SCOTLAND is positioning itself to become a global hub for artificial intelligence (AI), but a potential skills shortage could hinder ambitions.

According to Polly Purvis, Scotland is already a leader in AI, with the world-class computing science research base in Scottish universities and a history of excellence in this field with specific specialties including data science, AI, machine learning, and natural language processing. Edinburgh University established the Artificial Intelligence Application Institute, the first AI research centre in the UK, in 1998, and today it is recognised as one of the best in the world.

Purvis, chief executive of digital technologies trade body ScotlandIS, said this is strengthened by collaboration through the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) research pool, which involves 14 Scottish universities, and enables Scotland to attract some 20 per cent of all UK research funding for computing.

“Add to that data intensive businesses that are using AI to provide more sophisticated products and customer solutions – companies such as SAS, Skyscanner, Nucleus Financial, Amazon Development Centre – and an increasing number of exciting new small (but growing) businesses,” Purvis says.

“Data science is enabling Scottish businesses to create new products and services in a range of industries, and will solve many of the challenges we face as a society, around health, social welfare and the environment. It provides a huge economic opportunity for Scotland and one that we are increasingly well placed to harness.

“All of this together with the skilled technology workforce we have makes Scotland an increasingly attractive location for AI businesses.”

But building that skilled technology workforce will be challenging. Sam Wason is a director of recruitment consultancy Cathcart Associates. He says there’s a huge skills shortage in many areas of IT across the whole of the UK (and the world), and the skills and experience necessary for AI are hard to attain.

However, he believes Scotland is well placed geographically to lead the field.

“Edinburgh and Stirling Universities are making big strides with their informatics and big data courses, and Edinburgh and, to a lesser extent, Glasgow are important tech hubs with existing talent,” says Wason. “Despite this, in order to meet demand, Scotland will perhaps have to look to bring in huge amounts of talent from outside.”

Wason believes more companies must take a chance on potential if we are to encourage people into AI. “There are many talented PhD, MSc level graduates and postdoctoral researchers that would make outstanding data scientists,” he says. “However, too many companies don’t want to take the risk, or feel that these individuals ‘need’ commercial experience.”

“We also need more events encouraging and promoting AI in Scotland, for example, ScotML.”