The Week

The Week 28 April 2023

Hashmath Hassan

It’s been a busy week in Westminster — with the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister raising some important questions about the complex relationship between the Civil Service and ministers. See this thread from James Sweetland, Reform Senior Researcher, for key reading on the debate! Here’s a few things this week that may have flown under your radar.

On Monday, the Government announced an AI taskforce responsible for building sovereign AI capabilities with initial funding of £100 million (on top of the £900 million already announced in the Budget for compute technology). The Taskforce will be responsible for building foundational models — a type of AI trained on vast amounts of data such as ChatGPT. The UK has been lagging behind other countries like the US and China who have their own national language models, losing what some have dubbed the “AI arms race”. Experts have been calling for national AI models for some time now to aid in public service delivery, improve the competitiveness of start-ups, and to stop the UK’s reliance on big tech companies.

The Government is definitely on the right track — building the UK’s sovereign AI capabilities will help with the development of safe and reliable foundational models. But as Darren Jones MP, Chair of the Business and Trade Committee, rightly points out in his open letter to DSIT, there has been very limited regulation governing AI.

As we pointed out in The Week last week, the recent AI White Paper uses existing regulation to govern risks on a sector-by-sector basis, rather than taking a whole systems-wide approach. This has some benefits, however, given the immense risks involved in these emerging technologies, more regulation will help build the country’s resilience by enabling the whole system to be proactive, rather than having to deal with external risks as they come up. With robust regulation, Mr Jones believes that the UK can lead the “global dialogue” about the “conditions necessary for the safe and secure testing of advanced artificial intelligence”.

The Government also launched their new cybersecurity programme, ‘GovAssure’, this week, which will require all government departments (and arm’s-length bodies) to go through yearly external audits of their cyber protections. Again, the Government is on the right track, if way too slow to act.

Away from digital developments, it was also announced that the Government met its target to recruit 20,000 police officers over the last 3 years as part of the Police Uplift Programme (PUP). Looking at the data, the increase in the number of police officers since 2010 is small (+3542) — cutting workforce and then rushing to fill jobs can pose many risks such as inexperienced officers. PUP has unintentionally created perverse incentives too, causing police forces to hire as many people as they can as to not lose programme funding — resulting in some forces reaching out to previously-rejected candidates! This poses questions about the competence of the newly elected workforce (and has some potential security implications).

On to the read of the week…

Our must read is a thought-provoking journal article on the decline of empathy among students going through med school. There is strong evidence that medical students experience a decline in empathy from first to final year of medical training. This study synthesised a number of qualitative studies (from across North America and Europe) investigating why empathy changes over time. The article links the decline in empathy with stressful organisational culture, complexity of patients and bad role models.

Doctors leaving the UK are twice as likely to point to bad culture as they are to financial reasons when asked why they’re leaving — and bad culture is reinforced by negative role modelling creating a vicious cycle. Soft skills are often forgotten in discussion about NHS staffing, but they are integral to the quality of the workforce. They impact the quality of care and affect the outcomes of patients. It is therefore important that we focus on how we can ensure skills such as empathy are built into the medical curriculum.