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  • Writer's pictureGlyn Heath

Is it time to nationalise AI?

TL;DR When I started writing this article I imagined it would be brief. I soon realised there's a lot more to the question than I first thought!


In this article I’m posing the question of whether or not state-ownership of a foundational generative AI platform might be viable; I’m not using the term 'nationalisation' in the sense of a sovereign state taking control of an existing private enterprise.


While we’re very much still in the hype-cycle for Gen AI and we have already seen that in the last 15 months or so since ChatGPT broke onto the world stage current technologies are far from flawless, it is abundantly clear that AI has the future potential to massively improve productivity and ultimately by extension, national GDP.


Consequently there is an argument that a multi-modal GenAI platform owned, developed and governed on behalf of the nation should be viewed with similar importance to any other strategic infrastructure of national significance; water, energy, transport and defence. In more recent times, high-speed internet access took on this level of priority. Pre-internet (can anyone remember the time before?) and during its early adoption phase there was much discussion about the information haves and have-nots and the beneficial impact of ubiquitous, cheap broadband on the economy and on individuals’ lives. It seems to me that an analogous rationale holds for GenAI.


Global AI
Global AI

So what are the arguments for and against this approach? How would such an entity be formed, with what remit and with what controls? And could it really have such a profound economic impact on a nation’s economy that would make it worthwhile? Would the advantages outweigh the benefits?


The National AI Foundational Model

The implications of a national government incorporating a publicly funded business to create a new state-owned GenAI platform are complex and multifaceted, with both potential benefits and drawbacks.


Technological Advancements

The development of a GenAI platform could lead to significant technological advancements in the field. The state-owned nature of the platform may allow for a more focused and coordinated effort in research and development, potentially pushing the boundaries of what is currently possible.

Conversely, governments do not always have the best track record in innovation and efficiently operating businesses. Government bureaucracy and limited market pressures could stifle innovation and agility compared to private sector competitors. There is also the attendant risk of a less enlightened or ethical government politicising technological development.


Economic Impact

The economic impact would depend on the success and adoption of the AI platform. If the platform proved to be innovative and widely adopted, it could stimulate economic growth, attract investment, spawn new businesses, create jobs, and contribute to the development of a thriving AI ecosystem within the country. However, there are also risks of inefficiencies and challenges in managing a state-owned business that could impact economic outcomes.


Competitive Landscape

State ownership could allow the government to concentrate resources and expertise on developing a world-leading AI platform, potentially boosting national competitiveness in areas like technology, research, and innovation. 

Private AI companies could then have access to a reliable, inexpensive, appropriately governed foundation platform on which to build innovative new technologies opening up new opportunities for growth. Businesses that effectively leverage this collaboration would likely gain a significant competitive advantage.

The dynamics between public and private entities in the AI sector could be influenced positively by the government's involvement. However, as a monopoly platform, it could equally undermine private sector AI competition and innovation if poorly managed and governed which in turn would limit economic benefits.


Government Use of AI

Government agencies are already exploring the potential of using AI-generated content and language models to improve their services, automate processes, and enhance decision-making. The government could direct the technology to focus on areas deemed of national priority, not just commercial success. This could spur innovations in healthcare, education, transport and defence.

As a public platform, there would be stronger oversight and controls to ensure the technology was developed and used responsibly for public benefit and remained compliant with national and international regulations and legislation on AI. This could alleviate some concerns around AI ethics.

Public funding could make the platform more accessible to researchers, businesses, and citizens, fostering broad-based collaboration and democratising access to AI tools.


Ethical and Privacy Considerations

The use of Gen AI raises ethical concerns related to privacy, bias, and potential misuse of the technology. Government control could provide greater leverage in ensuring the platform is developed and used ethically, with transparency, accountability, and safeguards against misuse. With a state-owned platform under constant scrutiny and accountability, heightened concerns about security and privacy and about how the government manages these ethical considerations, especially if the AI system is used for surveillance or other sensitive applications, might be allayed.


International Relations

Ownership could reduce dependence on private AI platforms from other countries, potentially mitigating concerns about data security and intellectual property.

At the same time, the development and deployment of a state-owned AI platform could have implications for international relations. Countries may view the technology as a strategic asset, and its use could impact diplomatic relations, trade agreements, and global cooperation on AI standards and regulations. If other countries perceive it as threatening, it could escalate global AI tensions and technological nationalism. International cooperation would be important to address issues like data sharing, ethical standards, and competition.


Data and National Security

The AI platform would require vast amounts of data for training and improvement. Ensuring the security of this data would be crucial to prevent unauthorised access, data breaches, and potential misuse of sensitive information. State ownership could make the platform a more attractive target for cyber attack, foreign espionage and state sponsored or independent bad actors.


Innovation and Flexibility

State-owned enterprises may face challenges in terms of innovation and adaptability compared to private enterprises. The government would need to implement effective mechanisms to foster innovation within the state-owned entity and ensure it can keep pace with rapidly evolving AI technologies. There is also the potential that public funding could be misallocated, leading to inefficient development or duplicating existing efforts.


