06 May 2022

Can the UK increase AI uptake across the economy?

Jade O’Leary, Data Scientist at Techmodal, writes for techUK's #AIWeek2022

The impact of AI within business across the UK is predicted to be hugely significant in the coming decade. Universities, big tech and start-ups are already paving the way, seamlessly integrating AI technologies into our everyday lives. AI innovation has transformed our approach to global challenges such as energy provision, health security and environmental stability. Tech-savvy business are tapping into this resource to automate decisions, and bring actionable insights which ultimately drive commercial success.

However, adoption of AI across business is far from widespread, and barriers to AI adoption persist, blocking entry to the technology for many sectors where AI could have real tangible impact. The UK Government cemented its commitment to AI in the first-of-its-kind 2021 National AI Strategy, which outlined plans to stimulate the development of AI technologies in low-AI maturity sectors, such as agriculture. But does it go far enough?

Barriers to AI Adoption

The ability to effectively operationalise AI depends on significant upfront investment of both technical infrastructure and people, including:

  • Business domain and subject matter experts
  • Data scientists, data engineers and software developers who can build data pipelines, optimise Machine Learning (ML) models and deploy them onto software systems
  • Robust ethics and governance policies to oversee systems

These costs along with often large timescales for AI deployment, and the difficulty in quantifying returns on investment, act as major barriers to AI use in many business sectors.

Let’s take a step back and consider where ML and AI fall within an analytics maturity model. We know that they sit pretty high up. There are many data and analysis components that business must master before jumping to AI - it’s like trying to sprint before you’ve learned how to crawl. Robust collection, storage, management and literacy of data are vital first steps on the pathway towards AI, but are often low priority or poorly understood.

UK Strategy

The National AI Strategy sets out the Government’s long term plan to boost AI adoption in high-potential, low-AI mature sectors via a joint Office for AI and UK Research & Innovation programme. The programme includes plans to coordinate collaboration between researchers and business, support AI development in sectors outside of London and the South East, and to review the computing power and hardware capacity required to drive widespread adoption.

Investment has already been spent over the last 4 years lowering the barrier to entry of AI specialised hardware through Digital Catapult’s Machine Intelligence Garage which provides a channel through which start-ups may access high performance computers (HPC).

This is a solid ground from which to propel AI development across the economy, but care must be taken to ensure businesses develop AI to address societal needs. In addition, it is crucial pathways are created for AI researchers to spin-out companies to develop products and services, and investors are incentivised to learn about developing AI opportunities.

The Pandemic Effect

COVID-19 quickly moved businesses and their consumers to digital channels, and created a unique ecosystem where AI was rapidly developed and deployed in response to the public health crisis. This pressure has seen many businesses reconsidering supply chains, forecasting demand patterns and enabling automation (e.g. in factories and distribution) via AI where previously maturity in this space was low.

The pandemic demonstrated how AI can be quickly adopted and used for good when given the right emphasis and funding. Increasing AI uptake in low-maturity sectors will be a challenge, but with adequate support and investment from Government and the private sector development of AI products for public good is achievable and could see the UK strengthen its position as a global AI leader.

For over 15 years Techmodal has been the partner of choice for UK Defence, Government and Industry in the delivery of game changing data science and analytics solutions to help them transform how they operate. Discover how we use data to solve real world problems at www.techmodal.com