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Future Decoded 2018: Adopt AI or get left behind, Microsoft warns

Research shows business leaders see artificial intelligence and machine learning as key to enabling them to adapt to market disruption

On the first day of its annual UK conference, Future Decoded, Microsoft unveiled its latest in-depth study covering the risks and opportunities of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI will impact every business, according to Microsoft’s Maximising the AI opportunity report. Businesses that fail to grasp the potential impact of AI are likely to fall behind.

In the introduction to the report, Cindy Rose, CEO, Microsoft UK, said: “Our research reveals that two in five of the UK’s business leaders believe their current business model will cease to exist in five years’ time. However, fewer than half of the UK organisations we spoke to have an AI strategy in place.

“Organisations investing in AI are already significantly outperforming those who are not. But there is a growing gap between the number of employees calling for support in developing the skills to work with AI and the number of organisations actually providing it.”

The study, based on a survey of 1,000 business leaders and 4,000 employees, found that 41% of leaders believe their current models will cease to exist within five years and only 18% of employees are learning new skills to keep up with changes to their work caused by AI.

The research also reported that 51% of businesses do not currently have an AI strategy in place.

Discussing the benefits of artificial intelligence and machine learning, Microsoft UK’s chief operating officer, Clare Barclay, described AI as “the next wave of technology” and said its benefits could drive real value. However, she added: “We heard a lot from customers about confusion and the impact of AI on their business.”

Read more about AI policy and ethics

Microsoft’s research found that organisations that have already adopted an ethical approach to the use of AI are outperforming those that have not done so by 9%.

“Whether you are big or small, AI can underpin your business,” said Barclay. “But the research showed businesses need to address people’s concerns about AI, and the need to balance automation with reskilling staff. 

Barclay believes businesses are being quite thoughtful on ethics, and how it impacts their customers and their staff. “The ethical framework of how any organisation uses AI is pivotal.” 

Mirroring the findings in the House of Lords select committee on artificial intelligence, she said: “There needs to be a framework that provides transparency and ethics for AI. How AI makes decisions will be fundamental to people’s human rights.”

In the report, Microsoft urged business leaders and decision makers in public sector bodies to regard AI technologies as a collective process of continuous learning and improvement.

For the UK to make a success of AI, the report stated this learning exercise should be approached with transparency, excitement, and healthy scepticism, and guided not just by organisational concerns but by social ones too.

“Only then can organisations of all shapes, sizes and sectors build an AI strategy that delivers the right outcomes – for both themselves and the employees, customers and societies they serve," Microsoft said in the report.

Preparing staff

Microsoft’s study found that a third (32%) of leaders admit to being unsure about how to start preparing staff with the skills they need for the future, while, according to Microsoft, business leaders and employees often exhibit very different views on what those skills should be in the first place.

While 47% of leaders believe creativity will be a key skill for the future, nearly half (45%) of employees feel the ability to develop new processes will become more important to their jobs.

“AI has the opportunity to make organisations stronger, not just leaner,” said Barclay. “She said this may involve businesses partnering with trade unions to enable people to reskill. This change in work culture is not something that can occur quickly.

“It takes a long time to change,” he said. She urged business leaders to take action and think about the skills side of AI.

Matt Dyke, founder of AnalogFolk, said: “I think what is very important in the world is that technology has to work for everyone. All too often it can help those people who are more fortunate while creating a barrier for those who don’t have access to it.”

The report concluded: “As AI’s capabilities continue to evolve and expand, the organisations best placed to succeed will be the ones that recognise human plus machine tends to outstrip human or machine.

“That focus on augmentation, not just automation. From building trust to improving productivity, a culture that empowers employees to grow, improve and collaborate with technology rather than compete with it can deliver better outcomes for everyone – and everything – involved.”

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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