Secretary of State speech at CogX Festival
Secretary of State Michelle Donelan spoke about UK’s leadership around AI at technology conference CogX in London's O2 Arena
Thank you and good evening CogX 2023!
What an amazing celebration of the UK’s thriving tech sector we have had over the last few days.
And my goodness do we have a huge amount to celebrate together.
Thanks to some of the brightest, boldest and best of the UK’s world-class tech sector talent, we have done some extraordinary things since last year’s CogX Festival.
In that short period of time, the UK became one of only three countries on the planet with a tech sector worth over one trillion dollars – making us the only country to sit alongside the USA and China in reaching this incredible milestone.
In nominal terms, the value of our digital sector alone is now worth more than the entire UK’s GDP in 1970.
It is a testament to our universities, our startups, our investors, our tech campuses, our regional clusters and above all, the spirit of innovation that is alive and well in Britain today and here at CogX.
Because while dollars and pounds might be the easiest way to measure success in tech, I actually think that when we talk about having the third most valuable tech sector in the world, we are in fact talking about people.
The real value in UK tech is in each and every one of you – whether you are doing incredible things now or have ambitions to do incredible things in the future, the skills and determination of the people in this room are what makes the UK one of the most valuable tech economies in the world.
And what better place to meet than here in London.
Again, just since last year, this city now holds the number one spot in the world for global tech investment – having snatched the crown from New York just a few months ago.
Even without the record breaking figures and rankings to hand, you only need to look at Apple’s new gleaming UK headquarters in Battersea or Google’s headline-grabbing purchase of Central Saint Giles to confirm London’s status as a global tech powerhouse.
London is undergoing a tech economy transformation comparable to the financial boom of the 1980s – one that is bringing talent of every nationality and background to this unique city.
But the thousands of British businesses attending CogX remind us that the tech sector’s unstoppable march extends far beyond the boundaries of our nation’s capital.
In the North East, Britain’s very first app-based lender – Atom Bank – is creating a world-leading banking machine on Google’s Cloud Platform out of its Durham headquarters.
In Northern Ireland, a thriving tech scene has attracted big international players…and Belfast ranks among our top ten cities for capital investment.
And in Wales, we have world-leading semi-conductor clusters like ‘CSConnected’ driving innovation in a technology used in nearly every mobile phone on the market today.
It is because of this whole-UK philosophy that we have produced more billion-dollar tech companies than France, Germany and Sweden combined.
In fact, we are now home to twice as many AI companies as any other European nation.
But this is only the beginning…
We are on the cusp of a tech revolution that we haven’t seen since the birth of the internet.
Some think this revolution will be the biggest technological advance in human history.
Of course, I am speaking about AI.
As the UK’s first Technology Secretary, I have implemented bold new policies that have put the UK on track to become a true science and technology superpower by 2030.
AI will be crucial to that mission.
I know I don’t need to tell an audience like you what kind of transformational effects AI will have our lives.
Just a few months ago, you will have seen that an AI model was used to discover a new drug for liver cancer in the space of just 30 days.
Not long after, companies unveiled AI models that could predict the weather with the same degree of accuracy as the whole of our existing weather monitoring systems – and they did it 10,000 times faster.
The speed of progress is like nothing we have ever seen before.
In the space of a single human lifetime, humanity progressed from the horse and cart to launching a man into space.
We are seeing a comparable transformation in the field of AI, occurring in just under a decade. Five years ago, the most advanced AI could barely write coherent sentences. Today, they can instantly generate stunning art, they can ace the bar exam and use tools as we ourselves do.
Even in the last 24 hours, I have announced new multi-million-pound funding for cancer research projects – including one at King’s College London - which is using AI to read lung scans and more accurately predict lung cancer’s resistance to treatment.
If we want to take the lead on this transformative technology, however, we have to first take the lead on making it safe and reliable.
There is a reason we happily send ourselves 30,000 feet in the air with two people we have never met at the controls.
It is because flying has been made extraordinarily safe by years of engineering advances, regulation and standards that have given consumers the confidence they need to fly around the world without a second thought.
Without those guardrails, there would be no airline industry – and the same is true of AI.
Safety is going to be the determining factor in the race to become the world’s leader in AI innovation – and we here in the UK are not waiting for the starting gun.
We don’t want AI to be successful despite our regulations, we want it to be successful because of our regulations.
But the reality is that we don’t have years to play with.
The stakes are too high and the technology is moving too fast for us to learn from mistakes after they happen.
When it comes to AI, we need to take action to make AI safe before something goes wrong, not after.
And what’s even more challenging is that action needs to be able to keep pace with any change that comes around the corner. We need to be prepared to predict, understand and mitigate the things that no one has even thought of yet.
