GCV's AI Q1 2021 supplement editorial by James Mawson, editor in chief, Global Corporate Venturing

“Artificial intelligence [AI] will change how business, governments and societies operate for decades to come.”

This was the theme at Tortoise Media’s AI discussion between editor James Harding and Mariana Mazzucato, academic and author of the new book, Moonshot.

There have been relatively few general purpose technologies since the first industrial age. The use of steam power and then electricity transformed society and business. In the first and second ages of industry with semiconductors, and then the internet created the conditions for data and information to be shared. AI will then write the software to capitalise on the opportunities and as the hardware improves so does the scale and speed.

As Jeff Herbst, vice president of business development at Nvidia and head of Nvidia GPU Ventures, in discussion with George Hoyem, managing partner at In-Q-Tel, shared at the GCV Digital Forum 2021 last month: “Modern AI is basically pattern recognition on data, whether it is images or voice.”

“Fundamentally what is going on in the world right now is that the traditional model of how computers are programmed has been turned on its head.”

Herbst predicted the industries that would be most transformed by AI will be those that manage large amounts of data such as healthcare or retail.

Hoyem said that in the same way most technology uses the internet today, AI was also heading in a similar direction.

“It is going to creep into every vertical application and it starts with things that are highly parallelised and data sets like images, voice and even unstructured text.

“It is going to cover pretty much everything in about 10 years.”

This creates a question for governments for how best to steer or manage the progress. Mazzucato rightly argues for “goal-oriented, public private partnerships.

“What does it mean to have purpose at centre of public governance and system? Be bold on outcomes wanted and open on methods to get there.

“Have the ability to learn through trial and error and not outsourcing to consultants. Develop organisational capacity beyond administration but through dynamic procurement to bring policy redesign. Dynamic procurement to scale up not just VC.

“Going to the moon and back in a generation [the 1960s] gave immense spin-overs. [Our current] materials, software, traces back to those days. What does it mean today?

“It means targeting spill-overs rather than cost-benefit analysis.”

In the UK’s industrial strategy announced in 2017, Mazzucato and former universities minister David Willetts put AI and data as central to any challenge. She described it as “a fundamental input to transform”. The missions set out in the strategy focused on healthy ageing, the climate and the future of mobility to be safe, sustainability, have equal access and net-zero carbon emissions.

The European Union is going further with its green deal as part of its 2021 to 2027 Horizon Europe budget. Similarly, both China and the US are setting ambitious climate goals.

AI has already allowed Alphabet and other tech companies to reduced energy use and costs for data centres – as Callum Cyrus notes in his main feature.

But, as Nvidia’s chart on the AI startup ecosystem shows, most entrepreneurs are targeting the global health system. Already, scientists are weaving human brain cells into microchips, as the blog Futurism notes.

David Saad, mathematician at Aston University, said: “We believe this project has the potential to break through current limitations of processing power and energy consumption to bring about a paradigm shift in machine learning technology.”

AI will only fix the problems set for it by the politicians if they are clear what societal challenges they want tackled.

As Pope Francis put it in November: “Artificial intelligence is at the heart of the epochal change we are experiencing… Future advances should be oriented towards respecting the dignity of the person and of creation.”