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Exclusive: Government “urged” experts to water down “independent” AI review

The author of the official “independent” review of the UK’s AI strategy has accused the government of urging him to water down his recommendations.

Jerome Pesenti said he and his co-author Dame Wendy Hall were pressured by civil servants representing different departments into limiting the report’s ambition.

“It was a little difficult to gauge the level of ambition of the review,” he told the House of Lords AI committee last month. “The message we got sometimes was: ‘No, tone it down’ [and then] ‘make it more ambitious’ – literally every other day changing.”

“It depends who [the civil servants] were talking to because there were two ministries plus Number 10,” he added. “Depending on where the message was coming from the signal was different.”

Pressed further on which recommendations the government wanted scaling back, Pesenti told the cross-party group of peers: “One of the recommendations was around the number of [AI] PhD positions being funded. I think it’s quite important that the number down the line becomes quite high. So it needs to be counted in the thousands in the next decade.”

“But you can’t get there tomorrow. People need to be trained, you need to get faculty and fellows,” he said. “There was a question – should you put the big number first or should you say you start with 300? There we got a lot of back and forth.”

The review ultimately recommended that 200 PhD positions should be created in the first year, with a further 300 industry-funded masters places. It added that the number of positions should grow year on year, but did not specify by how many. 

Pesenti also said that the government discouraged him from making recommendations about the UK’s maths curriculum.

“High school education is a big deal and the fact that mathematics is not a requirement to 18 is in our view a big problem and needs to be solved,” he said. “But we were told you can’t really go there. Looking at curriculum is very thorny.”

Weeks after Pesenti and Hall’s report was published, the government committed £75m to developing the UK’s AI sector, including £45m dedicated to creating the 200 AI PhD positions.

“I would say that £75m is a drop in the bucket, but it’s okay,” Pesenti said. “What’s really critical is to deliver on the recommendation in a short time frame. Things are moving and the signals are very good, but I would always encourage government to go faster. After that you will really need to invest way more.”

Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party and author of a recent report on automation, said Pesenti’s comments raised concerns about the government’s approach to AI.

“The government has talked big on AI but these comments from Jerome Pesenti betray the paucity of their ambition,” he said. “Developing new technology, particularly AI, could be critical in overcoming the UK’s economic problems, particularly our productivity crisis, but we’ve got to invest in skills to achieve this.

“Rather than quibbling with experts to keep PhD place targets low, the government should be thinking big by ensuring AI becomes part of the secondary school curriculum, investing so our universities lead the world in AI developments and ensuring the availability of lifelong learning so everyone can take advantage of the benefits that AI and new tech will bring.”