by Sue Daley, Associate Director Technology and Innovation, techUK

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AI, automation and their adoption: how to make the UK AI-ready

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We need to be honest – both artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are not new developments in technological innovation. However, 2019 will see a focus on the transformative impact and effect of public and private sector bodies adopting and applying AI and automation. So what makes today different, and if AI is going to change the world, how can we make sure the UK is AI-ready?


As early as 1951, The Lyons Tea Room company introduced an electronic automated office. Among many repetitive tasks, the LEO 1 system automated the cost of the company’s bakery distribution. Five years later, in 1956, the term artificial intelligence, or AI, was first used by academics. While the 1950s seem to have been the start of the AI and automation revolution, it is only now that businesses of all sizes and from all sectors are starting to fully realise the potential of what these technologies can do. Three key factors are what make things different today: increased availability of data to power and train AI systems, the sheer computing power that exists today compared with the 1950s and 1960s, and the convergence of AI and automation with other technological advancements such as the internet of things, superfast connectivity, digital twins and robotics.


At techUK, we see huge potential for AI and automation, working in partnership with other tech to be a power for economic growth, productivity, innovation and social good. If we are brave and embrace the change that AI will bring, we could see an additional £232billion added to the UK economy by 2030, according to PwC. 


While the automation of repetitive, programmable tasks is a tool businesses have been using for many years, the convergence with machine learning means that intelligent automation is increasingly possible. AI systems can automate more complex tasks that require real-time analysis, predictions, reasoning and ultimately decision-making. We are already seeing this capability in sectors such as financial services, where automation and AI are used in high-frequency trading systems. Looking to the future, it is expected that the emergence of quantum computing could mean that automated, intelligent AI systems will be able to perform multiple, complex tasks even faster than today’s machines, and probably faster than a human brain. 


So if this is what the future holds, how do we act now to make sure the UK, and UK businesses, are ready for AI and increased automation?


Businesses must feel confident in embracing new technology, but also remain vigilant about the challenges that may be ahead. Events, workshops and conferences are generating growing interest and positivity around the opportunities AI can offer, through increased automation, efficiency and real-time insights and decision-making. At the same time, techUK is working with stakeholders to explore some of the complex social, legal and ethics issues that could be created by increased automation and AI.


As we move towards a world where humans and intelligent machines will live and work side by side, multiple profound social and ethical questions are being raised that need to be explored. As intelligent, AI-driven automation pervades every aspect of work and life, finding answers must be a key priority for organisations as they develop, adopt and deploy the tools and technologies available now and in the future. A key focus for the year ahead is how we move on from talking about digital ethics as a high-level concept and make it relevant to how people live their lives.


Our recent Digital Ethics Summit exemplified how industry is collaborating and working hard to ensure that we answer these ethics questions correctly. This will help organisations adopt and apply cutting-edge, innovative AI and other emerging technologies that could bring real benefits to all people in our society. What is clear is that, although much progress has been made since the early days of this tech in the 1950s, there is still more that we need to do to ensure UK businesses and citizens are ready to realise the full economic and social potential of AI and automation.

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