UK to invest US$300m in national artificial intelligence lab

By on 13/08/2019
Health secretary Matt Hancock says the UK is on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution. (Image courtesy: British Embassy Tokyo/flickr).

The UK government has pledged £250m (US$302m) for a national Artificial Intelligence lab designed to provide NHS patients with improved and personalised care.  

The lab will bring together the industry’s best academics, specialists and technology companies to work on some of the biggest challenges in healthcare, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.

The department said the lab’s remit could include working towards improving cancer screening; using DNA data to identify patients most at risk of diseases; developing treatments for cancer, dementia and heart disease; and using predictive models to better estimate future needs of beds, drugs, devices and surgeries.

It could also upskill the workforce to use AI systems, and inspect algorithms already used by the NHS to increase AI safety standards, make systems fairer and more robust, and ensure patient confidentiality is protected.

The lab will be based at Skipton House, London, alongside NHSX: the organisation set up by government earlier this year to oversee the digitisation of the health and care system and drive innovation in the NHS.

Boosting the frontline

Announcing the new lab on 8 August, prime minister Boris Johnson said the NHS is “leading the way in harnessing new technology to treat and prevent, from earlier cancer detection to spotting the deadly signs of dementia.” Funding for the new lab is “not just about the future of care,” he added, but “will also boost the frontline by automating admin tasks and freeing up staff to care for patients”.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “We are on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly predictive, preventive and personalised health and care service.

“The experts tell us that because of our NHS and our tech talent, the UK could be the world leader in these advances in healthcare, so I’m determined to give the NHS the chance to be the world leader in saving lives through artificial intelligence and genomics.”

The investment will support the ambitions in the NHS Long Term Plan, which includes pledges to use AI to help clinicians eliminate variations in care.

New money or not new money?

News of the AI lab follows Johnson’s pledge on 4 August to give the NHS a £1.8bn cash injection, with part of the money going towards harnessing the potential of new technologies.

Johnson has faced claims from the opposition Labour party, backed up by data from think tanks, that the cash boost is not new money and that most of it is already held in reserve by health trusts – something Johnson denies. 

As reported in The Guardian, Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers – the membership organisation for NHS trusts – said health think tanks that argue the money was not new are partly right, but that some of the funding would come from increased capital spending limits and is “genuine, new, extra, money”.  

“At the same time, the health think tanks are correct that some of the extra 2019-20 capital expenditure enabled by this announcement will be funded through cash surpluses currently sitting on provider balance sheets. That spending can legitimately be described as money that trusts already had but were told they couldn’t spend and are now able to spend,” he said. 

Labour has also argued that the funding, new or not, is insufficient to make up for earlier budget cuts.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said the funding for the AI Lab is “new money” from the Treasury and separate from the £1.8bn boost in capital funding for the NHS. 

He said the money will be made available from the 2020-21 financial year and will be spent over three years, adding that the lab will be open “as soon as possible”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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