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Professor Nick Bostrom says ministers must see AI research as a “massive national priority”

The UK risks losing its position as a leader in artificial intelligence research if ministers fail to treat it as a “massive national priority”, the philosopher Professor Nick Bostrom has warned British peers.

Speaking to the House of Lords’ select committee on AI last week, Bostrom said that a long-term investment in computer science in Britain had paved the way for groundbreaking research firms such as DeepMind.

But he warned that the governments of Canada, China and South Korea had caught “AI fever” and recently been more proactive in their support for the sector.

“My impression is that there is a risk, aside from Deepmind, of losing the lead without doing what others governments are doing,” he said. “They see this as a massive national priority.”

Bostrom, who is the founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, praised the efforts of the Canadian government in protecting the country’s reputation for AI research.

“They saw that the key university people were hired away by American companies and rather than sit back and lose their lead they have recently launched a pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy.”

The Canadian government established a $125m investment in AI research in its 2017 budget. In a submission to the select committee, a spokesperson for the government said the investment aims to promote collaboration between Canadian research hubs:

“[It] is intended to position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to innovate through the application of artificial intelligence technologies by helping to retain and attract top academic talent in the field of AI and increase the number of post-graduate trainees and researchers in this area.”

Bostrom said the British government must pursue a similar strategy if it is to retain top AI experts: “A senior academic in this field could easily move into industry and get their half a million dollar a year salary from these big tech companies so it’s to make it attractive to those people to stay in academia. One needs something different than just business as usual.”

The Swedish philosopher’s comments came before the publication of an official review of the steps the UK government should take to nurture the UK’s AI sector. Its authors said research, skills and data were key to unlocking its potential.