UK invests £300 million in AI research resource

The United Kingdom government appears to be putting its money where its mouth is to help address the challenges and opportunities presented by the rapid advancement of AI technology, with a £300 million (US$366 million) investment to create a national Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (AIRR).

Funding details for the AIRR – including £225 million to create the UK’s most powerful supercomputer at the University of Bristol – were unveiled during the first day of the AI Safety Summit hosted by the government on 1-2 November 2023.

The summit attracted representatives from 27 countries, including United States Vice-President Kamala Harris and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, as well as academics and civil leaders and figureheads from industry, such as Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO and owner of the social media site X (formerly known as Twitter).

The summit was seen by many observers as a diplomatic coup for the beleaguered British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is languishing in the opinion polls, after it produced an international declaration signed by the UK, the United States, the European Union, Australia and China.

It warned of the “potential for serious, even catastrophic, harm, either deliberate or unintentional, stemming from the most significant capabilities of these AI models”, and agreed on the need to “look collectively at the risks around frontier AI”.

Sharing AI safety risks

To address frontier AI risk, the declaration called for international cooperation to:

• Identify AI safety risks of shared concern, building a shared scientific and evidence-based understanding of these risks, and sustaining that understanding as capabilities continue to increase, in the context of a wider global approach to understanding the impact of AI in societies.

• Build respective risk-based policies across countries to ensure safety in light of such risks, collaborating as appropriate while recognising our approaches may differ based on national circumstances and applicable legal frameworks. This includes, alongside increased transparency by private actors developing frontier AI capabilities, appropriate evaluation metrics, tools for safety testing, and developing relevant public sector capability and scientific research.

The venue for the event – Bletchley Park – was chosen for its historic significance as one of the birthplaces of computer science, renowned for its pivotal role in World War II codebreaking led by computing pioneers, including the mathematician Alan Turing.

Bristol-based supercomputer

The £225 million investment at the University of Bristol, to be known as Isambard-AI, is expected to create one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe when it opens next summer at the National Composites Centre, an independent, open-access technology centre delivering world-class research and development of composites.

It will be 10 times more powerful than the UK’s current fastest supercomputer and the contract to build the new system has been awarded to Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

A spokesperson for Bristol University said: “The advanced technologies and design will allow Isambard-AI to reach up to 200 quadrillion calculations per second.

“The new Bristol facility will be used by a wide range of organisations from across the UK to harness the power of AI, which is already the main driver of emerging technologies such as training large language models, big data and robotics.

“The new supercomputing facility will also play a vital role in important areas such as accelerating automated drug discovery and climate research.”

Connect to Cambridge cluster

Isambard-AI will connect with a new supercomputer cluster at the University of Cambridge, called Dawn, which is being developed to offer additional capacity as part of the new national AIRR.

Professor Simon McIntosh-Smith, director of the Isambard National Research Facility at the University of Bristol, said: “Isambard-AI represents a huge leap forward for AI computational power in the UK … and will offer capacity never seen before in the UK for researchers and industry to harness the huge potential of AI in fields such as robotics, big data, climate research and drug discovery.”

The UK government’s new Frontier AI Taskforce will have priority access to support its work to mitigate the risks posed by the most advanced forms of AI, including national security from the development of bioweapons and cyberattacks.

The resource will also support the work of the AI Safety Institute, as it develops a programme of research looking at the safety of frontier AI models and supports government policy with this analysis.

Adopting technology ‘safely’

Announcing the investment during the AI summit, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan claimed: “Britain is grasping the opportunity to lead the world in adopting this technology safely so we can put it to work and lead healthier, easier and longer lives.

“This means giving Britain’s leading researchers and scientific talent access to the tools they need to delve into how this complicated technology works. That is why we are investing in building the UK's supercomputers, making sure we cement our place as a world-leader in AI safety.”

Phase one of the system, to be hosted in a self-cooled, self-contained data centre at the National Composites Centre at Bristol should be implemented by March 2024 and has been developed in collaboration with the GW4 group of universities – an alliance made up of the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) said the cluster of advanced computers for AI research will include a new Cambridge-based supercomputer and the announcement this month triples the £100 million investment outlined in the British government’s 2023 Spring Budget to deliver a dedicated AI Research Resource (AIRR).

As well as the new supercomputer for Bristol, the AIRR supports the Dawn supercomputer at the University of Cambridge, which should be fully operational by the end of this year.

A spokesperson for UKRI said: “When the entire AIRR programme is fully operational, Isambard-AI will be the UK’s most powerful supercomputer, and Dawn will be the UK’s second-most powerful system.”

30-fold increase to AI supercomputing capacity

The spokesperson added: “Together, these facilities will provide at least a 30-fold increase to the UK’s AI supercomputing capacity.

“The Bristol and Cambridge supercomputers will be connected together through a cloud-based service layer. This means they can be concurrently accessed by researchers.”

The huge investment in supercomputers and the UK’s hosting of the AI summit has been widely welcomed and will be followed up with another full-blown AI safety summit next year in France.

Ciaran Martin, a professor of practice in the management of public organisations at the University of Oxford, said of the summit: “It’s easy to criticise, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This was a good initiative and the British government deserves credit for its global leadership.

“The alternative was not a better event – the alternative was nothing at all, and a repeat of the mistakes of a generation ago when we allowed ourselves to become dependent on technology which was built without security in mind.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com