“For anybody who hasn’t been here for 20 years, they may say: ‘Is this the same place?’” said Claire Ruskin, the chief executive of Cambridge Network, as she drove through the city on a recent afternoon.
But those buildings outside the train station are reminders that Britain — like Europe as a whole — does not have its own internet powerhouse, a corporate power capable of pushing the world in new technical, cultural and political directions. The closest match was ARM, and that was acquired by SoftBank in 2016.
In London, a 45-minute train ride from Cambridge, you will find DeepMind, perhaps the world’s leading A.I. lab. DeepMind is at the forefront of a technological revolution that many believe will shift economic and societal norms across the globe, and it was acquired by Google in 2014.
“We welcome the big existing companies,” said Matthew Hancock, the British secretary of state who oversees digital policy. “But we’re incredibly determined to ensure that the next generation of companies are built here.”
On a recent Friday morning, Chris Bishop, who oversees Microsoft Research Cambridge, looked out his fifth-floor office window, with its panoramic view of Cambridge, and pointed to the spires of King’s College Chapel rising over the trees in the distance. “Alan Turing was at King’s,” he said.
In 1950, with his essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing, the British mathematician, codebreaker and computing pioneer, asked whether machines would ever think on their own. Mr. Bishop, an A.I. researcher who studied at Oxford and took a professorship at the University of Edinburgh before moving to Cambridge, views his work as another link in a long British legacy.
Mr. Bishop joined the lab in 1997, just after it was founded. In those days, Microsoft was the one tech giant paying big money to lure top academics into this kind of corporate research. Now, as artificial intelligence takes center stage at leading tech companies, paying big dollars for academics is common.
Five years ago, Microsoft moved its lab to the city-block-size building near the rail station. Many of Mr. Bishop’s former students and colleagues now work at other big tech companies.
Neil Lawrence, a University of Sheffield professor who studied with Mr. Bishop at Cambridge, now works at the new Amazon Cambridge Development Center just down the street. Two prominent A.I. researchers who worked under Mr. Bishop at Microsoft have since moved to Google and DeepMind.
Many of these researchers, like a number of other top A.I. researchers in Britain, were born outside the country. Still, local policymakers are concerned about local talent moving into foreign companies.
“We have some of the top A.I. researchers in the world in the U.K.,” said Dame Wendy Hall, a computer science professor at the University of Southampton. “How do we stop the A.I. brain drain to the U.S. — or to the U.S. companies anyway?”
Last year, the British government commissioned a report on the country’s A.I. landscape from Dame Hall and Jerome Pesenti, the chief executive of BenevolentAI, an artificial intelligence start-up based in London. Within weeks of the report’s release, Mr. Pesenti moved to Facebook. He is now vice president of artificial intelligence in the company’s New York office.
“It does illustrate the point,” Dame Hall said. “Once your head is above the parapet in this world, you draw interest, particularly from the big Silicon Valley giants.”
The report called for increased financing for universities, and in the months following the government responded, saying it would fund 200 new Ph.D.s in artificial intelligence and related fields by 2020 and invest a total of $500 million in math, digital and technical education across Britain.