In recent years, the UK government has put artificial intelligence at the centre of bold plans for economic renewal, claiming world leadership in the sector and describing Britain as a “science and technology superpower”.
This has been the case since at least 2016, when Whitehall mandarins began talking up AI and robotics in advance of launching the Industrial Strategy in the following year. Since then, we have had the Hall-Pesenti Review, the Office for AI and several other new institutions, plans to make London the world capital of AI, and the launch of the National AI Strategy in September last year.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Strategy that did so much to galvanize inward technology investment has been scrapped and replaced by The Plan for Growth, largely due to political infighting.
However, despite concerted strategic efforts backed by public/private investment, a new study from technology and services giant IBM suggests that far from being in a leadership pack dominated by the US and China, the UK is falling behind its peers in actively deploying AI.
The UK is ranked third globally for private investment into AI companies and is home to one-third of Europe’s total AI businesses, explains IBM – a pattern repeated in FinTech and other areas. However, while Europe may not have as many start-ups or such a thriving tech sector, it is doing far better at exploiting the technology, as are some countries in other parts of the world.
According to an IBM study published today, only one-third of UK companies have accelerated their use of AI in the past two years, compared with a European average of 49%. More than one-third (36%) of UK companies have stalled their AI investments during the survey period (which coincided with the pandemic), versus 27% across Europe.
Globally, IBM found that 35% of companies are using AI in their business, while an additional 42% are exploring it. Adoption is growing steadily, up four points from IBM’s 2021 survey. The global results can be found here.
An announcement from IBM this morning says:
The data revealed that Italian and Spanish businesses are leaping ahead of their neighbours in leveraging AI, with 57% and 56% respectively saying they have increased their use of AI in the past two years. Other European economies surveyed include France (49%) and Germany (46%).
The main reason for the UK’s poor performance is a lack of AI skills and associated business knowledge, says IBM. A survey of over 7,500 IT decision-makers globally was conducted by Morning Consult in April for the IBM Global AI Adoption Index. It found 38% of UK respondents citing this skills gap as the main inhibitor to AI adoption, compared with an average of 28% across Europe and just 24% in France.
The findings echo comments made by Chair of the UK Artificial Intelligence Council Tabitha Goldstaub in April. Citing the government’s own recent research, she told a Westminster eForum on UK AI strategy:
In one study, one-third of firms said that existing employees lack AI technical skills, and this actively prevents them from meeting business goals. Two-thirds expect that the demand for AI skills within the organization is likely to increase in the next 12 months.
But there's a challenge finding talent outside the organization. There are over 100,000 job postings in AI and data science waiting to be filled, but almost 50% of companies said that job applicants lack the necessary technical skills.
That’s rather a bleak view to be honest. But there’s good news too: there is now a stronger trend towards upskilling. Three in five firms [60%] reported that employees had undertaken internal or external AI training in the last year. But sadly, only a quarter of those firms offer training on ethics and AI.
So, as we reported last month, while UK firms recognize that AI skills are lacking in the UK job market, many are at least seizing the initiative to fill that gap.
In the process, however, the government’s clear strategic focus on ethical AI is falling by the wayside: just 15% of firms focus on it in training. Over time, that is unlikely to increase public trust in the technology, which will be essential to both its adoption and success.
IBM’s research makes a similar point:
Many UK companies said being able to explain how their AI has made decisions, with an ethical framework, is important to them and consumers, yet most have not taken the steps necessary to achieve this.
IBM adds that, globally:
A majority of organizations have not taken key steps to ensure that their AI is trustworthy and responsible, such as reducing bias (74%), tracking performance variations and model drift (68%), and making sure they can explain AI-powered decisions (61%).
These are troubling statistics, and suggest that a majority of organizations that are in the vanguard of strategic and operational AI deployments are taking insufficient care over the consequences or poor data, systemic bias, false assumptions, or bad design.
However, in a logical infinite regression, IBM’s data suggests that the UK is at least planning to use AI to address the shortage of labour and skills... in AI. Just over 40% plan to use AI to retrain their workforce – the second highest priority for AI investment after research & development – while 59% plan to use AI automation tools to reduce manual or repetitive tasks.
There’s more good news: Big Blue’s findings suggest that the UK could be catching up with its peers in AI adoption as we emerge from the pandemic (or at least, as we ignore that it is still ongoing).
The UK narrowly had the highest proportion of companies that were exploring using AI (47%). A majority (85%) of UK respondents also said their companies either have some kind of AI strategy or are developing one – only slightly behind the Europe average of 89%.
Ebru Binboga, Director of Data, AI & Automation for IBM UK & Ireland said:
Nearly three-quarters of UK businesses surveyed in the IBM Global AI Adoption Index said they are either exploring the use of AI or are actively deploying it in their operations. There is clear recognition of the value AI can bring to organizations as they look to address a range of priorities and unlock growth.
The findings reveal that companies in the UK, and around the world, are investing in AI capabilities to help them overcome challenges such as skills and labour shortages and accelerate innovation. We’re also seeing a large proportion of UK businesses looking to AI to help them meet ambitious sustainability targets, highlighting the important role AI is playing both for organisations and society at large.
There is further good news in the survey. For example, 58% of UK companies are either executing (31%) or planning to apply AI (27%) to help meet their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. And 44% of UK respondents said they’re either planning to invest in AI to address their sustainability goals (30%) or are making it a priority (14%).
That said, the big challenge for the UK remains investing in training or upskilling its workforce for a world of data and AI in order to fill tens of thousands of vacancies. Why that isn’t happening, and hasn’t been happening for many years, is one of the major systemic issues for Britain.