On 22 September 2021, the UK Government published its 10-year strategy on artificial intelligence (“AI”; the “UK AI Strategy”).

The UK AI Strategy has three main pillars: (1) investing and planning for the long-term requirements of the UK’s AI ecosystem; (2) supporting the transition to an AI-enabled economy across all sectors and regions of the UK; and (3) ensuring that the UK gets the national and international governance of AI technologies “right”.

The approach to AI regulation as set out in the UK AI Strategy is largely pro-innovation, in line with the UK Government’s Plan for Digital Regulation published in July 2021.


The UK AI Strategy is centred around three pillars:

(1) Investment and planning

This pillar focuses on the need to invest in the skills and resources that lead to AI innovation with the aim of increasing the type, frequency and scale of AI discoveries in the UK. The Pillar has twelve action points, with an emphasis on the importance of access to and availability of data. The Action Points include (among others):

  • Publishing a policy framework setting out the Government’s plans to enable better data availability in the wider economy. This framework will include supporting the activities of data intermediaries, including data trusts, and providing stewardship services between those sharing and accessing data.
  • Exploring how privacy-enhancing technologies can remove barriers to data sharing by more effectively managing the risks associated with sharing commercially sensitive and personal data.
  • Continuing to publish open and machine-readable public data on which AI models for both public and commercial benefit can depend.
  • Considering what datasets the Government should incentivize or curate to accelerate the development of valuable AI applications.
  • Consulting on the potential of expanding the UK’s capability in “cyber-physical infrastructure”: how common, interoperable digital tools and platforms, as well as physical testing and innovation spaces, can be brought together to form a digital and physical shared infrastructure for innovators (e.g., digital twins, test beds, and living labs).
  • Subject to the outcomes of the public consultation Data: A new direction, the Government could more explicitly permit the collection and processing of sensitive and protected characteristics data to monitor and mitigate bias in AI systems.

(2) Supporting the diffusion of AI across the whole economy

This pillar aims to ensure that the benefits of AI innovation are shared across all sectors and regions of the UK economy. An important element of this pillar is ensuring that businesses are capable of commercializing their intellectual property (“IP”) rights in AI technologies. The UK Government has already launched a consultation on AI and IP (see here) and will seek to launch a further consultation on copyright and patents for AI through the Intellectual Property Office (“IPO”). This will enable businesses to understand and identify their AI-related intellectual assets, as well as protecting, exploiting, and enforcing their rights in AI technologies.

Other actions to be taken by the Government under the second pillar include:

  • The imminent publication of the Ministry of Defence’s AI strategy, which will explain how the UK can achieve technological advantage in defence, including details on establishing a new Defence AI Centre and how to galvanize a stronger relationship between industry and defence.
  • The publication of the National Strategy for AI in Health and Social Care. This will set the direction for AI in health and social care up to 2030, and is expected to be published in early 2022.
  • Considering how the UK can use climate technologies to support the delivery of the Government’s net zero targets. This will also be complemented by the extension of UK aid to support local innovation ecosystems in developing AI nations.
  • Extending the UK’s science partnerships in international development and diplomacy to ensure that collaboration unlocks AI’s potential to accelerate progress on global challenges, from climate change to poverty reduction.

(3) Regulatory and governance framework

The AI Strategy recognizes that building a trusted and pro-innovation system necessitates addressing the potential risks and harms posed by AI. These include concerns around fairness, bias, accountability, safety, liability, and transparency of AI systems.

The AI Strategy notes that, while the UK currently regulates many aspects of the development and use of AI through cross-sectoral legislation (including competition, data protection, and financial services legislation), the sector-led approach can lead to overlaps or inconsistencies. In order to remove these inconsistencies, the Strategy’s third pillar proposes a number of measures including:

  • The Office for AI will publish a White Paper on regulating AI in early 2022, which will set out the risks and harms of AI and outline proposals to address them.
  • The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (“CDEI”) will publish a roadmap to ensure that AI systems are safe, fair and trustworthy. The roadmap will clarify the activities needed to build a mature assurance ecosystem and identify the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders across these activities.
  • Working with The Alan Turing Institute to update existing guidance on AI ethics and safety in the public sector to ensure it remains relevant with the continuing developments in responsible AI innovation.
  • Piloting an AI Standards Hub to coordinate UK engagement in AI standardization globally, and explore the development of an AI standards engagement toolkit to support the AI ecosystem to engage in the global AI standardization landscape.
  • Developing a cross-government standard for algorithmic transparency of AI systems used in the public sector.
  • Continuing the UK’s engagement on the international stage in helping to shape international frameworks, norms and standards for governing AI to reflect human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law.
  • The Government is also considering reforming the UK data protection framework within the broader context of AI governance through the Data: A new direction public consultation (see our previous blog post here).

Political analysis

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, stressed this vision when he highlighted the UK Government’s intent to keep regulation to a minimum, including through using existing frameworks and structures. The rationale of this approach is that less regulation will encourage innovation in the sector.

The UK’s de minimis position on regulation is at odds with the EU’s stance. In April 2021, the European Commission published its proposal for an AI Regulation (see our blog on this issue), making clear that it intends to strictly regulate “high risk” AI. The UK views AI as a sector of major economic competitive advantage for the UK. It was this vision that lay behind the UK-Japan Trade Agreement, which among other things was intended to facilitate Japanese access to UK AI, and UK access to Japanese robotics. However, divergence from the EU on key points, such as those related to data, may ultimately make it harder for UK AI developers and companies using AI technologies to operate in the EU (and vice versa) and could have an impact on the EU’s willingness to continue to grant the UK a Data Adequacy Decision (see our blog on this issue).

The timelines for AI regulation also play a key role. The European Commission’s AI proposal is now going through the legislative stages in the European Parliament and Council. By the time the UK publishes its regulatory AI proposal, it is likely that the EU would have already adopted its legislation, which would mean the EU would have taken first mover advantage, depriving the UK of the opportunity to act as a trendsetter for AI regulatory standards. The UK could find itself obliged instead to align with EU standards.

Next steps

The UK AI Strategy sets out the short, medium, and long-term plans for achieving each of the three pillars. The Office for AI, which sits under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, will be responsible for overall delivery of the strategy, monitoring progress and enabling its implementation across Government, industry, academia, and civil society. Additionally, the AI Strategy outlines how the UK Government envisages the various consultations and policies relating to data and innovation will work together to create a pro-innovation environment for AI.

*  *  *  *  *

Covington regularly advises the world’s top technology companies on their most challenging regulatory, compliance, and public policy issues in the UK and other major markets. We are monitoring the UK’s developments very closely and will be updating this site regularly – please watch this space for further updates.

If you have questions about the UK’s AI Strategy, or other tech regulatory or public policy matters, please feel free to reach out to any of the following:

Dan Cooper

Marty Hansen

Lisa Peets

Mark Young

Thomas Reilly