risks becoming little more than a research arm.

As a recent article published by the AI ​​Now Institute noted, Britain’s acclaimed success in AI in a limited number of areas has resulted in a cramped policy framework, poor computing infrastructure and a waste of public sector data, which is invaluable value for training AI models are hidden from view. Since 2010, Britain has announced eleven different growth plans or industrial strategies, none of which have led to significantly higher investment. Britain accounts for just 1.4 percent of total global computing capacity, after Italy, Russia and Finland.

Britain certainly has good reasons to cheer its ambitious AI researchers and entrepreneurs. But the country urgently needs to deepen and broaden its adoption of the technology if it is to fully benefit from it.

john.thornhill@ft.com

Video: AI: a blessing or a curse for humanity? | FT technology

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