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Prepared under the aegis of Jisc. Published by Demos, September 2020.

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Copyright 2020, the authors. Open access material. Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike license.


Executive Summary

There is a growing consensus that we are at the start of a fourth industrial revolution, driven by developments in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, 5G, new forms of energy storage and quantum computing. This wave of technical innovations is already having a significant impact on how research is conducted, with dramatic change across research methods in recent years within some disciplines, as this project’s interim report set out.

Whilst there are a wide range of technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution, this report primarily seeks to understand what impact Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having on the UK’s research sector and what implications it has for its future, with a particular focus on academic research. Following Hall and Pesenti in their recent government review of the UK’s AI industry, we adopt the following definition:

“[AI is] an umbrella term to cover a set of complementary techniques that have developed from statistics, computer science and cognitive psychology. While recognising distinctions between specific technologies and terms (e.g., artificial intelligence vs. machine learning, machine learning vs. deep learning), it is useful to see these technologies as a group, when considering how to support development and use of them.”

Hence, we will use ‘AI’ as an umbrella term throughout the report to cover a range of different technologies (e.g., machine learning, data visualisation, robotics).

Building on our interim report, we find that AI is increasingly deployed in academic research in the UK in a broad range of disciplines. The combination of an explosion of new digital data sources with powerful new analytical tools represents a ‘double dividend’ for researchers. This is allowing researchers to investigate questions that would have been unanswerable just a decade ago.

Whilst there has been considerable take-up of AI in academic research, steps could be taken to ensure even wider adoption of these new techniques and technologies, including wider training in the necessary skills for effective utilisation of AI, faster routes to culture change and greater multidisciplinary collaboration.

We also envisage a range of possible scenarios for the future of UK academic research as a result of widespread use of AI. Steps should be taken to steer us towards desirable futures. The research sector is not set in stone; it can and must be shaped by wider society for the good of all. We consider how to achieve this in our recommendations below.

We recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic means universities are currently facing significant pressures, with considerable demands on their resources whilst simultaneously facing threats to income. As a result, we acknowledge that most in the sector will be focused on fighting this immediate threat instead of thinking about the long-term future of research. But as we emerge from the current crisis, we urge policy makers and universities to consider our recommendations and take steps to fortify the UK’s position as a place of world-leading research. Indeed, the current crisis has only reminded us of the critical importance of a highly functioning and flourishing research sector.