National AI Strategy: The UK Government Publishes Its Artificial Intelligence Strategy for the Next Decade

On 22 September 2021, the UK Government (the “Government”) published its Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) strategy. The paper outlines the Government’s plan to make Britain a “global superpower” in the AI arena, and sets out an agenda to build the most “pro-innovation regulatory environment in the world”. This post highlights some of the key elements from the UK AI strategy. Significantly, the UK’s proposed approach may diverge in some respects from the EU’s GDPR. For example, the UK strategy includes consideration of whether to drop Article 22’s restrictions on automated decision-making, and whether to maintain the UK’s current sectoral approach to AI regulation.  The UK will publish a White Paper on regulating AI in early 2022, which will provide a basis for further consultation and discussion with interested or affected groups before draft legislation is formally presented to the UK Parliament.

1. Approach: A notable opening point is the Government’s persistent emphasis on having a “pro-innovation” approach. There is clearly a concern that there is potential over-regulation of the sector, with the paper stating that the Government may remove some “existing regulatory burdens where there is evidence they are creating unnecessary barriers to innovation”. This was echoed in the Government’s consultation on the UK data regime (“Data: a new direction”) where much was made of an intention to “unlock” the value of data across the economy.

2. The three pillars: The Government’s plan involves three pillars including:

a. “Investing in the long term needs of the AI ecosystem” – this centres around an aim to promote the type, frequency and scale of AI discoveries and investments. The Government plans (among other things) to:

        • Launch a joint Office for AI with the UK Research and Innovation body (“UKRI”).
        • Provide special visas for those with AI expertise.
        • Create AI research programmes.
        • Explore how privacy enhancing technologies can allow for more seamless data transfers worldwide.
        • Consult on the potential value of, and options with, digital twinning and wider cyber-physical infrastructure.
        • Invest in education on AI for schools and businesses, most notably via AI skills “Bootcamps”.

b. “Ensuring AI benefits all sectors and regions” – this pillar is about ensuring AI “diffuses” across the economy. Key actions here include:

        • allowing businesses to access economic value in Intellectual Property (“IP”) by ensuring they can commercialise any IP rights nested in AI technologies through a deeper understanding of their intellectual assets. The UK will launch a consultation on copyrights and patents for AI in the future, following a previous consultation on AI and IP already launched and responded to in March 2021.
        • facilitating public benefit of AI. The Government emphasised the potential benefits of AI investment on a societal level, through the use of AI in areas like public health and defence. The Government highlighted the Ministry of Defence’s soon-to-be published AI strategy; and the potential use of AI to fight climate change, including by using AI to optimise electricity use in real time. The paper also underlined the help AI has given the NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, a COVID-19 Early Warning System (“EWS”) was developed which forecast vital metrics such as COVID-19 hospital admissions and required bed capacity up to three weeks in advance, based on data from the NHS COVID-19 Data Store.

c. “Governing AI effectively” – one of the key questions which emerges from the paper, is how this strategy will change the current legislative framework. A few key points can be highlighted:

        • Sector specific approach – currently AI is regulated sector-by-sector. The UK Government posited several benefits of this approach, including that individual regulators are best placed to legislate on the particular complexities of AI in their industry. However, recently, there has been some doubt regarding this framework as some regulatory mandates and legislation are perceived to “cross-cut” against each other. This approach also diverges with the EU, which has proposed its own AI Regulation. Thus, the Government plans to launch a White Paper on AI in early 2022, which will consider, among other matters, if the sectoral approach should stay or go. Alternative approaches to this include removing some regulatory burdens to AI in general, and introducing some additional cross-sector principles or rules which would apply to all AI use across the board, regardless of sector.
        • Fairness, bias and accountability – a report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities raised concerns regarding novel ways for AI to introduce bias into decision making. Thus, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will produce guidance on how to use AI in a “fair” and non-discriminatory way. It will be interesting to see how this effort plays out against the Government’s plans (from its data law consultation discussed above) to create a new condition within Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 2018 which addresses processing sensitive personal data as necessary for bias monitoring, detection and correction in relation to AI systems, as well as the plan to remove restrictions on the use of automated processing by removing Article 22 of the UK GDPR.
        • Standards – the Government rightly recognises that more regulation of AI will also require oversight of technical standards within AI. Thus, the Government will pilot an “AI Standards Hub” for harmonization of standards globally, and to create a “Standards Engagement Toolkit”.
        • International transfers – as stated in the Government’s consultation on its data protection regime, the UK is keen to allow for easier cross-border transfers of data. Thus, the paper outlines a desire to “prevent divergence and friction” through 1) global cooperation on AI, as seen at events like the recent G7 summit at Carbis Bay; and 2) by securing new trade deals with other countries, which govern AI use and collaboration on AI more specifically.

3. What next?

The Government will publish its White Paper on regulating AI in early 2022. The Government will be supported by the Office for AI and the Government’s AI Council (made up of various academic and industry experts on AI) in shaping their approach going forwards, but broadly the paper has already set out short, medium and long term goals. There is an obvious focus on creating an AI framework that is complementary to other legislative proposals (and data protection laws), involving collaboration with the regulators and offices which work on AI. This will be key to ensuring a sensitive and nuanced approach to AI, consistent across the UK’s laws.

This post is as of the posting date stated above. Sidley Austin LLP assumes no duty to update this post or post about any subsequent developments having a bearing on this post.