It was no surprise that AI and cyber were top of the agenda at this year’s London Tech Week. In particular, AI is creating a huge buzz across the industry and generative AI has caught everyone’s imagination.
What stood out for me – as a first-time attendee at the event – was the extent to which emerging technology is creating both opportunities to leverage and risks that need to be managed.
Taking a leadership position and powering innovation
On the opportunity side, the UK is an acknowledged world leader in both AI and cyber. We need to harness this and cement the UK’s leading position as it will drive both investment and jobs.
This is something that came out clearly when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak himself spoke. Mr Sunak’s appearance gave him the opportunity to demonstrate the degree to which the government's thinking about tech has developed over recent years. AI and cyber are great ways to showcase the UK’s capabilities on a global scale, and it was very encouraging to see that the Prime Minister is taking these areas seriously. His understanding of both the benefits and the concerns was surprisingly comprehensive. The UK needs a continuing, joined-up technology strategy and it was clear that driving this forward is a priority for the government.
Also on the opportunity side of the equation, no one could have come away from Tech Week without a very strong appreciation of the massive potential of generative AI. KPMG’s Paul Henninger, Head of Connected Technology in the UK, spoke at a panel event and underlined the extent to which today’s generative AI far outstrips the capabilities of traditional data science models. Large language models (LLMs) are developing faster and further than almost anything we’ve seen before. This is generating both productivity leaps and whole new use cases.
Perhaps the key overarching theme on AI from the conference was that it shouldn’t be seen as a threat to job security but rather as a way for forward-thinking businesses to enable the workforce to focus on more value-adding tasks, improving innovation and productivity. We should let technology solve easy problems so that human ingenuity and knowledge can be applied to the complex problems that create real value.
Managing the risks
However, then we come to the risks. Generative AI models, combined with vast quantities of data, could easily reach a tipping point where their creators lose sight of how and why they reach different conclusions based on their inputs. AI can also hallucinate answers that sound real but are actually made up. It’s essential that there is a strong system of governance and controls applied to the development and use of LLMs. A clear strategy is needed over what data is exposed to LLMs and whether the results are reliable and ‘safe’. There is a parallel risk too of LLMs being used by bad actors to generate harmful content or misinformation. One of the closing remarks that resonated with me was that, while companies and industries are investing considerable amounts of time and money in AI, only 5% of this is dedicated to securing it against emerging threats.
This brings me to the broader topic of cyber security. It was a recurring point during Tech Week that cyber security is the number one issue businesses are facing in 2023. While cyber is a big opportunity for the UK in terms of jobs and investment, there is a massive shortage of cyber security professionals holding us (and other economies) back. At the same time, cyber risks such as ransomware and denial of service attacks are proliferating – they are a real threat to businesses across the board. That’s why it’s key that businesses keep investing in cyber security. Tech teams need to quantify the cyber risks and their potential impacts so they can make a clear and compelling business case to their boards to invest.
A balanced approach to unlock value creation
However, another key message that I took away from London Tech Week was that as great as the cyber and AI risks potentially are, they should be viewed and assessed as part of a pragmatic conversation, not a panic.
It’s all about reducing risk exposure and at the same time equipping the business to function as a modern digital enterprise. This is what the tech industry is focused on as it finds new forms of value creation and explores the exciting frontiers that are beginning to open up.