No more staff budget for UK civil service, but worry not – here’s an incubator for AI

Deputy UK Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said the country’s civil service would improve public services by, among other things, setting up an “Incubator for AI.”

Dowden chose an upskilling event in which hundreds of civil servants were to be trained in programming, AI, and data science to make the announcement. Approximately £5 million ($5.2 million) is to be spent on the team, for which 20 technical experts will be recruited. Cloud, data, and AI engineers are being sought, with salaries of almost £150,000 ($187,000) on offer.

The money is in addition to investment already in place for the AI task force.

The announcement follows the global AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak boasted of the UK’s leadership in the field. Re-hired OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (at least at the time of writing) was also present.

Dowden described the Incubator for AI as a “trailblazing team made up of the best top-tier talent from the tech industry,” adding: “It is crucial that we get ahead of the AI curve, with our civil servants leading the way as early adopters of this new technology, driving change and promoting enhanced productivity across our workforce.”

We can think of at least one tech company that might have tech talent looking for work, assuming Microsoft doesn’t get there first.

The words “enhanced productivity” are likely to strike fear into attendees’ hearts. The UK chancellor announced an immediate cap on civil servant headcount across Whitehall to save up to £1 billion ($1.2 billion) by March 2025 compared to the previous trajectory.

Do more with less

The announcement came alongside a requirement to draw up plans to reduce the state’s size and deliver “high-quality public services at a lower cost.”

Increasing productivity is usually cited as a justification for AI. However, caution must be taken not to confuse what is frequently little more than jumped-up autocomplete for something that is genuinely able to make the machinery of government more efficient in the face of job freezes or cuts.

While generative AI has demonstrated itself to be an effective junior pair-programmer, restrictions on the use of tools such as ChatGPT were recently introduced for staffers in the US House of Representatives amid fears of sensitive information being pasted into the system and subsequently revealed.

At the AI Safety Summit, Sunak told attendees: “I’m completely confident in telling you the UK is doing far more than other countries to keep you safe.”

With the Incubator for AI under way – referred to in some reports as an AI “hit squad” – civil servants will be fervently hoping their jobs are equally as safe. ®