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The University of Southampton
Public Policy|Southampton

A placement at the Office for Artificial Intelligence

Placement at the Office for Artificial Intelligence

Clare Walsh
Clare Walsh

How did I end up sat in a meeting room at the Google Deep Mind office quizzing leading experts at the cutting edge of AI research in the UK, just a couple of weeks into my placement? Many things about my experience with the Office for Artificial Intelligence went beyond my expectations, including being drafted into the UK’s COVID 19 response part way through. Before I signed up, I knew exactly what I want to achieve, but I didn’t really anticipate the quality of experience they were going to share with me. The additional training and talks with industry leaders were impressive.

My colleagues at the OAI were the best. They were so talented, and experts in their field, and so welcoming. I felt a bit awkward at first because I didn’t feel that I fit the profile of a placement student, and I’d ask for a few extra considerations. None of that was a problem and nobody ever seemed to get judged on anything but the quality of their work. Very early on, my colleagues explained to me that they felt I hadn’t really joined their pre-existing team. They were a whole new team now, with me firmly in it, and they were excited about the new potential of that, just as I was. You couldn’t really ask for a more supportive environment to spend a few months.

The main project I was working on looked at opportunities to improve the transition for students from MSc courses in Data Science into the workplace. I was particularly looking at the gap in expectations between the professional appraisal systems for Data Scientists in employment, and a realistic expectation of how much a Higher Education environment could replicate this in their training and evaluation processes. I was also looking to trial a data literacy framework to be used for AI for All.

Of course, 2020 had other plans, and we were all sent home in the last months of my 5 month placement. When the COVID 19 lockdown arrived, it became necessary to divert all day to day expertise to the more immediate problems of the evolving emergency. Their immediate focus was on reaching the most vulnerable, in a situation with no precedent. I was moved to the Digital team to offer support researching some of the longer term potential issues with initiatives they were introducing in their COVID response. It was a very different, multi-departmental experience.

Even though I’ve left now, the team and I still have hopes to take one final project that I added to my job description halfway through to completion, once things get back to normal. Details will hopefully follow soon, but there’s a chance to get AI onto the curriculum for some school children. It was a significant enough project that it was on the agenda of the national AI Council’s Skills and Diversity Working Group just before the lockdown. Everything is ready in a folder, and if it happens later this year, I’ll be happy to bring you an exciting update!

There were so many benefits to spending time working with the OAI. Seeing policy forming and being put into action is truly educational. My colleagues were always happy to introduce me to people in influential positions. The building, location and views from the meeting room windows are, of course, world class. Too bad that selfies aren’t allowed!


Clare Walsh
Web Science PhD researcher

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