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Theresa May urges business leaders to spend more money on technology

Theresa May has warned business leaders that they must step up their investments in new technology if Britain is to build an economy which is “fit for the future”.

Speaking at the CBI Annual Conference in London, the prime minister said the UK’s economic prosperity after Brexit will be “driven by advances in science and innovation”.

But she added that while the government has pledged additional funding for research and development, businesses in Britain were not contributing as much as those in rival economies.

“Today, for every £1 of government investment in R&D, British businesses invest around £1.70,” she said. “But in Germany, businesses invest around £2.40 and US businesses invest nearly £2.70.”

Britain must position itself as an “international centre for the transformative technologies of the future” by building on its strengths in science and innovation, she said.

May sought to highlight the UK’s position as a leader in a number of fields in the technology sector, including fintech and artificial intelligence research.

“I believe Dame Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti’s independent review into the potential of that sector set the right ambition by arguing that we should seek to make the UK ‘the best place in the world for AI businesses to develop, start, grow, and thrive’,” she added.

Hall and Pesenti’s report, titled “Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK”, made a number of recommendations to government.

It called on ministers to make strategic investments in research, data and skills, including the establishment of industry-funded masters, PhD and conversion courses in AI.

“We recommend in the first year the creation of three hundred places on masters courses funded by industry,” Pesenti told NS Tech. “The number would eventually rise to a thousand.”

British businesses’ failure to invest in AI technology was laid bare in a survey conducted by the Royal Society of Arts and Google earlier this year. Researchers found that just 14 per cent of companies had already invested in AI or robotics, or were planning to in the near future.

“Many think that the technology is too costly or not yet proven,” the report’s authors wrote. “For others, concepts such as machine learning, deep learning and cloud robotics appear to be completely new.”

Microsoft’s Clare Barclay told NS Tech in October that a fear of new technology is threatening the UK economy. “The risk to the UK is that if we don’t embrace it, our level of competitiveness will fall,” she said. “Companies that are unwilling to change face new competitors who are more tech savvy.”

“They are more digital and more able to offer new services to customers, and that’s putting pressure on some of the industries and organisations.”