Public Perception

Trustworthy AI should be a critical consideration for government and it would be imperative that the governing body ensured it adhered to the five fundamental properties for trustworthy AI - explainability, fairness, transparency, robustness, and privacy.

The success and acceptance of a state-owned AI platform would depend on public perception of this trustworthiness. If managed transparently and ethically, it could gain public trust. However, concerns about government surveillance, misuse of data, or lack of accountability could lead to scepticism and resistance from the public. The platform could be susceptible to political manipulation or interference, leading to biassed outcomes or censorship.

On the other hand, citizens and businesses would get free or low-cost access to beneficial AI applications developed on the platform. This could accelerate adoption and trust in the technology. Potentially, profits could help fund other public services or even provide citizens with a shareholder dividend.


Regulatory Framework

The government would need to establish a robust regulatory framework to govern the development, deployment, and use of the AI platform. This would include addressing issues such as accountability, transparency, and compliance with privacy regulations. 


Regulation and Governance of the Platform

Creating and managing a state-owned generative AI platform would be extremely complex and require careful governance to ensure responsible development and ethical use. Constituting a balanced and inclusive governing body for such an entity would demand a multidisciplinary approach, involving expertise from various sectors and stakeholders. There is a danger that such a broad cross-section of representation from interested parties creates an unwieldy bureaucracy from the outset. A wholly commercial organisation wouldn’t be encumbered in the same way and could operate with a board of half a dozen people.


Expertise and Diversity

The governing body should consist of individuals with diverse expertise and backgrounds to ensure a well-rounded perspective. This may include experts in government, AI, ethics, law, economics, technology, industry, academia, civil society and public policy. 

  • Government Representatives: members from relevant government departments to ensure alignment with national and international policies and objectives.

  • AI Experts: representatives with a deep understanding of AI technologies, research, and development to guide the technical aspects of the platform in line with the latest advancements and best practices in the field.

  • Ethics and Legal Experts: professionals with expertise in ethics, law, and data privacy to address ethical considerations, legal compliance, and safeguarding user rights along with frameworks and methodologies for assessing potential harms and benefits.

  • Industry Representatives: members from relevant industries that may use or be affected by the AI platform to ensure a practical understanding of market needs and challenges.

  • Economic and Social Science Experts: Understanding of the potential social and economic impacts of AI, including fairness, accessibility, and potential job displacement.

  • Civil Society and Consumer Representatives: public interest groups advocating for transparency, accountability, and responsible AI development.


Governance Responsibilities

  • Corporate Governance: The governance body should adhere to corporate governance principles to ensure transparency, accountability, and ethical conduct. This includes practices such as disclosure, risk management, conflict of interest resolution, and executive compensation structure

  • Developing and enforcing ethical guidelines: Setting clear ethical principles for the platform's development, deployment, and operation.

  • Overseeing data governance: Establishing robust data privacy and security protocols, ensuring responsible data collection, usage, and storage.

  • Financial Oversight: Financial experts should be part of the governance body to ensure sound financial management, budget allocation, and accountability for the platform's funding and resources.

  • Adherence to Regulation: The governing body should have the authority to oversee the operations of the generative AI platform and establish regulations to ensure compliance with legal and ethical standards. This may involve monitoring the platform's activities, assessing potential risks, and enforcing appropriate safeguards.

  • Assessing potential risks and benefits: Evaluating the platform's potential impact on various stakeholders and society as a whole.

  • Promoting transparency and accountability: Ensuring public access to information about the platform's operations and decision-making.

  • Engaging in public dialogue: Facilitating open discussions with the public and relevant stakeholders about the platform's development and use.

  • Creating regulatory enforcement capacity, including audits, data protection monitoring, mechanisms for transparency and accountability and regular reporting to the public and government.

  • Developing clear rules and development restrictions regarding surveillance, data exploitation, human rights, accessibility, inclusiveness, environmental impacts, commercial impacts, technological misuse, etc.


Independent, Rotating Members

A proportion of independent members with no vested interests would ensure impartiality and critical oversight. Periodic rotation of members could bring in fresh perspectives and prevent entrenched interests.


Governing Body

The governing body should have a clear mandate and independent authority to make decisions to hold the publicly funded enterprise accountable. It should clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each member and committee and establish clear guidelines and processes for decision-making, disclosure practices, and risk management. 

In order for it to function effectively, sufficient resources should be allocated to the governing body to carry out its mandate.


Transparent Decision-Making Processes

Transparency is crucial for building trust and ensuring accountability. The governing body should also promote open communication with stakeholders, including the public with documented and open public discussion wherever possible. Civil society could be engaged through seminars and consultation papers.


International Collaboration

Engagement with international experts and collaborating with other national governments and global organisations to stay abreast of global AI developments, standards, and ethical frameworks would be imperative.


Regular Audits and Assessments

A system must be implemented for regular internal and external audits to assess the platform's performance, security, and ethical standards. Mechanisms would need to be established for addressing issues identified during audits promptly.


Public Accountability

Mechanisms for public accountability must be fully integrated, such as regular reports, public consultations, and engagement with relevant stakeholders. In addition, transparency in decision-making processes and sharing information on the organisation's goals, operations, and impacts with the public is imperative.


