The UK's AI sector is booming... at least for now

AI brain

Whether it's beating world-leading chess players or strong-arming cyber security strategies, artificial intelligence technology is quickly becoming ubiquitous across all industries. The pace of growth over the last few years has made AI a major commercial opportunity, with Gartner valuing the global market right now at $1.2 trillion, and that's before we've really seen a mass rollout of the technology.

The UK has long been considered a major player in the development of AI, and its industry is enjoying a period of substantial investment. In April, the UK Government announced its AI Sector Deal a 1 billion funding package backed by 50 leading businesses and organisations. The aim is to turn our already world-leading research into a major export in the coming years.

That deal is already bearing fruit. Since its launch, Japanese venture capital firm Global Brain has announced its plans to open its European HQ in the UK and invest 35 million in British AI start-ups, while Vancouver-based Chrysalix has also pledged to plough 110 million into AI and robotics enterprises throughout the country. Meanwhile, the University of Cambridge has launched a 10 million AI supercomputer.

The deal will also see 300 million of government funding made available for AI research, with the hope of creating 1,000 specialist PhDs and training 8,000 computer science teachers by 2025.

There's a reason for this sudden surge in investment. Estimates claim AI and automation could potentially generate an additional 630 billion for the British economy, according to Accenture, with PwC also claiming that the country's GDP will be 10.3% higher in 2030 as a result of the developing technology.

Transforming healthcare

One of those UK startups likely to benefit from the increased domestic and international attention is London-based health tech firm Cognetivity, which is quickly becoming an early success story for the industry.

Backed by years of pioneering research, the company is using AI to detect dementia at its earliest stages. Founded by a team of Cambridge PhD graduates, the company has built a simple, 5-minute test, administered via an iPad and analysed by a proprietary AI system, that assesses a patients reaction time. Patients are then categorised as being either cognitively impaired, at risk of developing a cognitive impairment, or cognitively healthy.

Since launching five years ago, Cognitivity has amassed a team of expert scientists and entrepreneurs from the likes of the University of Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, King's College London and the University of Oxford. And more recently, the company raised over $4 million to commercialise its breakthrough technology.

Seyed-Mahdi Khaligh-Razavi, chief science officer at Cognetivity, says he has made it his mission to transform the healthcare sector in the UK. "In recent years, attention has turned [to] the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare. UK healthcare is not an exception. AI can be used to improve healthcare outcomes, and ultimately reduce the costs," he says.

"Despite all the new advancements in AI research, it seems very little of this has been incorporated into real life healthcare scenarios in the UK. Cognetivity's mission is to fill in some of this gap, by providing an AI-based solution for early diagnosis of dementia, which can be used as a cognitive screening tool in primary care or by specialists as an aid to diagnosis."

A booming and diverse sector

Chipset maker NVIDIA is one of the global technology giants investing heavily in the UK's booming artificial intelligence industry. Its Inception virtual incubator programme is helping hundreds of companies launch and develop, such as Digital Surgery, which is using AI to help surgeons in the operation theatre, and breast cancer detection platform Kheiron Medical technology.

Oscar Guerra, deep learning start-up account manager of Northern Europe at NVIDIA, says the UK's various supporting networks are helping to create a flourishing and diverse scene.

"When AI start-ups succeed, NVIDIA succeeds, because we create the technology platform which underpins their AI applications, says Guerra. "Start-ups are our customers, but they're also our advocates and our partners. In the UK, NVIDIA is particularly well placed to foster connections between UK start-ups and the higher education, research and organisations with which we also work," he says.

"One of the most popular aspects of our Inception program is the Inception Connect event series, which gives members the opportunity to present and network with potential customers and partners from industry. We also offer AI start-ups business mentoring and technical advice, hardware grants, marketing support and training. In exceptional cases, we invest via our GPU Ventures programme."

Sharon Einstein, VP EMEA of robotic automation and AI at NICE, says the UK has been at the forefront of adopting artificial intelligence-based technology for some time now.

"Most businesses understand and acknowledge that the technology is transforming the way we interact and make decisions," she tells us. "Businesses that embrace robotic and cognitive automation will be a part of the automation economy with their employees freed from mundane, monotonous tasks to focus on adding real value to their employers."

Ongoing support is crucial

Even in the uncertain Brexit climate, the UK remains an attractive location to start an AI firm. Not only do companies have access to more funding than ever, they're also able to benefit from the wealth of talent available, whether that's homegrown or those coming to take advantage of UK universities.

"The UK is a major player in the global deep-tech scene," says Chris Ganje, CEO and co-founder of Cardiff-based web harvesting platform Amplyfi. "When we first set up AMPLYFI, we explored a number of global options for headquarters. However, it was Britain, and specifically Cardiff, that came out top due to access to talent, networks, support from local government, plus fantastic resources right on our doorstep," he says.

However, he adds that there's significant pressure on the UK government to maintain this investment as countries like China and the US are "promising huge investment" and continue "to lead the way in many innovations".

"Backing the right companies and organisations that are making truly transformative innovations in AI is key to ensuring the UK remains competitive on the world stage," adds Ganje. "In addition, fostering a collaborative environment across the UK, while forging links with other countries driving innovation in this area, will continue to be important," he says.

The Brexit question

Brexit remains a huge challenge for AI startups, particularly those that are currently seeking investment. The field of artificial intelligence currently represents one of those rare industries that continues to do remarkably well despite the current political climate. Yet that's heavily dependent on investment continuing to be a priority for the UK government once we leave the EU.

"Signs look positive for the future of UK AI, as the government continues to back businesses developing tech through R&D tax credits," says David Bishop, CTO of retail discount aggregator LoveTheSales. "The industry also received a major boost after businesses backed the 1bn AI sector deal."

Even if domestic investment continues, there are concerns that the steady stream of international support may dry up, something that Bishop has already seen within his own business.

"Uncertainty over Brexit could cause overseas investors to think twice about backing UK tech companies," he adds. "We had potential investment pulled at the time of the Brexit vote, which delayed our plans to further develop our AI. While there are major players based in the UK, [the concern] is that Brexit may make the UK a less exciting prospect for top AI talent."

There's no denying that the UK has also received substantial financial support from the EU, and continues to do so for some areas of robotics. A report released last year by RSA suggested that as of December last year, as much as 80% of the funding for the UK's automation industry was coming from the EU, with Professor Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, going as far to describe the bloc as the "salvation of British robotics".

How the UK will replace this funding post-Brexit is currently unclear, although the government is planning an expansion of the Startup Loans Company in the coming years, which will provide a modest pot for AI firms to dip into.

The UK is fortunate in that its AI industry, with the help of the government, has aggressively positioned itself as a pioneer in the AI scene, as it's potentially one sector that it can rely on to deliver post-Brexit. However, in order to make that sustainable, the UK is going to need to convince its international partners to chip in.

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.