Innovation Caucus Internship
Within a month of submitting our applications to work with the Innovation Caucus, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and Innovate UK, we kicked off the project with a meeting in London. Unlike our PhDs, which involve a long journey over the course of three to four years, things can move fast in UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s funding body for research and innovation.
For the next three months we were tasked with dissecting the use of artificial intelligence and data technologies in the services sector, with a particular emphasis on professional services such as advertising agencies, architecture, urban planning, logistics, and hospitality to name a few examples. As this might suggest, the project was open ended. But we were supported by regular (usually bi-weekly) meetings and access to a vast array of resources which could help us get up to speed with the state-of-the-art technologies, ideas of future development, and the UK position in different services.
Soon it became clear that for such cutting-edge, practical applications academic literature was of limited use. The normal publishing cycles of journals – with often more than a year between the end of research projects and publication – were simply too long. So we had to look further.
Certain types of websites, such as trade associations and consultancy reports, proved particularly rich sources of information. But nothing could be taken at face value: AI is such a buzzword that we found practically anything can be given this label. What might have been a simple classifier ten years ago is now rebranded as ‘artificial intelligence’ and tied into all the hopes and dreams attached to it – and if everything is AI, then nothing is AI!
Besides such obvious challenges, others were a bit more surprising. Have you ever tried to find something on the ‘use of AI in the recruiting industry’ on the UK’s most popular search engine? Finding useful information could involve sifting through job adverts, repeated (and often out-of-date) news stories, and unsubstantiated claims and predictions. As helpful as search engines may normally be, in this case it was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.
While researching the various uses of AI, we were conscious of the need to focus on what would be useful for UKRI, so that our work would help to identify future funding opportunities in the Next Generation Services project. How can PhD students be useful for supporting policy and practice in innovation funding? This is something we wondered about ourselves, and the answers we came up with are: using their research skills to provide lots of relevant information; offering a diversity of perspectives, and not getting disheartened if others come to different conclusions.
One thing we needed to keep in mind was the purpose of the funding call, which is concerned with the economic impact of innovation more than the innovation as such. For us, this raised questions: ‘If one company benefits at the expense of another, is that good?’; ‘If one company makes the same profits with fewer workers, is that good?’; ‘If one company makes more profits through monetising people’s data or additional surveillance, is that good?’. Answering these questions was beyond the scope of the project. Nonetheless, we were able to raise these questions and highlight concerns as part of our recommendations. We hope that our work will feed into decisions made over the coming months – and this is where the real impact of our work will be seen.
After the 60-plus page report was finished and the work handed over, we ended our research project with a visit to the ESRC. Meeting people, figuring out what our line managers do in their daily work, and where our funding comes from.
Looking back at the project it is clear that we learnt a lot. Coming into the project, neither of us were experts in AI, nor in the service economy, so we had to quickly get to grips with the field. Not only did this involve learning all about the conversations happening in the field, it also meant learning how to cut the jargon to make the report accessible to a wide range of audiences.
It was also a refreshing change of pace to work as part of a team. Keeping things on track required good communication. And while co-authoring meant sharing the workload, it didn’t necessarily mean things were done twice as fast. We quickly found that our different backgrounds and interpretations could pull us in different directions, and that at times it was important to take a step back from the report and get everyone on the same page.
Working with ESRC was an incredible opportunity that provided a valuable insight into different ways of working. Going forward, the experience has prepared us for working on projects that extend beyond academia, notably by adding an emphasis on the potential policy and economic impacts our work might create.