“There needs to be a dialling down of the hype,” Wilsdon says. Cummings may have envisioned a British Darpa as the way to bring the country back to the forefront of computing development, but an £800m budget is unlikely to even scrape the surface.
What Aria could do, however, is to give the UK “a seat at the table” when it comes to global races in key fields such as AI and quantum computing, according to Brian Mullins, the chief executive of Oxford AI spin-out Mind Foundry.
“In order for it to be the driver’s seat, it’s going to require further investment,” he adds.
‘A brand in search of a product’
There are also concerns that Aria’s current form, even after the Government released details of its plans in March, remains frustratingly vague.
The Government’s plans for the agency list a handful of technologies including robotics and quantum computing, but researchers are unclear on what Aria will actually focus its research on.
In a report published in February, Parliament’s science and technology committee called Aria “a brand in search of a product”. “The Government has not clearly articulated the need for, or intended remit of, the proposed agency,” it said.
This “fuzziness” could lead to Aria being co-opted for different areas of research at the whims of the Government, warns Kieron Flanagan, a senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester.
“It could still be very vulnerable to formal pressures,” he says. “You can always influence what it does by threatening to withhold the money or offering money that’s earmarked.
The establishment of an £800m agency with an unclear focus that will be encouraged to take high-risk bets has raised eyebrows at a time when the Government faces scrutiny over its links to private companies and their ability to lobby senior politicians.
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