Leader Insights | Where does Scotland sit on the global AI stage?

Leader Insights | Where does Scotland sit on the global AI stage?

Recent research has found that firms located in Europe will be leading on AI maturity in the future – by as soon as 2024.

This is great news, with the Accenture AI Index placing it in a prime position for future AI sector growth.

However, in Scotland, more work must be done for the country to be seen as the beacon of AI maturity it hopes to be.

It is easy to view AI with distrust, particularly when you consider its potentially nefarious uses, such as malicious actors using deepfake tech to dupe unsuspecting victims.

To help mitigate this, Scotland’s AI strategy was released in March 2021, revealing hopes of becoming “a leader in the development and use of trustworthy, ethical, and inclusive AI” and set it apart from the rest of the UK nations.

DIGIT sat down with Mark Byrne, Head of Applied Intelligence Scotland at Accenture, to discuss global AI maturity, trust and regulation and Scotland’s place on the AI stage.

The AI Index and Scotland’s potential

Scotland is showing strong signs of growth in the AI sector, and Byrne says he sees Scotland as being at the forefront in more areas in the future.

This is being driven by the focus and the investment that’s been put into developing data and AI capabilities over the last few years. Byrne sees investment “paying dividends” in the future and placing Scotland “very much at the forefront of what Europe is doing in this space”.

Previous studies, such as the 2016 BEIS Science and Innovation Audit, have highlighted Scotland as having differentiated capability in data and digital skills, especially the south-eastern region of Scotland.

“From my perspective, Scotland is still leading the way in the UK. Obviously, there are elements and cases you can call out from across the UK where great stuff has been done, but I think overall in terms of the talent, culture, and strategy, Scotland is still very much at the forefront.”

He continues: “The beauty of AI is that it’s not just something that plays to one industry or one functional area. It really has applications everywhere.

“That could be in helping fuel Scotland’s thriving financial services and fintech industries, helping North Sea oil and gas companies realise efficiencies in how they supply their offshore platforms, helping local government optimise their budgets and spending, even right the way through to satellite photo analysis to help environmentalists understand the impact of climate change in the highlands.”

Byrne notes that, despite what many may believe, it’s not technologists that are best placed to spot such opportunities, but SMEs equipped with some basic understanding of the potential of AI and a creative mind.

“Big problems can seem insurmountable because of the volume data or effort that may be involved to solve them. But with advances in cloud computing and artificial intelligence, tasks that not that long ago would have seemed impossible are now very much possible.”

AI on the global stage: The UK vs the EU

Now that the UK has left the EU, our strategy on future AI adoption and regulation could be very different.

According to the European Commission, the European AI Strategy aims at making the EU “a world-class hub for AI and ensuring that AI is human-centric and trustworthy”.

In the UK, the government pitched an AI rulebook discussing the future AI regulation, which would take a less centralised approach than the EU.

“At the moment, things have remained quite aligned,” Byrne comments. “Brexit was a big moment in multiple ways. But so far, there’s not really been a major deviation in terms of how the UK and Europe think about things like data privacy, data sharing, AI and so forth. To be honest, I do think that’s to the benefit of everyone.”

Byrne notes the advent of GDPR regulation, which covers individuals’ rights to ownership of their data and how their data was collected and used.

GDPR was new and therefore viewed with caution when it was originally published in 2016. However, Byrne says it has been effective at setting Europe up with a strong basis to create AI solutions that are grounded in a universal acceptance.

Byrne comments: “A lot of the principles that germinated in GDPR in terms of how data is collected, used and so forth, can be taken and applied almost anywhere and accepted as sensible principles or fundamentals, I think that has made Europe a great place for developing capability and functionality in the knowledge that it’s likely to be accepted anywhere.”

He adds: “If you look at Scotland, particularly how data and AI have been addressed in Scotland with a huge focus on data ethics, I think again that we’re at the forefront of some of the thinking, which is really great to see.”

AI trust, responsibility, and regulation

We appear to be years away from AI taking over important tasks in our lives. Byrne believes that they never truly will.

“AI has been portrayed in the media and in film in an apocalyptic or scary way in terms of what’s coming in the future. I think we’ll see much more incremental change and quite often it appears in our lives, and we don’t even know it’s there,” Byrne says.

“What AI is doing when you peel back the layers is it’s putting together little blocks of logic and chains of thought. It is simulating what we think of as human and intelligent behaviour.

“That soul or that individualism that makes us humans and that comes through in things like pieces of art, I don’t think we’re anywhere near replicating that,” he adds.

What is clear, however, is that the technology is moving so fast that it is often difficult to catch up. When asked how this fast pace and the application of the technology can be done fairly and without bias, Byrne comments: “Having a strong ethical framework – we call it responsible AI in Accenture – will be critical when it comes to developing AI solutions that people can trust and that do what they were initially developed for.”

The AI maturity research refers to it as being “Responsible by design”, when organisations who are developing and implementing AI solutions ensure that fairness, knowledge of bias and responsibility are designed into algorithms from the outset rather than allowing unintended consequences to surface after the fact.

“Responsible AI and data ethics must be baked into all of these algorithms and designed from the outset, to get to an enjoyable and beneficial application of AI that everyone loves,” Byrne adds.

In terms of AI regulation, Byrne acknowledges the challenge. Regulation is outpaced by technology innovation, but as it seeks to respond and put in place the protections against its misuse, it must also encourage invention and greater enterprise.

Byrne adds that it is an important balancing act that will be achieved through full understanding of AI’s potential.

People and the Future

On a final note, Byrne points back to the research and its emphasis that AI Maturity is about much more than the technology itself.

People for instance, and the talent and culture that that organisations build, and foster, go far in ensuring the positive and successful usage of this technology that can benefit us.

It is something that Scotland excels at, he adds.

“The ecosystem here, I would say is quite unique, Byrne says. “In the sense that government, business and the university network are intertwined and pull in the same direction to make Scotland a force for AI technology.”

While there may always be a sense of wariness around a technology that, by its very nature we will have no human control of. It is a sense of comfort to know that those with the power to create it are doing so with good intentions.

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