PA ANALYSIS: Is there a future for AI post-Brexit?

There has been a lot of talk about the City’s emergence as a mecca for artificial intelligence and technological innovation. What there hasn’t been a lot of in the investment world are discussions around whether or not the sector can survive a hard Brexit outcome.

The tone at the Smith & Williamson-sponsored artificial intelligence panel debate was optimistic about the peaceful co-existence between modern white-collar workers and machines and London’s role in the ongoing AI revolution.

Panellist and co-head of the S&W AI fund Chris Ford boldly proclaimed London as “one of the great AI centres around the world”. “It is not the only one, but it is the only one which sits co-located with one of the great centres of capital,” he argued, thus giving it a leg up over other metropolitan tech hubs like New York and Tokyo.

Ford’s point relies heavily on the assumption that London can maintain its status as “a great centre of capital” and one of Europe’s primary financial hubs after its split from the European Union.

Post-EU referendum, the tech industry has been one of the most aggressive lobbyists against a hard Brexit deal, unsurprisingly, considering that it employs more EU nationals than most other UK sectors.

"Worrying about whether certain jobs will become obsolete in an increasingly automated world feels a bit like putting the cart before the Brexit horse."

Bedrock of success

The industry’s trade association, techUK, has stated emphatically that tech will form the bedrock of the UK’s success after leaving the EU if there is a credible plan in place that grants tech and AI companies access to the single market.

“A disorderly Brexit would be highly disruptive” to the sector, stressed techUK chief executive, Julian David, in a report from earlier this year. “These businesses are highly dependent upon the single market – they need regulatory continuity and negotiated access in key areas.

“The government needs to be realistic about the impact of Brexit on the UK’s digital sectors. It is manageable but it needs to be managed.”

Remarkably, investment into artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies has continued pouring into the UK, despite the degree of political uncertainty.

More than $1bn or £825m has been placed into UK fintech companies in 2017 alone, according to data from Pitchbook. That’s double the amount raised in the comparable period in 2016 and suggests that fintech firms are set to outdo the record level of investment recorded in 2015.

Picking up the pace

The fact that these investment decisions have been made after the UK’s decision to leave the EU means that Brexit is unlikely to curb the pace of progress, says Tim Day, the other co-manager of the S&W AI fund. If anything, Day feels the rate of innovation is speeding up.

The UK has all the building blocks needed to attract foreign investors into the tech sector, he says – the universities that are “churning out bright individuals”; the capital markets in London; government schemes like the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, which helps start-ups get off the ground.

For those who remain unconvinced, “look at what Google has done when they acquired DeepMind, which is at the centre of AI”, Day says.

“Google has re-positioned all of its AI initiatives around DeepMind, which is here in London. There’s an incredibly dynamic start-up level going on in London. You may have bigger, more established companies in America but there are some interesting start-ups in London. And at some stage, these companies will probably become public.”

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