A trio of reports have been released this week that present very different pictures of the UK’s attitudes to technology innovation. They come as a wave of AI disruption hits organizations, along with other Industry 4.0 technologies.
The subtext that unites them could best be described as: tactical enthusiasm, but a lack of vital strategic forethought. Despite the upbeat nature of two of the reports, that is troubling. But first some context.
Few people can have escaped the hype surrounding generative AIs and large-language models over the past six months: diginomica’s pixels have been popping with story after story, and interview after interview. Not all of them positive. Solid enterprise applications exist, but a lot of herd behaviour too. And this is fast emerging as a problem.
The likes of epochal natural-language tool ChatGPT, Bard, and a host of other supposed AIs, including Stable Diffusion and Midjourney, have succeeded in positioning AI almost as a slot machine that keep paying out jackpots. Despite the negligible financial and intellectual investment up front: just think of a prompt, click, and stand back. Ker-ching! Instant winnings.
It's a good metaphor for our age, because there is obviously something wrong with a slot machine that pays out jackpots with every pull of the lever. When is life ever that simple? As every gambler knows, such machines are always positioned upfront in casinos, to lure people in and make them part with their cash.
Remember: the house always wins.
As we have stressed in multiple analyses of this phenomenon, this is infuriating on three counts. One, it positions humans as lazy, passive consumers of push-button content that few question in suitable depth.
Two, we view the AIs as having a genius that, in fact, belongs to millions of uncredited humans – many of them expert, talented, skilled, and experienced people, whose work has been scraped by derivative work generators.
And three, the value of original work by talented humans is being devalued as a result. Literally, as well as philosophically. Picture the illustrator, video maker, writer, or musician who wants to be paid a living wage for their skill, only to be forced to lower their prices – perhaps to zero – to compete with OpenAI’s instant-gratification machine.
The problem isn’t the technology, therefore; it’s a form of collective human stupidity. A ceding of control over nearly every aspect of enterprise thinking to vendors that scarped the Web because nobody stopped them – as if artists were the big problem facing the planet in 2023.
But OpenAI partner and investor Microsoft is here with a report that tells us everything is fine. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, published today, employees are more eager for AIs to help them work smarter than they are afraid of job losses.
According to Microsoft research, 70% of workers said they would delegate as much work as possible to AIs to lessen their workloads. One reason is that nearly two-thirds of them (64%) struggle with having the time and energy to do their jobs – perhaps because they are overwhelmed by information.
That said, Microsoft found that nearly half of those surveyed (49%) are, in fact, worried that AI will replace their jobs – a fear that would seem to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Logic suggests that, if 70% are delegating as much work as possible to AIs, then that makes it more, not less, likely that employers will fire them. And pay AI providers instead (get the picture?). Think about that casino, folks.
Eighty-two percent of leaders say their employees will need new skills to be prepared for the growth of AI. That’s undoubtedly true. But who will train them, how, and to do what?
Even some AI leaders are urging caution. In a released statement this week, co-founder of Iterate.ai, Brian Sathianathan, said:
The reality is that while AI is a great tool, it cannot replicate human intelligence and ingenuity, especially when it comes to generating new ideas or concepts.
That’s right. But it can remix them and let vendors claim the credit. Then he repeated the software salesman’s daily mantra:
Think about your daily workday. How many hours do you spend doing repetitive, mundane, and time-consuming tasks? AI programs can drastically reduce the amount of time people and companies spend on these tasks and allow companies to better allocate their time to producing new ideas, designs, or content.
Something that every AI, automation, and software robotics leader has been saying for a decade. But as we explored in previous reports, if AI is here to take away the drudgery and let people focus on being creative, why is it automating creative tasks first?
Another report makes astonishing reading in this context. The paper, Forewarned is Forearmed, from business process simulation platform Silico, first makes a simple, innocuous-sounding statement:
Both AI and digital twin technologies have gifted us the ways and means to see around corners, spot obstacles and quantify potential impacts. The onus is now on businesses to harness the full range of tools at their disposal to get one step ahead.
Silico commissioned market research provider 3Gem to interview 525 technology decision makers in the UK from companies of 251+ employees, across 20 different sectors (including IT and communications, retail, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, business services, and more). Eleven percent came from companies of 5,000+ employees.
According to the report:
Three quarters (74%) of decision makers are extremely concerned about how well their business will deal with pressures caused by the current state of the global economy.
The UK recession, rising interest rates and UK government policy are perceived to pose the three biggest threats to their business. Conversely, ongoing industrial strike action, Brexit, and their business leadership’s team were ranked lowest.
So far so… well, good is the wrong word. Then the report says:
Despite decision makers recognizing the business challenges many will face over the coming year, many feel that their company spends too much time planning.
Almost half (47%) of all decision makers in UK companies strongly agree that their business spends too much time planning, with a further 29% simply agreeing. That’s 78% of UK organizations believing that, despite the economic headwinds and other challenges, actually planning what to do about it is, apparently, a waste of time.
Then comes one of the most astonishing findings that diginomica can remember in a recent report:
It also appears the days of ‘gut instinct’ in the boardroom are well and truly over. Almost all businesses (94%) confirmed that they are comfortable with technology making business decisions and planning autonomously – with very little or no human input.
What?! You read that right: nearly all UK business seem to want to hand over strategic decision-making – the very job of leadership – to machines.
The report adds:
Nine in 10 (89%) businesses say that current UK inflation rates make strategic planning extremely or very challenging. This is particularly resonant in the IT and Communications sector, where three in four (73%) decision makers said that planning is extremely challenging, compared to just one in five (20%) employed in other sectors.
But another report turns up like Banquo’s ghost at the AI feast. UK manufacturers organization Make UK (which represents 20,000 companies in the sector), warns that the UK urgently needs strategic direction and leadership on new technology.
It should relaunch its Industrial Strategy to get to grips with the challenges of AI, robotics, automation, and Industry 4.0 technologies, says the organization.
If you can’t remember that the UK once had an Industrial Strategy, it was launched several Prime Ministers ago by Theresa May in 2017. Sadly, the Strategy – which did an excellent job of identifying societal challenges and emerging technology hotspots, then galvanizing investment into them – was scrapped by Boris Johnson.
Because of course it was. It was working and this angered him, as it wasn’t all about him. But since then, the UK has been “flip-flopping on initiatives and falling further and further behind on the world stage”, says Make UK. File that under “no s*** Sherlock”.
In the report, Khalid Talukder, co-founder of DKK Partners, said:
It’s mind boggling that the UK is falling behind in such a crucial area, especially when so many of our international competitors are launching detailed action plans to woo investors and turbocharge their manufacturing base.
Indeed. And Stephen Phipson, CEO of Make UK, observed that the UK is the only leading nation without a comprehensive, long-term industrial plan for new technologies and modernization. He said:
If we are to not only tackle our regional inequality, but also compete on a global stage, we need a national industrial strategy as a matter of urgency.
According to the organization, 80% of companies in a survey of 312 manufacturers believe that the lack of a plan puts their firm at a competitive disadvantage, while nearly 60% say the government has “never had a robust vision for manufacturing”.
Seriously, folks. Get a grip. A human one.