Making AI work for Britain | techUK event round-up
On 25 September, techUK published its new report Making AI work for Britain exploring the impact of AI on work and the workforce across the economy. The report spotlights 9 actions for the UK to support people and businesses to take advantage of workplace AI, driving productivity and growth in every part of the UK.
At the launch event held at techUK HQ, we heard keynote speeches from Antony Walker, Deputy CEO, techUK and Kate Bell, Assistant General Secretary, Trade Unions Congress who then joined a panel alongside:
- Nina Alag Suri, Founder and CEO, X0PA AI
- Andrew Pakes, Deputy General Secretary and Research Director, Prospect Union
- Hugh Milward, Vice President, External Affairs, Microsoft
- Rahul Kumar, Brand Director, IT Services, Experis UK
You can watch the event or read our summary of the discussions below. And don’t forget to download the report!
Opening keynote – Antony Walker, techUK
The session was opened by Antony Walker, techUK, who spoke on the findings of Making AI work for Britain. AI tools were identified as having the potential to create huge value for the UK economy, over £300 billion according to some research. He said that boosting the productivity of the working age population will be a key challenge for the UK over the coming years.
As AI and rapid developments in technology transform work, they will transform the types of jobs comprising the labour market with it. Many of the jobs of the future are yet to be invented, and workers will need access to flexible learning opportunities to meet changing demands.
But the adoption is picture is mixed. The use of AI varies across sectors and regions, and businesses of different sizes. And many businesses still need help and encouragement to make their organisations fit for a digital age.
Opening keynote – Kate Bell, TUC
Taking the stage for the second keynote speech, Kate Bell set out four factors holding back the UK from taking advantage of new technology like AI and transforming work for the better.
The first two issues centre on a lack of investment, in new technologies and in people. To take advantage of AI, the UK will need the skills both to build and work with or alongside these technologies. If UK employers matched the EU average investment in training, we’d have an additional £6.5bn spent on skills every year.
Thirdly, Kate highlighted UK labour market regulation. She said that treating workers badly is bad for them, but also bad for business. If AI makes work less human and more intense, she predicts we will see workers increasingly look to careers in different places.
The last point focused on a dearth of institutions to facilitate discussions between businesses, workers and government on how AI might be used at work. The TUC has setup an advisory taskforce, which techUK is a part of, as a step towards filling this gap.
Opening panellist remarks
Each of the panellists made some opening remarks on how AI is driving change in the labour market.
Nina Alag Suri, X0PA AI, highlighted how AI is supporting HR professionals to complete tasks more quickly but also do better work. AI tools can help identify job matches with candidates, looking at a broad range of factors beyond direct experience, and remove human biases from decision-making by screening people in rather than out.
Providing the Experis view, Rahul Kumar built on insights from the HR space, noting that there is still a strong role for humans in interacting with candidates and understanding their needs and circumstances, but also in determining a cultural fit for businesses. The big change from AI will come, though, from the creation of new revenue streams and new jobs. Experis research found that 80% of businesses still struggle to find tech talent, and a majority think new tech like AI will boost their headcount.
From a Microsoft perspective, Hugh Milward raised an example of a doctor having to rifle through huge books to treat patients as somewhere that can show how AI can help people do more human and augment jobs. AI can help surface the right information quickly, enabling personalised care and better use of medical expertise.
According to Andrew Pakes, Prospect Union, many people are distrustful of change. We must take a people perspective on how life and work experiences will change as a result of AI, and look at the importance of investing in places across the country. For training, businesses and people need support and leadership from government, underpinning a new national endeavour around skills.
The approach of a potential Labour government
Speaking on the prospect of a potential incoming Labour government, Kate said the TUC message to Labour is that there needs to be incentives to invest and an effort to overcome board room short-termism. Involving workers can help innovate effectively, but this must be facilitated by institutions that enable discussions to happen.
Hugh added that businesses and individuals need confidence in AI and its decisions, at the consumer level, model level, and infrastructural level to drive adoption and widespread use.
