Can Small Businesses make the UK a leader in artificial intelligence?


The UK boasts a rich history in technology innovation, from Alan Turing to DeepMind.  British academia and industry is now leading the way in machine learning and artificial intelligence research and development, with AI projected to contribute an additonal £230 billion to the UK economy by 2030.

As the a service based economy, SMEs will play a significant role in grasping these technological advances, with AI seen as a large commercial opportunity for the UK.  However, some significant challenges still need to be overcome before such advances can reach their full potential.

Barriers to AI development
Recently, superhuman levels of performance are being achieved by the next generation of ‘deep learning’ methods. These achievements rely on having access to massive amounts of high quality training data, computation power and expertise in this area.

For example, when DeepMind’s AlphaZero beat AlphaGo, the machine-learning software that conquered 18-time human Go champion, Lee Sedol, last year, it relied on computational power greater than the World’s top ten supercomputers combined.

Individual AI and machine learning runs can cost upwards of £10,000, meaning that many AI start-ups can struggle to drum up sufficient investment to produce a proof of concept.  Access to this level of computation power and expertise is currently a significant barrier for SMEs.

This fact was supported by Digital Catapult’s recent report, Machines for Machine Intelligence, which found that the demand and cost of computation power for machine learning models is rapidly increasing.

According to one job site, the demand for software developers and machine learning engineers who create AI software has increased by 485 per cent since 2014. 

This creates a further challenge – finding people with the right set of skills for AI development leaving large and SMEs fighting over a small pool of talent – and consquently, unable to potentially meet their ambitions.

Several high-profile projects demonstrating that AI can propagate human biases have challenged the technology and the rules governing its development, questioning the ethics of their work.

It’s significantly important that SMEs are concious of these, and their potential implications – to business and society – of inadvertently building bias into a product.

Finding the way forward
These barriers are significant – supportive initiatives will be critical in helping bright start-ups overcome these barriers and reach their full potential. 

Launched in December, Digital Catapult’s Machine Intelligence Garage is one such programme, providing access to computational power and expertise through partners including AWS, Graphcore and Google Cloud. 

The programme also aims to educate Startups and SMEs about working with larger organisations about the benefits of AI adoption. With access to these resources, organisations will be able to bring their products to market faster, create better machine learning tools and scale-up their businesses quicker.

The UK government has committed to opening a national Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to ensure that ethical standards are at the forefront of AI and data-driven technology development – building a world-class ethics process to help start-ups navigate these unclear and still unchartered waters.

With the knowledge, application and benefits of AI increasing across mutiple sectors, the demand for tech talent is escalating. Education will be at the forefront in helping prepare future generations to fill AI roles. The British government has already commenced initiatives to address this, taking into account the positive results from previous initiatives which encouraged young people into STEM careers.


Savvy businesses are looking to forge partnerships with universities to ensure a ready stream of AI talent, while others are forming internal learning centres to train employees in AI skills.  For example, Kings College London has partnered with a number of local NHS trusts to prototype AI for healthcare, and Nvidia has established kits for educational institutions, covering fundemental and advanced deep learning topics.

The UK has all the right ingredients to become a global leader in AI.   The UK’s success in this field will be reliant on private and public-sector organisations coming together to tackle the challenges faced by AI businesses and those using AI. It is only through collaboration and mutual support that these challenges will be overcome.

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