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Britain is stuck. How can we get it moving again?

7 Jan 2024

Embracing AI to get Britain Moving

Ever since OpenAI’s Chat GPT brought generative artificial intelligence (AI) to our attention, we have become accustomed to politicians, journalists and business leaders routinely telling us that AI will transform our lives.

They are right. AI, like any disruptive technology, has the power to fundamentally change our economy. If Britain is serious about getting moving again, then embracing AI must be part of the solution. AI can tackle Britain’s productivity malaise by driving efficiencies in businesses and government. The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has focussed on incentivising the inactive working-age population back into the labour market, but there are currently 2.6 million working-age people out of work for health reasons. Through making radical breakthroughs in healthcare, from crushing NHS bureaucracy and reinvesting savings into frontline care to revolutionising health treatments, AI can play a decisive part in improving health outcomes. This will spur greater participation in the labour market and deliver a healthier and more productive workforce.

Widespread AI adoption is essential to capitalise on productivity benefits but is only possible if the public are onside. By nature of being disruptive, technology is a double-edged sword and while AI presents opportunities, it also poses a major threat in the form of spreading disinformation. The scourge of deliberately false information has blighted societies throughout history. In Ancient Rome, Octavian used disinformation as part of his power struggle with Mark Antony following the assassination of Julius Caesar, falsely claiming Antony would subjugate the Roman republic to Egyptian rule.

The concern for the UK economy is that generative AI makes the threat of disinformation especially acute in 2024 by breaking down barriers for malicious actors to spread false content on an unprecedented scale. The upcoming UK election will occur against the backdrop of prolific disinformation traffic weaponised by hostile state actors, which will undermine election integrity and public trust in AI. AI is the sword of Damocles hanging over this age. Only through minimising the disinformation risks AI poses can the benefits come to fruition to get Britain moving.

Disinformation is increasingly an obstacle to economic growth, with research by the University of Baltimore finding disinformation costs the global economy $78 billion a year. A 2019 study found disinformation wipes out $39 billion in stock market value annually. As the world’s sixth largest economy plugged into international markets, Britain will struggle to achieve economic progress in the digital age while the handbrake of disinformation is firmly pulled. Of the $39 billion losses, $9 billion was attributed to health misinformation. Closer to home, London Economics have estimated the direct costs of disinformation in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 came to £44.2 million, not accounting for the indirect economic costs of an unhealthy population. No wonder the World Economic Forum ranks the spread of disinformation as among the top global risks.

How to Tackle Disinformation to get Britain Moving

In attempting to tackle disinformation, policy makers have prioritised regulating technology platforms responsible for hosting false content, such as through the Online Safety Act, as well as by championing digital literacy efforts to ensure online users have the skills to identify disinformation. To accompany these efforts, there is a third way: enlisting the private sector.

A 2022 study finds that while some AI start-ups have developed technological solutions to tackling disinformation, their commercial opportunities remain narrow as Meta and Google prefer to keep their activity in-house. At the same time, the economic and political incentives for disinformation are so powerful that researchers suggest there is little chance of a market solution.

To stimulate demand, government should establish a Digital Resilience Fund (DRF) to finance an ecosystem of AI start-ups committed to delivering innovative solutions to tackling disinformation. The DRF would fund developments in natural language processing and machine learning technology for content verification purposes. Funding could be prioritised for homegrown start-ups, such as Fabula AI, a London-based pioneer in geometric deep learning to map how malicious actors spread content through deep learning algorithms. The DRF would unlock the twin benefit of providing financial backing to innovative companies while serving the public interest.

  The technologies earmarked for development should be overseen by a Digital Resilience Corps, bringing together AI developers, cyber experts, academics, journalists, and policy campaigners. These experts would be driven by an ‘Esprit de Corps’ of protecting democracy and driving economic growth by mitigating disinformation. Its members would deliver workshops in schools and businesses to enhance digital literacy skills and consult on how to future-proof against disinformation threats.

  One of the reasons cited by researchers as to why Google and Meta do not engage third-party AI companies is the willingness of big tech companies to avoid having their algorithms scrutinised. If technology giants refuse to embrace innovation to tackle disinformation, they should be compelled to do so given their woeful underinvestment in content moderation. The DRF should be funded by both government and the technology platforms that host false content through a statutory levy. AI start-ups have been compelled by low demand to narrow their offering to focus on services yielding the greatest commercial value. This diverts their energies away from serving public interest by investing in solutions aimed at curbing disinformation. These companies have instead found there is greater demand among corporate clients for monitoring brand safety, demonstrating growing private sector appetite for addressing the commercial dangers of disinformation. The DRF should leverage private investment to fund its activities through an incentive system whereby businesses who financially contribute are prioritised for training and support in protecting their organisations from disinformation.

  To overcome the obstacle disinformation presents to economic productivity by slowing AI adoption, the DRF should pour investment into developing frontier technologies to combat disinformation, such as natural language processing (NLP). The current more practical version of NLP uses AI to match text assertions with assertions made in fact-checking databases. Relying on fact-checking alone is inadequate, as substantiated by a Yale University survey finding the public lacks faith in the ability of fact checkers to stem the tide of disinformation. The study argues that algorithms are more powerful in establishing disinformation detection systems, which the DRF could fund by investing in NLP that classifies assertions as true or false based on large databases of manually labelled assertions. The reason why this approach to NLP has so far had limited success is because of its dependence on large databases and the need for representative data to be pooled from different platforms or geographic regions. DRF funding will enable start-up pioneers to invest in improving the efficacy of NLP solutions.

  A plethora of economic benefits would flow from a genuine effort to tackle disinformation by mobilising the existing AI start-up ecosystem. Beyond the immediate financial benefits for homegrown technology companies that funding would provide, effectively combatting disinformation would earn public trust, a prerequisite to widespread AI adoption and the associated productivity gains. The global economic losses to disinformation would be curtailed, while simultaneously positioning the UK as a frontrunner in delivering an operating environment for businesses with reduced disinformation prevalence. Delivering a gold-standard for tackling disinformation is ever important in attracting private sector investment in an increasingly digitalised economy and will ensure the UK can get moving again.

  This blog has been written by Thomas Barton, the Founder and CEO of Polis Analysis, as part of the Progress Prize, which promotes economic, scientific and technology solutions as an antidote to Britain’s malaise to offer a new way forward.

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