Climate change and poverty – these are the kinds of global problems artificial intelligence (AI) can help solve, according to a minister. And when he visited Manchester this week, he said the city should be at the forefront of this fight.
Over the past year, the world has woken up to the amazing advances in AI. This type of technology, in which machines are trained to perform complex tasks – which mimic human capabilities – is already changing many aspects of modern life.
From virtual assistants like Siri on our mobile phones to X-ray analysis in the NHS, we use AI every day without even realizing it. But in its most basic form, machine learning is nothing new – in fact, the first successful AI program to run on a computer was written in Manchester in 1951.
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Since then, computer scientists have raced to pass the test devised by wartime codebreaker and Manchester University alumnus Alan Turing, which, he claimed, proves whether a machine is “intelligent”. In late 2022, AI software ChatGPT was said to have passed the Turing test by tricking a human into thinking they are talking to another human – although some dispute this.
There have been warnings about the speed at which the machines are learning, but there are no signs that the pace of progress will slow down anytime soon. In Manchester, academics and businesses are embracing it – and local leaders want the success of their research to spread across the region.
There are currently 900 researchers “actively engaged” in AI at the University of Manchester (UoM), including specialists such as Samuel Kaski, described by Professor Richard Curry, the university’s vice-dean for research and innovation, as an “international leader” in the field. “This creates an ecosystem for businesses to come and set up here,” he explained.
But despite all the potential AI has to offer, academics have struggled to find corporate funding to bring their inventions to life, according to Professor Barry Lennox. The co-director of the university’s Center for Robotics and AI works with robots decommissioning a nuclear power plant.
Currently, the robots, which are used in radioactive areas within the Sellafield site in Cumbria where plutonium was produced for nuclear weapons in the 1950s, are controlled by humans using joysticks. But Professor Lennox is now looking at how to automate some of the work these robots do through AI.
The private sector has funded some of this work, which is part of a 120-year project to safely close the site. But Barry says it hasn’t been easy.
“We’ve really struggled with innovation,” he said. “We’ve found, until recently, that companies simply weren’t ready to put in the effort that was necessary to take the robots we’re developing into industry.”
On Wednesday (August 30), Professor Lennox showed a minister some of the university’s “cutting edge” research into AI and robotics. Viscount Camrose, who is Minister for AI and Intellectual Property, was taken on a tour of the Manchester University Engineering Building which is now home to a new international research center which will officially open in November.
He learned about all the interdisciplinary research going on at the Government-funded £3m Center for Robotic Autonomy in Demanding and Long-lasting Environments (CRADLE) and met one of the robots built to help with nuclear infrastructure inspection at name Lyra.
The minister then took a tour of the Graphene Engineering Innovation Center (GEIC), which will also receive around £3m of government cash, to see its energy storage lab, printing lab and building materials testing facility, before heading to ID. Manchester, where the Turing Innovation Catalyst (TIC) is located. One of 10 projects in Greater Manchester selected for the £33m Innovation Accelerator programme, the TIC aims to link businesses to cutting-edge AI research and technologies to help boost productivity.
In March, the Government announced that Greater Manchester would be one of three regions to receive a £100m research and development (R&D) investment pot. Of the 10 schemes selected here, three are AI-related.
Along with the TIC, the Immersive Technologies Innovation Hub at MediaCityUK and the Center for Digital Innovation (CDI) at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) will also see a cut of the city region’s £33m. By working with local leaders, researchers and businesses, this program is “more attuned to precise local needs,” Viscount Camrose said after his tour.
And if these pilots in Glasgow, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are successful, this investment model will spread to other locations, he said. But Richard Jones is also keen for this success to spread within the city region.
Professor Jones, vice president for regional innovation and civic engagement at UoM, has long argued that “rebalancing” R&D spending is a big part of leveling off. With almost half of government investment in R&D spent in the golden triangle between London, Oxford and Cambridge, he says more money is needed in the north of England and the Midlands for “quality jobs”.
But he believes this also means investing outside the city center where all the universities are based and in developments such as Atom Valley, the massive industrial site planned for the north-east city region which promises to create around 20,000 jobs. “At the moment, a lot of companies go to California and Taiwan when they need to make a factory,” he said.
“We need to make sure they come to Bury, Rochdale and Oldham.”
Home to more than 6,700 digital businesses, 200 of which are already working in AI, Greater Manchester is poised to seize the opportunities these new industries offer, according to the government. Manchester council leader Bev Craig, who is the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Economy Lead, says the growth of the digital sector – now worth £5bn – was not an accident.
Working with universities, supporting local businesses and bringing in big names from around the world has sometimes cost the public good. But this investment has yielded results, reasons the workers council leader.
“We’ve already been ahead of the curve, just competing with London and the South East,” she said. “It’s not just luck of the draw that we’re here.
“The government has focused on R&D in recent years, but we are ahead of many places and we have the potential to go even further.”
Born Jonathan Berry, Viscount Camrose became minister for AI in March. He believes this technology can help us be “so much better”, do “so much more” and “solve so many more problems”. AI is already being used to find new cures for disease, help fight fraud, increase cyber security and power self-driving cars.
But the hereditary peer’s ambitions are even greater.
“Provided we can make AI reliable and something people are comfortable working with, AI solves so many problems that frustrate all of us today,” he said.
“The little problems as well as the big ones. Climate change, poverty and so on – just solved.
“Assuming we get over the reliability hurdle, then I think it’s a time when we should be hugely optimistic.”
Later this year, the UK will host the world’s first summit on AI security at Bletchley Park where Alan Turing and his team broke the Enigma code during World War II. Viscount Camrose says Manchester will play a big part.
“Manchester invented modern computing in many ways,” he said when asked about the city’s role in the world of AI. “It’s right that it should be at the forefront of this.”
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