Hunt tells ministers to speed up AI deployment to boost economy

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has called on ministers to step up work to seize the potential of artificial intelligence to save money, boost Britain’s sluggish growth and restart ailing public services.

John Glent, Hunt’s Deputy Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been tasked by the Chancellor with preparing a report ahead of the Autumn Statement on increasing the productivity of public services, with a particular focus on accelerating the uptake of AI.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Steve Barclay said technology could be used to transform the NHS by increasing its productivity without requiring staff to work harder.

Hunt is hoping to find some fiscal room for tax cuts ahead of the 2024 general election by boosting growth and saving the public sector money. However, time is running out. The Treasury wrote to ministers last week to remind them of the need for efficiency savings, while Hunt’s allies said Glen was pushing ministers to speed up the introduction of AI.

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The prospect of an AI revolution has preoccupied Rishi Sunak and Prime Minister Hunt in recent weeks as they try to break the cycle of low growth and high taxes.

On Sunday, Sunak announced the appointment of tech investor and entrepreneur Ian Hogarth as the chair of the government’s foundation model taskforce, which will look at developing AI.

Hogarth will also play a leading role in the first Global Artificial Intelligence Summit to be hosted by Sun in the UK in December and announced by the Prime Minister and President Joe Biden at the White House earlier this month.

Science and Technology Secretary Chloe Smith told the FT last week that the summit would be a defining moment and that she expected world leaders to attend along with industry experts.

Hogarth’s working group will lead AI security research to help develop safe and reliable base models – general-purpose AI systems trained on massive data sets that can be applied to tasks across the economy.

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Downing Street said it would be modeled on the successful vaccine taskforce set up in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and would initially be backed by £100m of government funding.

Sunak said on Sunday: “The further AI advances, the greater the opportunities to grow our economy and provide better public services. But because it has the potential to transform our future, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to ensure the safe and responsible development of artificial intelligence.”

Sunak believes Britain can lead the way in safe but minimal regulation of artificial intelligence, using what one minister called “less draconian” an approach than what the EU is likely to adopt. Hunt is also an ardent advocate of AI.

But former chancellor Sajid Javid warned last week that Sunak needed to invest much more money in the sector, arguing that the £900m earmarked for a new supercomputer to support AI was too little.

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Meanwhile, Barclay told colleagues that “we need to shift the perception that productivity forces people to work harder” and wants to use technology to remove bottlenecks in the NHS and treat disease earlier.

At an NHS conference last week, he highlighted the “rapid development of artificial intelligence” and said that, for example, his department was looking at “how we can use AI to improve patient safety in maternity services”.

Smith told the FT: “In areas like artificial intelligence, we think the UK can play a unique role that builds on our existing strengths but draws on some of the differences compared to some of the bigger blocs.”