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UK must close skills gaps if it’s to become an AI superpower

By Sascha Giese, Tech Evangelist, SolarWinds

Sascha Giese, Tech Evangelist, SolarWinds

The UK Government has made no secret of its ambitions to become an artificial intelligence (AI) superpower. Introducing a pro-innovation approach in the recent AI regulation policy paper, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan, outlined a technology-led future leading to better public services and high-quality jobs. 

“Most of us are only now beginning to understand the transformative potential of AI as the technology rapidly improves,” wrote Ms Donelan

“Recent advances in things like generative AI give us a glimpse into the enormous opportunities that await us in the near future if we are prepared to lead the world in the AI sector with our values of transparency, accountability and innovation,” she said.

But the UK — or any other nation — cannot lead the world in AI unless it can muster enough people with the right skills to make it happen. 

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on digital transformation published earlier this year warned the “existing skills gap is getting worse” with the public sector lagging behind the private sector. 

Addressing the AI skills shortage

The report also said only 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared with an industry average of between 8% and 12% — a situation made worse because there is already a major digital skills shortage in the UK. 

Coupled with the fact that skilled digital professionals command a premium in the market — along with the spike in demand for people with AI skills —it’s clear the recruitment challenge has become even more acute. 

Clearly, education is key. Research commissioned by Amazon from Capital Economics found jobs requiring computer science, AI, or Machine Learning skills are expected to increase by 40% in the next five years. Recognising the urgency of the situation, last year the digital giant unveiled a schools-based programme, designed to inspire young people about the potential of AI.  

While such schemes are to be applauded, they are a long-term solution that will not deliver results overnight. So, how does the public sector address the skills market? 

One idea would be for the Government to tap into resources held by the private sector to recruit the necessary skills. 

Looking to the private sector — and beyond — for recruits

It was a point made by Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin during the summer in a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank. He said the Government planned to create “a pathway for them [private sector AI specialists] to join the Civil Service” via secondment programmes.  

When pressed on the issue of the disparity in pay between the public and private sectors, he suggested  more lucrative remuneration packages could be offered. But he also suggested some people may want to be part of the government’s ambitious plans out of a sense of duty. He may well have a point. 

In fact, I would go further. If the government is considering parachuting in AI experts from private companies, it must also consider attracting them from abroad as well. 

After all, not everyone wants to work for a big tech company. In some global regions, the public sector has a much better reputation than the private sector. 

And it goes without saying increasing the number of women in tech could benefit the sector. It was a point made recently in a report published by the Alan Turing Institute. 

“There is a troubling and persistent absence of women employed in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Science fields. Over three-quarters of professionals in these fields globally are male (78%); less than a quarter are women (22%) (World Economic Forum, 2018). 

“In the UK, this drops to 20% of women. This stark male dominance results in a feedback loop shaping gender bias in AI and machine learning systems. It is also fundamentally an ethical issue of social and economic justice and one of value-in-diversity,” it said.

Of course, not every new role in the world of AI will be a tech job. Not everyone needs to be a programmer. However, I would expect people who join the sector to have some basic understanding of coding to give them a better understanding of how AI works. 

But perhaps the biggest skill we need, though, is the ability to adapt. After all, there’s little doubt that AI will fundamentally impact the workplace. And that means we will all have to embrace AI — regardless of our jobs as technology plays an ever-greater role in our lives.

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