Continuous Learning and Adaptation

A culture of continuous learning and adaptation to stay ahead in the rapidly evolving field of AI is required. There would need to be encouragement for professional development for board members and committees to ensure they are adaptable and remain informed about the latest advancements and best practices.


Risk Management

The governance body should develop a robust risk management framework to identify, assess, and mitigate potential risks associated with the development and deployment of AI technologies and that they remain safe, secure and reliable.


Economic Growth Objectives

Using the establishment and development of a state-owned Gen AI platform as an infrastructure project to stimulate economic growth is a plausible component of an overall growth strategy. Implementing a model where companies are incentivised to use a low-cost platform and contribute to its development could have a range of positive effects. There is potential, however, for there to be contentious implications too.


Fostering Innovation

Ready access to a powerful, inexpensive-to-use platform that will keep pace with and take advantage of new developments in AI technology could foster innovation and entrepreneurialism within the domestic business ecosystem. This would lead to the development of new products, services, and solutions, driving economic growth.


Economic Growth and Innovation

Low-cost access to a platform at least as capable as alternative commercial offerings could give UK based businesses an advantage over international competition. Gen AI has the potential to substantially increase labour productivity growth of 0.1 to 0.6 percent annually over the course of the next 15 years or so, according to some commentators, depending on the rate of technology adoption and redeployment of worker time into other activities. 

It would attract talent and investment into UK-based AI research and commercialisation, fueling AI cluster growth. The foundational platformsl's impact on international trade and cross-border economic activities would need to be carefully considered.


Boosting Specific Sectors

The platform could be focused on developing functionality that was best adapted to support applications relevant to those specific key sectors of the UK economy that would see the greatest benefit, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and finance.


Supporting Startups and SMEs

Free access to the platform could particularly benefit startups and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), providing them with a valuable resource to leverage advanced AI capabilities without the financial burden.


Trade and Economics

Liberalisation of services such as telecommunications has had far-reaching economic effects in the past, enabling businesses to compete in global markets and facilitating the growth of other sectors. A state-owned Gen AI platform would fit into such a category.


Collaboration and Contribution

By encouraging UK based companies to contribute to the platform's development, there is potential for collaborative efforts that strengthen and accelerate the development of the technology and contribute to the overall growth of the AI sector.

AI development is often a collaborative effort on a global scale. Restricting access could hinder the platform's ability to integrate with international AI research and development efforts. Collaborative development partnerships with other countries could be established, sharing resources and expertise while ensuring fair access and avoiding discriminatory practices.


Job Creation

A thriving AI sector could lead to job creation in areas such as research, development, and implementation of AI technologies along with a burgeoning ecosystem of innovative solutions based on the platform.


Global Economic Impact

Tackling climate change and reversing biodiversity loss is a global challenge, and the economic implications of such initiatives are interconnected with global economic systems. The platform's impact on global economic dynamics and international trade could be profoundly beneficial.


Equitable Access and Development

With a primary focus on the wider global benefits of leading-edge Gen AI development, the platform could adopt an open-source approach for core functionalities, while offering proprietary or restricted features only to qualifying users. This could promote wider adoption and benefit the global AI community, while still generating valuable revenue to fuel further R&D.

Clearly any restrictions would have to be carefully considered so as not to cause any breaches of international conventions on free trade or cut across global legal and regulatory requirements, leading to formal challenges. An international backlash would be self-defeating and potentially ultimately harm the economic benefits.


Conclusion

The decision of whether or not to create a state-owned generative AI platform is a complex one with no easy answers. Careful consideration of the potential benefits and drawbacks, alongside robust planning and implementation, would be necessary to ensure such a platform served the public good and avoided unforeseen risks


Overall there are good-faith arguments on both sides over the role central governments should play in guiding and funding Gen AI development. Reasonable people can agree or disagree on the appropriate policies. But the implications around ethics, economics, geopolitics and more would be significant and warrant intense scrutiny for any state pursuing such an approach.


By constituting a governing body with a diverse set of skills, expertise, and perspectives, the state-owned AI platform could be better equipped to navigate the complex challenges associated with AI development, deployment, and governance.


While using a state-owned Gen AI platform to stimulate economic growth is a valid objective, there are obvious potential consequences and international implications. Striking a balance between supporting domestic innovation and fostering global collaboration would be crucial for the success and acceptance of such a strategy.


Ultimately, the effectiveness of using the platform to stimulate economic growth would depend on the specific policies for access and pricing, its alignment with ethical considerations, and its integration into broader national and international political and economic strategies.


An alternative might be to concentrate the focus of the platform as a public infrastructure investment designed openly for societal / ethical goals. This could still yield long-term competitiveness as innovation, investment and talent gravitate towards its UK base.


A less challenging and contentious approach might be funding broad access to existing commercial platforms and skills training for all innovative UK companies. Targeted innovation programs in priority growth sectors may also be impactful.


Of course the least challenging (lazy) option is to wait and watch to see how AI evolves while acknowledging this approach risks missing a golden opportunity for technological leadership at an international level.


Image attribution: Free Stock photos by Vecteezy


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