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7 June 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:08pm

Connecting and protecting the digital economy

Artificial intelligence can help human analysts fight back faster against cyber threats.

By Professor Tim Whitley

Security professionals at BT typically protect our network from around 125,000 cyberattacks a month. And it’s an area where AI can be harnessed to great effect. We’ve done exactly that, developing BT’s SATURN as part of BT’s Cyber Security Platform, to help cyber experts predict and detect attacks at an early stage.

By combining patented machine learning and advanced data visualisation it allows analysts in our security operations centres to identify individual threats amongst billions of network events. We’ve deployed this technology so it now protects British businesses, institutions and critical national infrastructure alike.

SATURN follows decades of investment and innovation in AI by BT. It started principally with a predecessor in my role, the late John Alvey who inspired the UK government’s first structured funding programme for AI in 1983. In its wake followed BT’s first full application of AI – to the deployment of BT field engineers servicing the network. The goal was to match the right person to the right job at the right time.

Using data sets from our field force, networks, weather feeds and roads, we’ve continued to improve the system. This has helped us speed up the rate at which we connect homes and maintain the network. To illustrate the scale involved, in the last year alone, Openreach engineers have deployed around 2.6m kilometres of fibre. The efficiency gains therefore equate to savings of many millions of pounds.

Overall, our field force AI has been good for customers, our people and our network. Ultimately, it has been good for the UK. In short, AI can serve many of BT’s priorities.

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Take how we’ve harnessed AI to benefit our customers, who are our first priority. One example is “Call Protect” which uses algorithms based on BT data science to screen out illegal cold calls which are such a nuisance to customers and often a menace to the vulnerable.

Or look at some ways in which we support our colleagues using AI. Engineers providing or fixing a connection in the local cabinet can face an intimidating spaghetti of cables that has built up as more and more premises have taken up broadband. That’s why we use image recognition tools to help identify the right connection types and spaces within a cabinet to make the engineer’s job easier and less prone to faults.

AI is also helping us build not just the safest but the best networks. For example, we’ve supported our network resilience by streamlining supply chains with an award-winning tool to optimise the distribution of spare parts, developed in collaboration with the EBTIC research centre in Abu Dhabi. Additionally, we are using AI algorithms to plan our fibre networks and help accelerate rollout across the UK.

These AI-powered programmes all add to BT’s overall contribution to the country, supporting the UK’s ambitions for the world-class digital connectivity which will drive productivity and underpin its Industrial Strategy.

Yet while BT has been the third highest investor in R&D in the UK over the past decade, we – and other UK companies – face intense global competition for ideas, talent and scale. The UK has benefitted from an AI Sector Deal, Grand Challenge and the government’s skills investment. It punches well above its weight. But it can only continue to do so via an open innovation model of partnerships between multinationals, start-ups, universities and government bodies all working together to ensure the diffusion and penetration of the best new technologies from across the globe, wherever they can serve UK economy and society.

Among the changes we expect in the next decade is the democratisation of AI, with non-specialists able to use increasingly accessible AI tools for new and currently untapped business or personal uses. We also anticipate more data-driven innovation. While in the past, data has been collected and curated as the “exhaust” of applications, it will increasingly itself drive the creation of the applications of the future.

Another expected trend is a growing interest in privacy-enhancing technologies, including Edge AI. In other words, using AI to process consumers or businesses’ data locally (or on hardware), providing potential privacy and security benefits.

While there are undoubtedly many more as yet unimagined opportunities, the risks of AI are perhaps better documented. Around a third of the UK population think they may lose their job to automation and those that do may well not benefit from the new opportunities and jobs AI creates. Navigating this disruption will require government and companies to adapt. For example, by reshaping the skills we provide to future and current workers, and how we teach our children.

BT has already made digital skills a core part of its commitment to the country. Via BT’s Barefoot programme alone, 2m primary school children have already benefitted from training. Last month we announced a new ambition to train 10m people in the UK with digital skills.

Alongside job losses, questions about AI ethics are at the forefront of the thinking on AI by public authorities and regulators. These include the ICO’s consultation on an AI auditing framework and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s review of bias in algorithmic decision making. These are just two examples of current initiatives, but there are many, and all set against the backdrop of government rightly considering how the UK’s regulatory model might need to be modernised so as to address digital competition. We want to be part of these discussions, sharing our experience to date and working with others to design the right governance framework and regulatory principles to support an ethical approach to AI in the UK.

AI is a complex topic and this month’s London Tech Week is a good place to debate what risks to watch out for. But it’s also a great place for the debate about the exciting opportunities ahead – how AI can make the country more productive, safer and better connected. We’ve come a long way already. Investment in UK-based AI startups alone has increased fivefold in the five years since the inaugural London Tech Week and, more importantly, the overall ecosystem has thrived. We look forward to making our contribution over the next five years to catalyse even further growth.

Professor Tim Whitley is BT’s managing director of applied research and of Adastral Park.

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