UK businesses must get serious about AI to compete globally – Microsoft report

Businesses in the UK need to move beyond tinkering with artificial intelligence (AI) and get on with seriously harnessing the technology at scale to compete on the global stage, a report by Microsoft has said.

The tech giant has found that organisations already using AI at scale are performing better than those which are not, by making them more productive, showing higher profitability and producing better business outcomes.

But it warned that there is a clear and widening gap between companies using it fully and those still in the early testing phase or simply not implementing it at all.

It fears firms being cautious because of the current political uncertainty could miss out, with the retail sector among the weakest adopter surveyed, while financial services have ramped up their approach to AI.

Some 43% of the finance-related companies who participated in the study said they used AI for more automation this year, compared with 28% the year before.

The use of machine learning – the ability for computers to learn and improve from experience without being programmed to do so – in the sector by those adopting AI jumped from 29% to 40%, while the use of smart digital assistants rose from 17% to 27%.

In comparison, automation within retail only increased 2% from 2018, now standing at 18%, machine learning only grew 1% to 16% and the use of smart digital assistants remained the same, 11%.

In some areas, use of AI in retail dropped, including a fall of 3% in research-level AI to 5%, and analytics and big data technologies, going from 33% in 2018 to 26% in 2019.

Microsoft spoke to more than 1,000 business leaders and 4,000 employees for the survey.

“There’s probably more opportunity there for them to think about innovation to drive their business model, customer service and integration of their warehouse to the stores in a more meaningful way,” said Clare Barclay, chief operating officer for Microsoft UK.

“A year ago we spoke about a lot of experimentation, where people were nervous about what the impact was going to be and so our message last year was get going, but I think it’s now we have to get serious about the benefit that this kind of technology will bring.”

There has also been growth in AI usage from the health sector, with automation among the biggest gains – doubling from 10% to 20%.

The East Suffolk & North Essex NHS Foundation Trust is highlighted in the report for using AI to save nurses 4,500 hours a month.

However, Microsoft said that organisations are failing to reskill employees to make the most of the technology, finding that only one in 10 workers (11%) and one in five leaders (19%) have completed training to improve their understanding of it.

A total of 96% of all UK employees claim they have never been consulted by their manager about the introduction of AI where they work.

Fruit and vegetables
Retail found to be the weakest sector surveyed for AI adoption (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“If organisations don’t talk about it, it becomes this kind of elephant in the room and as you start to think about piloting or playing around with it, it doesn’t create innovation, it creates a culture of mistrust and fear if it’s not managed correctly,” Ms Barclay continued.

Cindy Rose, chief executive of Microsoft UK, added: “The results are clear.

“UK businesses and public sector organisations that forgo or delay implementing AI solutions risk missing the boat on driving down costs, increasing their competitive advantage and empowering their workers.

“Given this moment, where both UK leadership and competitiveness on the global stage is more vital than ever, there is no doubt that fully embracing AI-led digital transformation is a critical success factor for UK businesses, government and society.”

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