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Technology / AI and automation

When it comes to AI adoption the UK is lagging behind the rest of Europe

British businesses have been slow to adopt automated systems but the UK could still lead the way on advanced AI.

The UK is lagging behind Europe when it comes to artificial intelligence adoption, according to new research showing half of companies are not using the technology at all. Though British businesses have been slow to adopt the first wave of automated systems, the nation may be poised to take the lead when it comes to advanced AI thanks to a heavy government focus on the importance of machine learning.

Published by IBM, the global AI adoption index shows that 49% of British businesses surveyed are not using AI automation systems and have no plans to do so in the future. This is the highest figure for any European country. For many companies in Britain, the Covid-19 pandemic has had little impact on decision-making when it comes to AI, with 38% of UK-based IT decision-makers stating their employer has made no change to their plans for adoption of the technology in response to the global crisis.

“The numbers are showing that the UK is lagging behind other countries or other parts of the world,” says Jean-Philippe Desbiolles, the global VP for data, cognitive and AI at IBM. He believes many UK companies are in the “exploring phase” for this sort of technology, and adds “I think in 2021 we can expect big growth of AI adoption by enterprises because it always takes time between the exploring phase and the execution phase.”

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Lack of AI skills the biggest barrier to adoption

Similar barriers to adoption of AI can be seen across different regions, and respondents to the survey agreed that the most common of these are limited expertise or knowledge (39%), increasing data complexity and data silos (32%) and a lack of tools or platforms for developing AI models (28%). Upskilling workers is by far the most concerning area, Desbiolles says. “We need to acknowledge that we need a specific skill set in order to design and supervise AI models, and developing this does not happen overnight,” he explains.

To successfully navigate these issues, companies globally have shown an interest in investing in varying areas of development to support their workers. In fact, one-third report that they plan to invest in reskilling and workforce deployment as well as more user-friendly off-the-shelf AI applications and models. Such tools are key to a universal uptake of AI as they can alleviate the need to painstakingly upskill a workforce. “The development of platform tools and AI solutions will allow us to deploy AI without such a deep level of expertise,” says Desbiolles.

Could the UK take the lead on advanced AI?

One reason the UK has been slow on the AI uptake could be that many existing use cases focus on industries which aren’t central to its economy. Bharat Mistry, technical director of the UK and Ireland at Trend Micro, says most current systems work best on specific and limited tasks: “Vision detection, for example, is used for looking for defects in products, is absolutely inherent in heavy manufacturing, so not surprisingly it is being used in India and China,” he says. “It’s giving them that kind of higher quality throughput because it’s a consistent throughput.”

The UK has its eyes on a bigger prize. “Usage in the UK will be in more advanced capabilities, for example in computer vision and machine learning,” Mistry says. Such technologies could be deployed in police investigations to monitor the movements of suspects. “Actually looking at people’s patterns, how they’re doing things, their movements, being able to cross-correlate different sources together and make some intelligence out of it,” Mistry adds.

While this sort of tech has yet to be widely deployed, it would appear the UK is ready is to take advantage of the next generation of developments. Indeed, Britain ranks second only behind the US when it comes to AI readiness at a governmental level, according to research from the Oxford Insights think tank, which takes into account factors including infrastructure, skills and policy around AI. In January the government released its AI roadmap, which sets out a vision for the roll-out of AI to support British citizens and businesses.

If this ambition can be matched by investment from the private sector, then the UK could be in a strong position. “I think the UK is going to be about the next tier,” says Mistry. “Putting AI on ‘steroids’ and getting it to do something more meaningful, to have a greater impact on society”.

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Claudia Glover

Reporter

Claudia Glover is a staff reporter on Tech Monitor.