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As the UK bets big on AI, how can student and junior developers approach the technology?

Written by James Adams

Tech Educators students learning to code without AI

The UK sets out to become a world AI technology leader by committing £500 million for the next two years and supporting its scientists and AI researchers in pursuing technological discoveries alongside other technology-focused goals.

In his Autumn Statement for Growth speech on November 23, 2023, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said the government would use the funding to establish innovation centres to help make the UK a global AI powerhouse.

The initiative also seeks to assist AI startups and other businesses in accessing cutting-edge computing technologies and boost innovation and productivity to make the UK the best place in the world to establish AI startups.

Science, Innovation, and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said the significant science and tech success stories by the UK government are about having the professional skills needed to face the future, investing in scale-ups, and establishing reasonable regulations.

"The Chancellor’s Statement injects even more fuel into our science and tech economy - and will help to realise my vision for a country where more high-value British jobs are driving us faster toward amazing discoveries that will help us live longer, healthier, happier, easier lives," said Donelan.

The development of said computing power will also help the UK address climate change, invent new revolutionary drugs, improve the economy, and many other tangible benefits.

Pledge on AI and quantum tech goals

The UK government will soon build a new Bristol-based supercomputer set to boost AI research and innovation as part of the initiative. The University of Bristol will host the set called AI Research Resource (AIRR) to help the national initiative reap the yet-unknown benefits of AI technology.

AIRR will consist of thousands of the latest graphics processing units (GPUs) capable of training large language models to help the UK boost its national AI development and research.

The UK government will name the AIRR Isambard AI, taking inspiration from Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the most prolific British engineers in the 19th century.

"The Isambard-AI cluster will be one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe and will help industry experts and researchers harness the game-changing potential of AI, including through the mission-critical work of our Frontier AI Taskforce," said Donelan.

The Chancellor also disseminated the latest information about the National Quantum Strategy Missions intended to develop state-of-the-art quantum technology solutions for different sectors in the UK from 2030 to 2035.

The missions consist of several high-profile goals, such as creating accessible UK-based quantum computers to support the UK economy in 2035 and unlocking new situation awareness capabilities with a mobile quantum sensor network in 2030.

How are AI tools affecting developers, and what are the implications for student and junior developers?

Whilst many are aware that AI algorithms are now capable of understanding programming languages and can assist in writing, testing, and debugging code. For those using plugins such as Github’s Copilot, they argue that such tools not only speeds up the development process but also reduce the likelihood of human error, leading to more reliable code. Whilst this may seem like a golden bullet for the software development industry, experience is the critical component. Sure, having AI support with typing out that variable for the 10th time is great, but it isn’t designed to write code from scratch. Nor is it sold as such. Github themselves state that Copilot is designed to increase the velocity of code from a developer, not to displace them.

Of course,  the thought of using AI to push thousands of lines of seamless code is enticing, at the heart of software development is getting the logic in place of how programming languages work, understanding what makes algorithms tick, getting a grip on data structures, and figuring out how to solve problems strategically. These are the essentials, and AI builds on them, it doesn’t always nail them the first time. Worse than that, sometimes it can quite simply get it completely wrong and hallucinate a response that can leave a student perplexed and questioning their understanding of software development.

No one can deny that AI tools are super useful and smart, but they've got their limits. They're great at churning out code fast and sorting out bugs, but they don't really 'get' the art of creative problem-solving or the knack for understanding the bigger picture like humans do. That's why knowing your stuff in software development is key. It lets students use AI as a helpful tool, not something to lean on too much. They get to figure out when to let the AI do its thing and when to rely on their own coding smarts.

How to approach the use of AI as a junior developer

For any junior developer diving into using AI in your software development journey (and at some point, you should), make sure you've got a solid handle on the basics of software development first. Think of it like learning to cook before using a sous vide machine – knowing how to cook first is important, before using all of the tools a professional chef may have to hand. Working out why to use it, when to use it and how is just as important as cooking.

As with searching for solutions on stack overflow, don't just copy-paste whatever code you find first, or the AI solution spits out. Take a moment to review it, and ask yourself, "Why did the AI write the code this way?" You want to make sure you get the logic behind it. Think of your code and the AI suggestion like reading a recipe – you want to know why you're adding a certain ingredient and what effect that is going to have on the overall flavour.

This is the approach that we take when teaching students to learn to code and learn to make video games. Of course we encourage students to grasp the concepts of any new technology, but at a point when fundamentals are embedded. This is the approach we take with our course delivery, and recommend for lifelong learning.

About the Author

James has 8 years with Fortune 200 US firm ITW, experience of managing projects in China, USA, and throughout Europe. James has worked with companies such as Tesco, Vauxhall, ITW, Serco, McDonalds. James has experience in supporting start-up and scale up companies such as Readingmate, Gorilla Juice and Harvest London. James completed his MBA at the University of East Anglia in 2018.

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