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UK to shift to in-house AI tech projects, says Minister Alex Burghart

Written by Mon 15 Jan 2024

The UK Government will stop outsourcing artificial intelligence (AI) systems to IT firms and will attempt to develop them in-house.

The BBC reported Minister for Implementation, Alex Burghart, said AI specialists are willing to accept a salary reduction to join the Government. He added that 30 AI experts are being hired to develop systems aimed at reducing waste and enhancing productivity.

Burghart said the Government’s approach to not repeating AI mistakes of the past is to focus on in-house development.  

“We have gone through a period where in-house has often been balanced or completely outstripped by outsourcing,” said Burghart.

Currently, the Cabinet Office is working on an ‘AI red box’. The red box is a type of despatch box used by ministers in the Government and the British monarch to carry Government documents.

“What it does is it can read documents that go into your red box, it can summarise them, it can highlight connections between papers, connections between previous papers,” said Burghart.

The UK Government Minister anticipated, with ongoing adjustments, the AI red box will evolve into the department’s institutional memory. The Minister cited the quick turnover of Cabinet Office staff as the reason for the model, emphasising the importance of a system that retains historical details when personnel with that knowledge may no longer be employed.

“But with an effective AI red box, that will not be a problem … We will be able to retain the experiences of previous policies and previous successes,” said Burghart.

Currently, the digital ministerial briefcase is being trialled by several ministers while it is fine-tuned. When ready, it will be available for use to all colleagues.

The Government Minister expressed the need for a team that understands the possibilities of evolving AI technology to contribute to building solutions for Government use.

Burghart expressed his desire to secure additional funding from Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in the upcoming Spring Budget. This funding aims to develop AI systems for mitigating fraud and error, as well as enhancing productivity across Government departments.

Burghart said with the advancement of AI technology, the need for employing many individuals to manually detect fraud may diminish. Instead, AI systems could take on this task more efficiently. 

“I hope we do not. I hope that that is something that we can make infinitely easier and cheaper for the British public … As we master this technology, you can certainly envisage a future in which you have a smaller civil service than you have today,” said Burghart.

Government IT Procurement Questioned

The news has followed the Post Office scandal, which has raised questions about the Government’s IT procurement decisions.

Shortly after implementing Horizon at Post Office branches, a surge in unexplained accounting shortfalls was observed among sub-postmasters which resulted in the prosecution of over 700 branch managers spanning two decades.

Since the scandal has reentered the public sphere, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has faced pressure to stop new public contracts with Fujitsu, who were responsible for the Horizon system. 

The BBC reported since 2013, the Government has awarded Fujitsu 191 contracts worth more than £6.5 billion ($8.2 billion). Of those contracts, Fujitsu was awarded £1.1 billion ($1.3 billion) by HMRC, £581 million ($739 million) with the Ministry of Defence, and £476 million ($605 million) with the Home Office.

In 2022, the Government removed Fujitsu from its list of preferred suppliers. The IT services company can still win Government contracts through the standard procurement process.

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Written by Mon 15 Jan 2024

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