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Generative AI is powering new innovation, led by the UK’s universities, writes Gerard Grech.

We are entering a new technological innovation cycle; the sixth in our history. If the first waves were powered by water, steam and electricity, then this new wave is powered by artificial intelligence; specifically generative AI (GAI). 

There are three main drivers for its growing adoption: the plummeting costs of computational power required to train the language models; the abundance and availability of data within institutions and governments; and the growing development of an open source ecosystem, where shared technology tools and resources are accessible for free. 

GAI takes the form of algorithms that can create new content at a speed much faster than humans can, including audio, code, images, text and videos. There has rightly been a focus on the implications of this new technology for the economy, jobs, fraud and crime; however, we must not – as the recent UK House of Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee report found – lose sight of the immense commercial value that this technology will bring. 

Where the sixth wave will drive our society forward is in combining GAI with other emerging technologies, such as quantum computing and life sciences, leading to groundbreaking scientific discoveries ranging from drug discovery for deadly diseases to new materials to drive our net zero futures.

To maximise the opportunities that GAI presents, UK universities have to steer this wave. They already have the talent to do so. Cambridge is the third biggest scientific cluster in the world, second only to Stanford in the Bay Area and Boston, while Oxford is the fifth.

Thousands of British academics are working to harness the potential of GAI and the list of those working on it will only grow. The founders of the UK’s most successful AI company, DeepMind – which was acquired by Google – met at UCL. Other emerging university spin-outs using GAI to further scientific discovery include London-based Polaron from Imperial, which is designing higher-performing materials for applications such as wind turbines to aid the switch to renewable energy. In Oxford, Caristo Diagnostics is using AI to spot heart attacks ten years before they happen. In Cambridge, Sano Genetics, an alumni start-up, is using GAI to make it seamless for pharmaceutical companies to carry out precision medicine trials, enabling people with genetic conditions to access groundbreaking care.

There are multiple ways the UK can support these companies.

First, we should enable non-equity funding aimed at de-risking high-potential technologies. While over £6 billion is annually invested into university research in the UK, a key component that’s missing is translation funding – the money needed to take an idea and test it against a market opportunity. 

Second, if the UK wants to cultivate the next groundbreaking GAI company, it needs to develop the most fertile pathways to support and scale such companies through expertise and community. Founders at the University of Cambridge was formed to do just this and support venture scientists with experienced mentors who have already taken this path before. 

Third, GAI companies need investors who are prepared to de-risk the groundbreaking technologies they are creating. Finding product-market fit for GAI companies takes time and patient capital is critical. Building an AI company is not easy. It requires specialists with deep academic knowledge and top-tier coding talent. Clearly, a vehicle for long-term investment is needed for AI companies to get off the ground. The level of investment needed is great. Microsoft has already invested $13 billion in OpenAI. For other UK GAI companies, UK pension funds, which are long-term by nature, could be the appropriate vehicle to lead this level of investment.

Another vital ingredient is access to vast levels of processing power, without which many of the most advanced GAI models cannot run. Access to processing power is going to be an uphill struggle, given the current global shortage of processors and semiconductors. The current Government has recognised this, announcing £900 million in investment in supercomputing power intended to unlock advances in AI, medical research, climate science and clean energy at the Universities of Bristol and Edinburgh. Nonetheless, getting access to supercomputing power in even more universities should be a priority, as it will enable faster scientific discovery and more opportunities for innovation-led companies to emerge.

This is only the beginning for UK-led GAI innovations. As we welcome our first cohort of venture scientists to Founders at the University of Cambridge, nearly 40% of applicants were using AI, machine learning or GAI within their technology to build businesses to solve challenges in fields from healthcare to climate. 

By ensuring that the next generation of venture scientists has the resources and support they need to integrate GAI effectively, we can tilt the odds in their favour as they begin their journey as the leaders of the sixth wave of innovation.


Gerard Grech is the Managing Director of Founders at the University of Cambridge and the Founder of Tech Nation.

This article was published in the latest edition of Centre Write. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue. 

Read more from our June 2024 Centre Write magazine, ‘Generation AI?’ here.

[Image: Kirsten Drew]