AI development held back due to shortage of computer chips

British researchers are being hampered because UK does not have enough top-spec computer chips, which are crucial for developing generative AI, says watchdog

Britain is being hampered in developing artificial intelligence because it does not have access to powerful-enough computer chips.

So says competition watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which has released its initial scoping exercise of the UK’s artificial intelligence market and what it means for consumers.

Cloud providers in the UK do not have the latest computer chips, which would hamper those trying to develop “foundation model” AI such as ChatGPT and Bard, the CMA said.

Just 7% of UK startups actively involved with AIDespite the UK pushing for global leadership in artificial intelligence, the number of startups actually capitalising on or developing AI is sparse

Access to the most sophisticated chips or GPUs (graphics processing units) made by Nvidia, whose chips power AI models such as ChatGPT, is both costly and currently restricted due to the huge demand.

None of the three biggest cloud service providers (CSPs) based in Britain have the latest Nvidia chips available.

Instead, UK AI developers must turn to overseas CSPs such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform for computing power. This could mean either renting expensive computing power, with no guarantee of availability, or going into partnership with a foreign CSP – and again, the overseas CSP may prioritise its own computing needs or those of other partners.

AI means that ‘everyone is a programmer now’ says Nvidia CEOUnveiling a new generative AI platform for tech companies, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has hailed a new era of computing that improves access to coding capabilities

Worldwide scramble

The scramble for powerful AI computational chips is worldwide. Chinese tech giants have reportedly placed orders for around 100,000 chips, while Saudi Arabia has already reportedly bought at least 3,000 of Nvidia’s latest AI chips, the H100, which cost $40,000 each.

A Government review published in March criticised the lack of a “dedicated AI compute resource” with fewer than a thousand high-end Nvidia chips available to researchers.

It recommended that at least 3,000 “top-spec” GPUs be made available as soon as possible.

Last month, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Government is in advanced stages of an order of up to 5,000 GPS from Nvidia for its £900m supercomputer to be based in Bristol.

Sarah Cardell, CEO of the CMA, said: “The speed at which AI is becoming part of everyday life for people and businesses is dramatic. There is real potential for this technology to turbo charge productivity and make millions of everyday tasks easier – but we can’t take a positive future for granted. There remains a real risk that the use of AI develops in a way that undermines consumer trust or is dominated by a few players who exert market power that prevents the full benefits being felt across the economy.”

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Tim Adler

Tim Adler is group editor of Small Business, Growth Business and Information Age. He is a former commissioning editor at the Daily Telegraph, who has written for the Financial Times, The Times and the...

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