Labour is working towards making an impact in this space, said Andrew. From a Prospect perspective, Andrew argued that adult skills should be moved into an Industrial Strategy as a key driver of productivity, and to ‘bake a bigger cake’ in economic terms to enable more government spending.
Driving skills and talent for AI
As noted in the report, and highlighted by Nina, the future of hiring and the workforce is skills-based. Only 9% of graduates come from STEM and there is a need to demystify AI so everyone is AI and digital competent.
With over 2/3 of the 2030 workforce already in work, Andrew highlighted the need to remove rigidity around the Apprenticeship Levy and the training landscape to reap the rewards of investing time and money.
In the context of a talent shortage, Rahul said that companies not only need to think about reskilling but broadening their hiring beyond experience as tech evolves at pace. He highlighted key skills around analysis, teamwork, collaboration, attitudes to learning, and innovation.
Hugh pointed to a vast array of free training resources provided by many larger companies, and people and businesses need help to navigate the training ecosystem to take advantage of them.
AI and transforming the everyday economy
Organisations will need to listen to industry associations and sector leaders to help them innovate, as they will understand how best to apply tech like AI to their circumstances. Similarly, large providers will need to do the same to provide relevant and productive solutions.
For Kate, thinking about what types of work and tasks people will do across the economy as AI changes work must be considered, and this is best done in the context of a wider Industrial Strategy.
Diverse teams to build effective AI
AI can help drive diversity and help enable it in a number of ways. Nina noted that AI does not look at gender, experience or where you’re from. Instead, it enables HR professionals to look at succession planning and job promotions around the idea of capabilities. She said that X0PA AI is part of the AI Verify scheme in Singapore, where it has opened up its AI to prove it’s unbiased, responsible, ethical, and explainable.
The culture of firms is tied to this challenge, said Hugh. It is not only about a culture that is open to learning, but one that is equitable. Systems and tools need to fairly reflect society and be built by teams that fairly reflect it too.
Supporting displaced workers
As jobs change, this does not always mean wholesale change or rapid job losses. Taking an economy-wide view, Kate said the debate around AI replacing everyone’s jobs obfuscates the conversation and hinders discussions from translating into practical change that delivers for people.
Andrew cautioned the audience about thinking about just graduates, and emphasised a need to focus on diverse pathways into digital jobs across every region, recognising the significance of social mobility.
Incentivising change and building confidence in training and pathways into digital jobs
Nina argued that whilst working with industry to deliver the skills and talent they need will be one part of the puzzle, firms must also endeavour to take in students and train them.
Setting out a starker view, Rahul said whilst incentives are necessary, there is no other option but to boost training and pathways into digital jobs; as there will not be enough people with the right skills to work in these areas if not.
According to Hugh, those firms that are AI leaders will be more successful whilst slow adopters will fail. Fostering learning between large and small organisations is valuable, and there is work we can all do to illustrate the size of the prize for laggards.
The impact of AI on work and society
Whilst there is a need for businesses to have strong data foundations to most effectively use AI, Hugh pointed out that many models can be refined and trained to focus on specialised areas.
When it comes to big challenges, like solving cold fusion, Kate said the conversation must be about how we actually get there. Moving beyond the loop of hype and prediction to delivering practical solutions on significant cooperation challenges.
Preparing people to use AI responsibly
To help people use AI responsibly, Rahul highlighted that organisations are defining acceptable use guidelines including helping to identify risks and common pitfalls. This focus has been driven not just by the top-down, but also the bottom-up as more people look to these tools.
Speaking on the TUC’s own approach to AI, Kate told the audience that the TUC is working on its own collective principles. Although other priorities are ahead of this work, reflecting somewhat the trade-offs around the focus of an organisation’s time, these are expected around the end of this year.
When it comes to change, Andrew pointed out that many people feel they don’t have agency. As with all change there are winners and losers, but the challenge is to manage this change in the case of AI and support people and communities.
Future of Work
The future of work is changing. Technology is powering a growth in flexible work across the economy, whilst emerging technologies such as robotics and AI are set to become common place. techUK believes the UK must consider the implications of digital transformation in the world of work now, equipping people and businesses across the country with the skills and conditions needed to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the 4IR.