Microsoft’s new £2.5bn data centres are ‘turning point’ for AI in Britain

Microsoft will invest £2.5 billion in Britain over the next three years to double its data centre capacity and provide computing power to help to drive the expansion of artificial intelligence.

The investment has been hailed by Rishi Sunak as “a turning point for the future of AI infrastructure and development in the UK”.

The American technology company plans to bring more than 20,000 advanced graphics processing units to Britain by 2026. It plans to expand sites in London and Cardiff and is looking at a “potential expansion into northern England”.

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It said the investment would help with training “more than one million people for the AI economy”, while it also pledged also to support AI safety and research efforts.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s vice-chairman and president, said: “Microsoft is committed as a company to ensuring that the UK as a country has world-leading AI infrastructure, easy access to the skills people need and broad protections for safety and security.”

The warm words about the UK as a business destination stand in contrast to comments made earlier this year, when the competition watchdog blocked Microsoft’s $69 billion takeover of Activision Blizzard, the games developer. The veto was lifted after Microsoft came back with changes.

Smith, 64, was speaking on a visit to Microsoft’s newest and largest data centre, which is under construction in Acton, west London. It is run fully on renewable energy and, in response to concerns over data centres’ large power usage, Microsoft has invested in the local energy grid. It is also looking at how it can share energy, heat and water from its facility with the local community.

Brad Smith, the Microsoft president, left, speaks with Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, during the visit to Microsoft’s data centre construction site in Acton
Brad Smith, the Microsoft president, left, speaks with Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, during the visit to Microsoft’s data centre construction site in Acton

The Microsoft executive also called attention to Britain’s commitment to global collaboration on AI after the inaugural Safety Summit hosted by the government at Bletchley Park at the start of November, which was attended by 27 countries, including China.

He previously has raised concerns about the threats from Chinese AI, revealing in an interview in May that Microsoft had uncovered evidence of Chinese state-sponsored espionage. Smith said at the time: “We should absolutely assume that certain nation states will use AI to launch cyberattacks.”

On Thursday, however, he responded positively to questions about whether the UK was right to invite China to the AI summit table: “I think that the world needs to have a global conversation and every country should have a shared interest in ensuring that AI remains under human control with the right kinds of safety standards.”

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