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Major AI funding boost in UK to fuel driverless car revolution

  • The U.K. government is allocating $100 million toward artificial intelligence research in its 2017 budget
  • Finance Minister Philip Hammond wants fully driverless cars on the roads by 2021
  • Training and attracting talent to the sector remains a challenge
AI assistants can provide alternatives and present tradeoffs while human asset managers ultimately decide the course of action.
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AI assistants can provide alternatives and present tradeoffs while human asset managers ultimately decide the course of action.

Technology, in particular artificial intelligence (AI), is set for a substantial injection of funding from the U.K. government, as Downing Street pursues the aggressive development of driverless vehicles.

The country's annual budget, to be officially announced Wednesday, will allocate £75 million ($99.4 million) for AI research and development, £400 million for electric car charging stations, £100 million to boost clean car purchases, another £100 million for an additional 8,000 computer science teachers, and £76 million to boost digital and construction skills training.

The budget will also include new reforms for on-road testing of automated cars as well as retraining initiatives for those undergoing job displacement and transition, according to a statement from the British government.

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Driving automation

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, the U.K.'s finance minister, appears determined to make Britain a leader in automation technology, with the aim of putting fully driverless cars on the road by 2021.

"Some would say that's a bold move, but we have to embrace these technologies if we want the U.K. to lead the next industrial revolution," he told the BBC on Sunday.

Facing an uncertain future amid complicated Brexit negotiations and sluggish growth, Theresa May's Conservative government's investment plan demonstrates the tech sector's importance in keeping the U.K. competitive.

Stan Boland, CEO of autonomous technology developer FiveAI, told CNBC on Monday that the U.S. is currently ahead of the U.K. in terms of fully autonomous vehicles, and British companies are working to catch up. According to Hammond's budget outline, a new AI start-up is founded every week in the U.K.

"The U.K. has built up excellent academic expertise in the fields of computer vision and artificial intelligence, both essential components to autonomous vehicle technology, with several of the top global research groups located within U.K. institutions," Boland said. But, he added: "Keeping that talent in the U.K. and focusing enough of it on the automotive space is a serious challenge."

A Google self-driving car at their company's headquarters in Mountain View, California.
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A Google self-driving car at their company's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Brexit challenge

Laurie Miles, director of analytics at SAS UK & Ireland, said in a press release Monday: "The UK must invest in educational areas of STEM to align skills with today's labor market needs. At present, the country is experiencing a flood of data and opportunities in areas like artificial intelligence, yet there remains a drought in skills to extract business insight from all this information."

Part of the challenge depends on whether Brexit stifles free movement of labor and talent into the country — according to venture capital firm Balderton Capital, more than 40 percent of tech firms set up in London in 2016 had at least one non-British founder.

Despite this, London remains Europe's premier hub for tech investment, garnering more deals since the 2016 Brexit vote than contenders Paris and Amsterdam combined, according to London and Partners.

"The commitment by the government to supply more funding for companies working on these technologies and provide regulatory clarity for operating fully autonomous vehicle on U.K. roads by 2021 are the latest in a series of moves that will further establish the U.K. as an international leader in technology and innovation," Boland said.