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£6m project aims to give Manchester businesses a boost using artificial intelligence

Expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) is to be shared with Greater Manchester businesses in a bid to help them develop new products and services, as part of a new £6m project.

University researchers with specialist knowledge in AI will work with a minimum of 170 small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in the area, helping them to advance their business through the application of AI.

The project hopes to help local businesses build back better following the disruption caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In total, four North West universities: Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Manchester, the University of Salford and Lancaster University, have teamed up to deliver the European Regional Development Funded (ERDF) scheme named the Greater Manchester AI Foundry.

The new project builds on the success of the Greater Manchester Cyber Foundry, which was launched by the four institutions in May 2019.

The Greater Manchester Cyber Foundry has already successfully supported more than 60 SMEs in adopting cyber security innovation within their business.

Knowledge and research from the four universities will now be used to help selected companies embed new AI innovation into their business, helping them to thrive in a new digital age.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham said: “In Greater Manchester it is our ambition to be recognised as a world-leading digital city region, the launch of the Greater Manchester AI Foundry is a significant step towards these ambitions, helping our city-region’s start-ups and SMEs advance their businesses at a time when they need it most.

“Following the success of the Greater Manchester Cyber Foundry it is great to see our world-leading universities working together again to share their specialist knowledge to support our SMEs to thrive. In the current climate, the AI Foundry will be integral in helping our SMEs build back better through the application of AI.”

Keith Miller, Principal Investigator for AI Foundry from Manchester Metropolitan, who are leading the project, said: “AI has an incredible power to innovate.

“From disease detection using deep learning, to autonomous vehicle technology using machine learning and computer vision – AI has the capability of creating new products and services which will greatly benefit society and help businesses advance, remain competitive and in turn boost the local economy.

“With that in mind, it has been incredibly exciting to work on this collaboration between the four universities, which aims to translate world-leading AI research into novel products and services.

“We believe the Greater Manchester AI Foundry will help place the region’s SMEs at the forefront of AI application, nationally and internationally.”

The need for world leading AI capability nationally is already well recognised, with the UK Government Industrial Strategy outlining AI as an existing national strength – and which they estimate will contribute £232bn to the UK economy by 2030.

Locally, Greater Manchester has already been identified as a leading digital region within Europe – with the digital sector accounting for 700,000 jobs and £3.4bn in Gross Value Added (GVA), in 2018.

With that in mind, increasing application of AI, big-data, data science and data analytics into business in the region is predicted to have a huge impact on every sector within Greater Manchester’s economy.

However, implementing AI also presents challenges, including ensuring that the local business base is capable of adopting the new technology, delivering ethically appropriate products and that employees have the skills and capabilities to use this tech – which this new project also aims to address.

Now launched, the AI Foundry will work with SMEs on four themes, which have been identified in the region’s Local Industrial Strategy. These are: advanced materials and manufacturing, clean growth, digital and creative media, and health innovation.

The first phase of the project will focus on business development, with SMEs who have high potential for business growth through the application of AI being selected to join the scheme.

The second phase will focus on the development of prototypes for at least 30 SMEs – under the supervision of AI researchers from the four university partners.

Professor Andy Gibson, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan, said: “It is clear from the recent months of lockdown the value of technology and the part it has played in supporting the local community and economy.

“The Greater Manchester AI Foundry will make a major contribution to both regional and national priorities, supporting the promotion and adoption of AI and helping Greater Manchester to build back better.

“As a University, we can bring significant expertise of AI, big data and much more to this project due to our extensive research in this area – which is why I am delighted that we are leading this new and innovative scheme.”

The project will receive £3m from the European Regional Development Fund via the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with partners delivering a further £3m in matched funding.