A new artificial intelligence (AI) strategy announced by government today pledges to make Scotland a ‘trustworthy, ethical and inclusive’ nation for the adoption and use of the technology.

The Scottish Government unveiled its vision for how artificial intelligence could be used to solve complex problems across society ranging from climate change to healthcare.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who holds responsibility for the digital economy, told a virtual gathering this morning that the AI strategy, which has been in the making for the last 18 months, is not just a government document but should be viewed as an “all of Scotland” approach to harnessing computer-aided decision-making.

She said: “We already knew with our economy taking a battering over the last year that there’s an opportunity to emerge from this year being more intelligent about the ways that we do things.”

She said that AI has got to be seen in a wider context with two other key strategies which have been published in recent months including the new national Digital Strategy – a partnership between the Scottish Government and local government – and the Technology Ecosystem Review by former Skyscanner chief operating officer Mark Logan.

MS Forbes said: “This is part of the jigsaw puzzle to invest in Scotland’s economic potential when it comes to AI, knowing that we’re not just competing within our borders, we’re competing on a global stage. And we want to have the entrepreneurs, we want to have the investment here, we want to be developing solutions and pioneering various initiatives here in Scotland.

She added: “We’ve been forced into a position of doing things differently over this last year, whether we liked it or not. Some things have worked better than we thought and at the very least various organisations that might normally be more bureaucratic and slower at embracing new technologies have been forced into a position of doing things quickly. And we want to build on that, and continue to see services being delivered in more innovative ways.

“From a government perspective, I see great opportunities for the economy, but in turn I see great opportunities to solve problems and to serve people in more innovative and effective ways if we get this strategy right. And ultimately what I’d like after developing the principles is looking at the tangible, meaningful steps to actually do that.”

On that front, one of the leading AI experts globally, who joined a panel discussion at the launch event, praised Scotland’s approach in terms of the strategy’s focus on AI as a means to improve humanity – rather than as part of a narrower industrial vision.

Stefaan Verhulst, Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer of the Governance Laboratory (The GovLab) at New York University (NYU), said: “I think what is really distinctive and also needs to be applauded is that the urgency of the Scottish strategy is really the urgency to support humanity, as such. And I think that’s a really important and distinctive element, and also to be celebrated.

“In order to make this active you do need to start prioritising. One of the efforts that we have developed is something called the 100 questions initiative which is really trying to identify what are the 100 questions that as a society we need to address through data and AI. So, it might be useful for the Scottish Government and especially for the alliance that is being set up to think what are the 100 use cases for Scotland, where the AI strategy can contribute to; I think that might be a really great alignment within government and within Scotland in order to really support AI where it matters.”

Prominent experts in their field joined the discussion including Dr Gerald Lip, Clinical Director, North East of Scotland Breast Screening Programme Consultant Radiologist, NHS Grampian, who spoke of his pioneering use of AI technology to detect cancers. Dr Murray Collins, Chief Executive Officer & Co-founder, Space Intelligence, discussed how machine learning can be applied to satellite data to help conserve the environment.

Other developments included the establishment of an AI Alliance – which will be chaired by Gillian Docherty, chief executive of The Data Lab – in order to expand the reach of AI into Scotland’s communities.

She said: “It is a privilege to chair the Scottish AI Alliance and play my part in the delivery of the strategy, ensuring voices from across the country are heard.

“Through the collective leadership of the Alliance, we hope to tap into Scotland’s AI eco-system to encourage collaboration and innovation across sectors, to ultimately contribute to our economic, social and environmental outcomes.

Ms Forbes also said that there will be a further announcement this week on tech ecosystem funding to support Scotland’s network of tech founders and entrepreneurs.

Karen Meechan, Interim CEO of tech trade body ScotlandIS, responded to the launch, adding: “Building on our existing digital and tech community, there is a fantastic opportunity to create an AI powerhouse in Scotland. The new strategy focuses on the need for collective leadership, accessibility and ensuring the benefits of AI are felt across the nation. We look forward to helping bring Scotland’s tech business knowhow to the fore and make the new strategy a reality.”

Read the strategy in full here.