In this FT podcast, the director of UCL’s new AI institute, Prof. David Barber discusses the importance of interdisciplinarity, need for innovation and having a wider public conversation about AI and potential impact, as this technology begins touching all our lives. 

FT Podcast

AI Research and Big Tech, 19th December 2019

John Thornhill talks to David Barber, director of the UCL Centre for Artificial Intelligence in London, about how academic researchers can work with business and the wider community to create the best outcomes for society. (FT)

Key points from the podcast in relation to creating an innovation hub…

AI Engineering

AI is now touching on all our lives.

We still don’t know how to solve AI, we are in the early years, no one really knows how it will play out, the key reason why there is need for interdisciplinarity in this area.

Bias, fairness, ethics are not mathematical questions, engineers are not the arbiters of AI, they will do what ‘society’ requires.

AI community is very pragmatic and will go with whatever works.  

Some old techniques, like semantic understanding and symbolic knowledge will re-emerge.


The major innovations we are likely to see in the nearer future include the self-driving car, automation in agriculture with intensive farming coming closer to city centres or/and having close connection to supermarkets.

Drones or robots will increasingly carry out delivery of goods and products, although this will still be difficult to achieve.

Academic Funding

The academic funding model is broken.

We will see increasing partnering with tech firms or private companies.  

Universities remain highly relevant, although scattered public funding can make research very challenging.

Many academics are straddling working for tech giants while keeping a university post.  

There is a real danger more academics and university projects will just be scooped up by tech giants.  

This poses a risk, as most of the key developments should not be in the hands of big firms, they need to be shared.  

Global View

The East has a more collective view to the world, working for society as a whole compared to the West’s more individualist outlook, and protection of rights and freedoms.  

These freedoms could come at the cost of advancement.

Because of this, China is leading world in application of AI.

For example payment systems in Europe; there are still many people suspicious of paying with a credit card, or insist on cash only, where as in China many citizens pay with their phones, and could soon be paying with just their face.

A big cultural distinction is that China’s population is more receptive to new technologies, whereas in the West it is more difficult, and this makes access to the data in Europe more difficult.

Knowledge Quarters

Kings Cross knowledge quarter is developing, creating a concentration of knowledge and diversity, although there needs to be more on the innovation rather just focusing on the corporate sector.  

We need more innovation from the start-up level across the UK, which can scale and grow to significant size, rather than just being gobbled up by tech giants.

There is no scale-up infrastructure in UK.

Need for Interdisciplinary within AI 

There is need for wider and more inspiring conversations around AI.

The AI for People and Planet institute will be holding events on how AI and Art can play an interesting role and create synergies.

AI research and big tech (FT)

A weekly conversation that looks at the way technology is changing our economies, societies and daily lives. Hosted by John Thornhill, innovation editor at the Financial Times.

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