Catalysing the AI Economy: The Imperative for Skills and Infrastructure Development in West Yorkshire 

Dr Richard Whittle, Y-PERN Chief Policy Fellow

The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterized by the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies, has brought about a paradigm shift in the global economic landscape. The UK is staking a claim as a leading voice in the direction of AI development and regulation, however the UK regions are vastly unequal in the preparedness to use AI to support their economies and citizens. For instance, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that Northern Ireland tops the league table of non-internet users, with 11.8% of its population having never used the internet. At the other end, just 4.9% of Greater London are non-internet users. In Yorkshire and Humber 9.2% of residents are non-internet users, with the West Yorkshire sub-region slightly over performing, having 91% of residents regularly accessing the internet. The UK average digital awareness is 61%, West Yorkshire is slightly higher at 62%, matching Greater Manchester, but again underperforming against London’s 70%. 

The West Yorkshire economy is dynamic and diverse, however it lags in digital skills. 25% of residents don’t have Essential Digital Skills for Life, compared to a national average of 19% and a Yorkshire and Humber average of 23%. I wholeheartedly agree with the West Yorkshire Mayor, Tracy Brabin who says “You can’t level up communities like ours without digital skills”. To harness the potential of the AI economy and ensure sustainable growth, it is paramount that West Yorkshire invests in skills development and infrastructure enhancement. I, like I suspect most readers of this blog, could while away an afternoon exploring the issues and opportunities to address the digital skills shortfall. The West Yorkshire Digital Skills Plan starts to do this, and is a keen acknowledgement of the issues and a movement in the right direction. Organisations such as Digital Access West Yorkshire are doing brilliant work supporting Digital Connectivity in the region, unfortunately that this is needed signals the low starting position in the race to a digital West Yorkshire economy. The new pace of technological progress makes catching up harder and harder. The fundamentals need to be right. 

AI has the potential to revolutionize various sectors, from healthcare and manufacturing to finance and logistics. The previous links show how AI can streamline operations, enhance productivity, and foster innovation. However, the realization of these benefits hinges on the availability of a skilled workforce capable of developing, implementing, and managing AI systems. Therefore, a strategic focus on skills development is crucial. This involves not only integrating AI, data science and overall digital literacy modules into the curriculum of schools, colleges and universities but also promoting lifelong learning initiatives to upskill the existing workforce. Collaboration between educational institutions, businesses, and government agencies can facilitate the creation of tailored training programs that address the specific needs of the AI economy. 

Inequality in the digital divide is stark. In our 2020 book, Algorithms, Blockchain and Cryptocurrency, myself and Gavin Brown consider the difference in experience and outcome for job seekers who have constant access to the internet, able to use search sites, social media to promote themselves and access online training, compared to those who have intermittent access via their, rapidly closing, local libraries. We wrote this pre-Covid. Consider if the difference has increased and if that increase is accelerating!  

It is important to address the ethical and social implications of the AI economy. Strategies for promoting transparency and accountability in AI algorithms, addressing potential job displacement, and ensuring responsible AI development should be included in the region’s AI strategy. A full awareness of the potential for AI to increase inequality should be paramount.  

In addition to skills development, the establishment of a robust digital infrastructure is another prerequisite for thriving in the AI economy. High-speed internet connectivity, cloud computing facilities, data centres, and smart city solutions form the backbone of the AI ecosystem. Investment in such infrastructure can facilitate the seamless integration of AI technologies into everyday business operations and public services. Furthermore, the development of AI-focused innovation hubs can foster a conducive environment for startups and businesses working on AI solutions. These hubs should be funded and sustained through partnerships between government, private sector, and academic institutions. 

Government policies can play a pivotal role in this regard. Policies aimed at incentivising investment in digital infrastructure, promoting research and development in AI, and safeguarding data privacy and security can create a favourable environment for the growth of the AI economy. Specific policy measures could include tax incentives for businesses investing in AI technologies, grants for AI research, and robust data protection laws. 

Fostering a culture of digital literacy and computational thinking from an early age can equip future generations with the necessary skills to navigate the AI-driven economy. Initiatives such as coding boot camps for children and teenagers, digital literacy programs for adults, and vocational training in AI-related fields can play a significant role in building a robust talent pipeline. We must ensure though that these schemes work as intended, remain relevant, are highly accessible, and take everyone with them. However, the popular view of required tech skills is fast becoming outdated, with Generative AI set to revolutionise computer science teaching and learning, and some wondering if AI removes the need, for instance, to learn to code. At the very least, the coding bootcamps which often form the core of ‘upskilling to digital’ need to be wholly reimagined. Stuart Russell (founder of the Center for Human Compatible Artificial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley) considers the ultimate skill required for thriving in an AI economy is being Human, “if we can no longer supply routine physical labour and routine mental labour, we can still supply our humanity. We will need to become good at being human.” At the end of the journey, any tech skills are irrelevant, at the end AI is cheaper and more efficient than any worker. It is however, the journey itself that we must prepare for. These coming years where our economy is realigned as AI creates tools with the potential to transform work, and where cognitive, creative and empathetic processes, which we thought would be the preserve of humans for years to come, now have AI competition.     

The rise of the AI economy presents both opportunities and challenges for West Yorkshire. By prioritizing skills development and infrastructure enhancement, the region can position itself well for the AI revolution. The journey towards an AI-driven economy is a collaborative effort, requiring the active participation of all stakeholders – government, businesses, educational institutions, and the community at large. 

With a shared vision and concerted effort, including specific education and policy measures, addressing funding and sustainability issues, considering ethical and social implications, and providing concrete steps to bridge the digital divide, West Yorkshire can futureproof itself for the AI economy. 

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