My vision is for the UK to be the global centre of AI safety. A place where companies at the frontier know that the guardrails are in place for them to seize all the benefits of AI while mitigating the risks.
We are delivering on that vision through our Frontier AI Taskforce – chaired by leading tech entrepreneur Ian Hogarth.
Just as the Covid Vaccine Taskforce made us one of the first countries in the world to roll out a working Covid vaccine, this taskforce is on track to make the UK the strongest and most agile country in the world when it comes to AI safety.
Our taskforce is recruiting heavy-hitting experts to guide and shape its work including Turing Prize Winner Yoshua Bengio and GCHQ Director Anne Keast-Butler.
It is partnering with leading technical organisations including ARC Evals and the Centre for AI Safety to better understand the risks of frontier AI systems.
And it is engaging with the leading AI companies themselves, including Google DeepMind, OpenAI, and Anthropic - who are collaboratively sharing access to their models for vital safety research.
As the challenges of AI change, so too will the Taskforce. We are growing the expertise and technical ability of the team, moving towards a more permanent, and perhaps even international, institutional structure in the future.
We see the UK as the home of AI safety and, by extension, the home of AI itself.
But while Britain intends to lead, AI knows no geographical boundaries and nor should our approach – we need to act globally to tackle the challenges and reap the rewards.
I plan to build on the momentum gained through the work of the UN and the OECD, the Global Partnership on AI and the G7 Hiroshima Process.
CogX is a great example of the extraordinary breadth of international talent and expertise that is coming together to solve these issues.
I firmly believe that government needs to take a leaf out of industry’s book and match international collaboration on AI and AI safety.
That is why it is so significant that the UK is hosting the world’s inaugural AI Safety Summit at the historic Bletchley Park later this year, where, of course, Alan Turing famously cracked the enigma code and laid the foundations of modern computer science and the digital age.
Bletchley could not be a more fitting venue to host world leaders, along with frontier AI organisations, and eminent thinkers to drive rapid, targeted international action.
At the Summit - which is just 50 days away - we plan to identify and agree on the risks, find ways of collaborating on research and safety regulation and establish how to make AI a force for good in people’s lives.
Every country has its own role to play in helping to ensure that AI makes our world better, safer and more united than ever before.
The Summit comes at a critical moment as we face uncertainty in what may emerge - as the frontier of this technology is pushed further and capabilities are quickly scaled up.
That is one of the reasons why I am inviting AI developers to draw on their expertise to help steer safety policies in the right direction, and to put forward their plans for “responsible capability scaling”.
Responsible capability scaling means stating what risks are going to be monitored, who is notified if these risks are found, and at what level of dangerous capabilities a developer would slow or, in fact, pause their work until better safety mechanisms are in place.
Responsible capability scaling at the frontier of AI needs to become as common as people having a smoke alarm in their kitchen.
Companies pushing the frontier forward need to have that smoke alarm mechanism in place to develop public trust. And of course, this should be coupled with collaborative transparency between AI developers and government.
The opportunity that lies before us is enormous.
Those who lead on AI safety will lead on AI – and they will unlock the enormous benefits that come with it.
To help us find cures for diseases we never thought treatable.
To provide faster, safer, greener ways to travel.
To free us from thousands of hours of work lost to menial tasks, while creating the high-skilled, high-paid jobs our economy needs and letting us focus on the work we enjoy doing most.
And it is the UK that is seizing these opportunities with both hands.
Now, before I conclude, I want to leave you with one thought about the year ahead in technology and AI especially.
Early on in his career while he was developing the cutting-edge tech behind Apple computers, Steve Jobs was inspired by the efficiency of locomotion.
He looked at studies evaluating how much energy it takes for birds to travel from A to B. Then the same for goats. Then mice. Then cows and so on. And finally human beings.
It turns out, that for all our brains and our ingenuity, human beings come in about a third of the way down the list for efficiency.
We only narrowly beat sheep for how efficiently we carry out this basic task, with the condor ranking number one.
However, when the same test is run on a human with a bicycle, the results are remarkably different.
Humans then become by far the most efficient creatures on the planet – twice as good as the condor.
Jobs viewed this as an analogy for the personal computer, acting as a tool to enhance human creativity and minimise bureaucracy.
For me this is the perfect illustration of how we should see AI and other breakthrough technologies.
Not as tools to replace human thought, but instead as tools that elevate it…amplify it…that drive up our productivity and free us to realise our most creative ambitions.
By putting safety first, AI can become tomorrow’s bicycle of the mind, helping us live longer, happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives than ever before in human history.
That is the future that lies before us. And it is this Government that will work hand-in-hand with the very best researchers, experts, and innovators of our generation, so that we can realise that future together.