British businesses failing AI acid test

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A new parliamentary report fears Britain’s startups and future entrepreneurs are ill-equipped to compete in a global economy being transformed by robotics and autonomous systems (RAS).

The report was initiated to understand the “implications of robotics and artificial intelligence on the future UK workforce and job market, and the Government’s preparation for the shift in the UK skills base and training that this may require”.

Conversely the report notes the British government’s leadership on the issue “has been noticeably lacking”. “There is no Government strategy for developing the skills, and securing the critical investment, that is needed to create future growth in robotics and AI. Nor is there any sign of the Government delivering on its promise to establish a ‘RAS Leadership Council’ to provide much needed coordination and direction.”

“Without a Government strategy for the sector, the productivity gains that could be achieved through greater uptake of the technologies across the UK will remain unrealised.”

Because AI has this Hollywood element to it, we get too imaginative and start navel gazing too much.”

It’s a concern echoed by Xero UK’s managing director Gary Turner. “British SMBs have been historically slow or hamstrung when it comes to employing the technologies or staff that will boost their productivity,” says Turner. “Availability of accessible and low cost AI services and tools could unlock huge improvements in SMB productivity and therefore boost overall productivity in the UK.”

According to Turner, we’ve already begun to see the automation of certain workplace processes like bookkeeping. In the immediate future, AI and machine learning will now begin to augment automation. “Software will know money spent at Staples, for instance, is an operating expense,” says Turner by way of example. “It will know how to categorise that.”

These practical applications are often forgotten in favour of sexy sci-fi fantasy, says Turner. “This is not a new thing,” says Turner. “Because AI has this Hollywood element to it, we get too imaginative and start navel gazing too much. It’s just another chapter on this inevitable journey we’ve been on for the past 60 years.”

While Britain has been philosophising, the report notes governments in South Korea, Japan and China have spent hundreds of millions preparing for “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

The “navel gazing” Turner refers to could be ascribed to the lack of government leadership noted in the report. Not only will this affect current businesses, but students are being left in the lurch, too.

Professor Rose Luckin from the UCL Institute of Education explained in the report: “I do not feel that at the moment we are equipping either students in school or workers in the workforce with the requisite skills to know how to adapt themselves to use the automation they are being offered to best effect. We need to take that on board and make some changes to address it.”

Other governments have spent hundreds of millions preparing for “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

“As a nation, we must respond with a readiness to re-skill, and up-skill, on a continuing basis,” the report concludes. “This requires a commitment by the Government to ensure that our education and training systems are flexible, so that they can adapt as the demands on the workforce change, and are geared up for lifelong learning Leadership in this area, however, has been lacking.

“It is disappointing that the Government has still not published its Digital Strategy and set out its plans for equipping the future workforce with the digital skills it needs to thrive.”

 
Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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