Key takeaways from the Tech Policy Leadership Conference 2024

The conference earlier this week, looked at the broad theme of how the next Government can use technology to “build a better Britain”, exploring the key policy priorities of the UK tech industries with a general election expected by the autumn.

The sold-out event, which attracted over 200 attendees, coincided with the publication of TechUK’s UK Tech Plan, setting out seven tech priorities for the next Government. Those priorities included an updated Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy and incentivising capital investment in AI; removing barriers to digitisation in public services; a new regulatory model, concentrating on the strategic role of regulators; helping tech companies to scale right across the country (through their newly-formed Nations and Regions Council) and a new approach to trade and tech in a more fractious global context.

Our key takeaways from the summit

Regulation

The inaugural panel session of the day delved into the future of AI over the next decade, exploring both the primary challenges and opportunities for the United Kingdom in promoting and regulating AI adoption. A recurring theme emerged: the ongoing global race for effective regulation, not only with the European Union (EU) but also with the United States and China. 

The consensus among participants was that the UK has a crucial role to play in facilitating and harmonising international standards and definitions. This effort builds upon the Bletchley Declaration of 2023 and is essential for establishing a clear and consistent baseline for AI compliance across national borders. While the EU’s AI Act may potentially serve as a global benchmark, there remains scepticism about whether a ‘once in a generation’ regulatory model is suitable for a technology as intricate and dynamic as AI.

Opening keynote

Michelle Donelan, the DSIT Secretary of State, emphasised the strides made in technology over the past year. The UK, boasting one of the world’s largest AI markets by certain metrics, is strategically positioned to capitalise on and take the lead in the opportunities arising from artificial intelligence. Notably, the AI market is projected to expand by a value equivalent to the entire existing UK tech sector, underscoring the immense potential for AI to profoundly reshape both society and industry.

Skills gap

Subsequent sessions delved into the pressing issue of the technology skills gap; a topic consistently discussed with tech industry leaders. This gap arises not only due to the rapid evolution of technologies like AI, which necessitates a perpetual game of “catch-up” in workforce expertise, but also because significant portions of UK Plc rely on legacy IT systems and infrastructure (often referred to as “tech debt”). Consequently, any efforts toward upskilling must address both the incoming workforce and the existing IT resource capacity.

With both the Government and the Labour party emphasising an intention (consistent with the Government’s approach to the AI White Paper) to rely increasingly on sectoral regulators to lead the charge on overseeing regulatory and governance regimes related to tech, panellists highlighted the naturally broad spread in resource, scale and expertise within different regulators to deal with the complex and shifting requirements inherent in emerging technologies like AI. Helping regulators to upskill and support that regulatory push will need to be a key priority for the next Government, whoever forms it.

Industrial strategy

In an era when the UK’s international partners are acting in an increasingly interventionist and protective way in relation to their domestic tech markets – through the likes of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s Chips Act – the conference considered the merits of the UK adopting a clear industrial strategy for tech. It was broadly seen as a positive direction of travel, at least if that strategy was clearly focussed on areas where the UK tech sector either already has clear strategic advantages, or where we could be confident that the economic returns could be maximised. 

Closing keynote

At the day’s close, Shadow DSIT Secretary Peter Kyle addressed the audience with an optimistic perspective on the tech sector’s role. Noteworthy announcements included the Labour government’s recognition of AI as a crucial driver of economic growth, particularly in shaping the operation of public services. An AI strategy is in development, aiming to address various aspects, such as transparency in AI models, explicit user rights for explanations, and transparency regarding AI-driven decisions. Additionally, the strategy aims to alleviate public apprehension about AI’s role. Furthermore, there is a strong emphasis on benchmarking the UK against international partners in AI regulation.

Conclusion

The conference directly addressed significant questions that our political leaders will grapple with as they strategize for the next Government. Additionally, the conference unveiled key industry research findings which provide insights into the priorities that the next Government must consider to safeguard the future of the UK tech sector.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.

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