George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May is about to embrace her inner robot

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 25 January 2018 in Opinion

The PM has told her team that she wants Britain to be the world capital of Artificial Intelligence.


It was Labour leader Harold Wilson who put science at the heart of Britain’s future 55 years ago. In the bracing seaside air of Scarborough, north Yorkshire, he said in 1963: "The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry." And so was born the phrase “white heat of technology”.

Today, 55 years later, Theresa May will embrace her inner robot – and vow to make Britain the world capital of Artificial Intelligence. Mrs May will begin the quest for world leader position in AI in Davos, high in the Swiss mountains.  She’s lined up a host of face-to-face meetings with the heads of some of the world’s leading life sciences and technology companies.

The PM has much to be excited by. In Britain a new AI start-up has emerged every week for the last three years.  The UK – under new Culture Secretary Matt Hancock’s leadership – has been the first in the world to bring the technology into government. Surrounded by world leaders, she will say harnessing it is the “leadership challenge” of our age.

The UK has been invited to join the World Economic Forum’s brand new council on AI. This is a ringing endorsement of Britain’s critical role in developing smart technology for the future.  The ability to help shape global governance and applications of this spellbinding technology is a prize worth winning.

Mrs May’s discussions are about setting up a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. Artificial Intelligence carries with it incredible opportunity but also vast and – to many – terrifying risk. And the Data Ethics centre will write fresh global rules on how to ensure the safe, ethical and innovating use of the new technologies.

One particularly appealing aspect to this new move is that tech companies tend to be relatively neutral on Brexit – as opposed to many multinationals who are Remainers. What’s behind the technology drive? A better question would be who?

Jimmy McLoughlin is the PM’s business adviser. He ran the Young Entrepreneurs Club in his days at the Institute of Directors. McLoughlin is a significant force behind the changing relationship between Mrs May’s government and the sector. He works with Natalie Black an official who is deputy director of the number 10 policy unit. She was brought over after running the Office of Cyber Security & Information Assurance.

McLoughlin has a strong Tory pedigree – the son of recently departed Conservative Party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin. He will shortly join the Premier and her party as they fly to China with some of Britain’s leading business figures on a trade mission.

The PM is gripped by the need to reassure voters that AI can be used as a positive force for the future – and shouldn’t be seen as a threat. There are mind-boggling ethical issues to consider. Number 10 staffers say she was hugely impressed by the dynamism of the technology industry she witnessed at a Downing Street summit earlier this month.

The possibilities are endless but they have to be policed. New digital industries minister Margot James is tasked with working with her new boss Mr Hancock to ensure AI doesn’t become a Wild West. But that regulatory regime must not stifle innovation.  

The balance is fragile. But Mrs May wants to move quickly to embrace what’s on offer. Remote surgery and diagnosis, driverless cars, sentencing, lightning speed finance decisions to help businesses grow – these are just some of the ways our world will change. The advent of robotics must be managed to ensure millions aren’t thrown on the dole queue as their roles are taken by machines.  How can value be added to the economy whilst ensuring people continue to have a fulfilling work life?

There are chilling predictions that as many as five million net jobs could be mechanised by 2020 thanks to the AI revolution.  Mrs May has told her team that Britain has no choice but to position itself as the world’s leading authority and to put at the heart of the future economy. Her plan will chime with that of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour movement. Shadow frontbenchers are talking to industry but the doors are being opened most easily to technology companies.

Deep learning is one of the keys to the future of AI. Science, farming, health and even societal challenges like inequality will undergo huge upheaval thanks to the technologies being developed now.  The way we eat and drink, the way we stay alive and the way we live our lives daily will change.

Mrs May has become convinced that Britain’s future lies at the centre of this revolution. Backed by Greg Clark’s industrial strategy there will be more and more focus on this ambition in Mrs May’s government ranks.  The Artificial Intelligence Bill and the adoption of 5g alongside spectrum auctions will be critical to domestic legislation.

Mrs May won’t leave the mountains of Davos until she has demanded technology platforms do more to remove terrorist material from the web. But the news that most will be looking at will be her bilateral with President Donald Trump. And there will be nothing artificial about this exchange.





George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.

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