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UK government backs Microsoft and University of Cambridge mission to build better AI

The UK government is backing a multi-million-pound initiative to help researchers improve artificial intelligence so it can be used more effectively in key areas such as healthcare.

The research program, entitled Machine Learning for Tomorrow: Efficient, Flexible, Robust and Automated, has been launched by Microsoft and the University of Cambridge to try to make AI smarter, easier to create and useful to more people.

The Government will be adding to Microsoft’s funding, supporting the university as part of its Prosperity Partnerships scheme. This initiative offers funding to universities to leverage industry commitments in a range of areas, including healthcare, technology and manufacturing. Microsoft will not receive any of the Government money.

The Microsoft-University of Cambridge project will last for five years and seek to find better ways of compiling and using the data that forms the basis of AI, simplify the development of AI models and reduce errors and bias in real-world applications of the technology.

Dr Richard Turner, team lead from the University of Cambridge, said: “AI is making huge progress in real-world applications, from speech translation to medical imaging. While we know that AI has the potential to transform sectors from healthcare to gaming, as well as improve overall business productivity, we must not forget we are still in the early stages of its development.

“Building on the deep collaborative academic-industry partnership between Microsoft and the University of Cambridge, we aim to realise the potential of artificial intelligence to enhance the human experience and to nurture the next generation of AI researchers and talent. Investment in basic research and innovation is vital in helping design trustworthy and responsive AI.”

AI is revolutionising industries across the world, and the Government has identified AI has one the UK’s four Grand Challenges. PwC found that that AI could help the UK economy grow GDP by up to 10.3%, while spending power could increase by between £1,800 and £2,300 per household.

The technology is embedded in many of Microsoft’s most popular programs, such a PowerPoint, Word and Outlook. It has potential in healthcare to help doctors spend more time with patients and reduce delays; help designers build better gaming experiences, and improve how staff communicate and work in businesses across the world.

Lord Clement-Jones, Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, said: “Without doubt, artificial intelligence can provide a great opportunity for British society and the economy. Today, the UK enjoys a position of AI innovation, so as we enter a crucial stage in its development and adoption, the country has a clear opportunity to be a world leader. For this, an ethics-backed partnership between business academia and government will be pivotal.”

However, AI has limitations. The technology typically requires a lot of data, which needs to be free of errors and arranged correctly. This is usually completed manually, with researchers spending huge amounts of time preparing and labelling hundreds, thousands or sometimes millions of pieces of information so computer systems can understand it. If this data is comprised of images, these must be clear and sharp or the AI may misinterpret the picture, which can lead to errors or bias. Once created, AI is good at the task it has been assigned to do but is often poor at other tasks, so wide deployment of the technology is limited. Finally, there is a global shortage of people with the right skills who can create AI.

This means that crucial AI systems can’t be built by many people and organisations yet. Microsoft and the University of Cambridge hope to solve some of these issues with their research, so AI can be developed more widely in the UK and help people across the world.

Microsoft announced the tie-up with the University of Cambridge at its Future Decoded event last year as part of a plan to boost the number of AI researchers in the UK.

Christopher Bishop, Technical Fellow and Laboratory Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge, wrote at the time: “Through this initiative, we are bolstering the University of Cambridge’s AI research capacity and capability by supporting visiting researchers, postdoctoral researchers, PhD students and interns from the UK and abroad, thereby increasing the flow of people and ideas between the Microsoft Cambridge lab and the university. Staff at the University of Cambridge are already lecturing in the Microsoft AI Residency Program and contributing to major industry-led projects. Microsoft researchers teach at the university and supervise projects at all levels, and this initiative will further increase that exchange of knowledge.”

Microsoft Research’s lab in Cambridge has world-class expertise in AI and machine learning, and was the first to be opened outside the US in order to tap into the strong research and talent ecosystem in the city and the UK.