Rishi Sunak urges workers to embrace AI as a ‘co-pilot’ as he pledges £118m skills funding

Government aims to ‘future-proof’ UK’s AI skills base, as prime minister says the technology should be seen as a tool to help employees, not replace jobs

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to be more “transformative for our economies, societies, and lives” than anything we have seen, prime minister Rishi Sunak has said, but that does not necessarily mean “jobs will change”.

In his closing speech of day one of the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes on Wednesday (1 November), Sunak said: “Technology always has the potential to change labour markets and patterns of employment. It’s hard to predict how that will evolve.”

But he highlighted that the UK already employs over 50,000 people in the AI sector and the technology contributes ​​£3.7 billion to the economy annually. “We should be proud that we are a leading AI nation,” he told delegates of the two-day conference.

Businesses, civil society and AI experts from around the world were brought together at Bletchley Park for the first ever AI Safety Summit, to “discuss the global future of AI and work towards a shared understanding of its risks”.

With every wave of new technology, it also brings “new fears and new dangers, so no matter how difficult it may be, it is the right and responsible long term decision for leaders to address them”, Sunak acknowledged.

He said the summit's accomplishments will "tip the balance" in favour of humanity since they demonstrate that we have both the "political will" and "capability" to regulate this technology and secure its long-term benefits.

“Future-proof” AI skills

Sunak’s comments come following the announcement of a further £118m worth of funding to “future-proof” the UK’s AI skills base.

The money will go towards 12 new UK Research and Innovation centres for doctoral training in the development and application of AI, as well as enabling the relocation of talent to the UK through the creation of the AI Future Grants Scheme.

In addition, Sunak unveiled 15 GREAT scholarships to fund international students to study science and technology courses at UK universities, along with a dedicated visa scheme for AI researchers to undertake internships and placements in the UK.

Technology minister Michelle Donelan said: “The UK is at the very forefront of the global race to turn AI’s enormous potential into a giant leap forward for people’s quality of life and productivity at work, all while ensuring this technology works safely, ethically and responsibly.”

However, some have argued that more needs to be done to better prepare people for the impact of AI.

Professor Kirk Chang, director of the Centre of Innovation, Management and Expertise, told People Management that although the £118m appeared a large figure, it would not go far at a “national level”. However, he is optimistic that as this has been announced as an “initial fund”, there will potentially be more investment in AI skills training to come.

“AI seems omnipotent and ubiquitous in people management,” Chang said. It has “exerted its influence” in practices such as performance tracking, employee retention and attrition management, personnel selection and assessment, employee emotion management, employee rights and ethics management and burnout prevention.

He emphasised the potential AI has to negatively impact the workplace. Research has shown “AI may not necessarily contribute to individual productivity or organisational performance, and that the workforce have mixed views about the [its] merits”, Chang said.

Employees may also experience fear about the possibility of job replacement or more limited career opportunities as a result of AI, “forming triggers to negative emotions”, he added. It also “has the potential to change the ownership and responsibility for decision-making, compromising the status of managers and leaders in the organisation”.

“Seismic changes” to come

Clare Walsh, director of education at the Institute of Analytics, said that the skills funding has the potential to have “a significant impact on the UK’s status as a major leader in the field of artificial intelligence”.

“[It] comes at a good moment in time. We are still shaping how we will work with AI across all sectors. HR professionals will need to take a strong role in the changes, upskilling themselves as well as supporting those in their teams,” she said.

Walsh added that AI “requires a spectrum of skills”, many of which involve “simply learning to adjust to making decisions with machine insight and machine automation”. She said that HR professionals should help workers “to re-examine their skills and test out a well-rounded approach to their CV”, enabling them and the organisations they work for to better “undergo the seismic changes in the workplace that are coming”.

Chang said HR professionals have a vital role to play in the delivery of Sunak’s AI skills policy, adding that his “biggest fear” is that the government plans “will probably not reach the maximum effect unless the HR management elements are properly discussed, reviewed and incorporated into the design, piloting and implementation of the policy”.

Dan Lucy, director of HR research and consulting at the Institute for Employment Studies, said there is a growing need to consider the potential fallout AI could have in the workplace. He told People Management: “How far this [funding] goes towards addressing the UK’s wider poor record in investing in skills is another moot point. 


“Innovation is key, but we must also ensure that AI is used safely and equitably and the wider workforce is equipped and able to adapt to and benefit from it,” he stressed.

Read the CIPD's resources on AI at work here