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Future Decoded: How AI plus automation adds up to transformative change

Robotic process automation combined with artificial intelligence is a recipe for digital transformation, and new research suggests businesses that use AI are gaining a competitive advantage

Over the last few weeks, Computer Weekly has looked at how a number of organisations are combining automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver measurable business benefits.

During the Microsoft Future Decoded event in London, the use of Microsoft tools, and Thoughtonomy’s intelligent automation platform at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, were used to demonstrate how AI and automation can combine to deliver benefits in the public sector.

In logistics, Canandian transportation company Polaris Transportation is using AI and automation in a project to streamline the handling of scanned-in customs paperwork, enabling it to reduce many hours of manual work. The company used the WorkFusion intelligent automation platform to scan and “read” customs paperwork associated with cross-border shipping documents.

According to Cindy Rose, CEO of Microsoft UK, more advanced organisations are accelerating their use of AI, which has enabled them to see its benefits on their bottom line. She said the use of AI in these organisations has allowed them to drive forward AI-led digital transformation, such as fostering a culture of active participation among employees and establishing principles to ensure they are using technology in an ethical and responsible way.

Introducing Microsoft’s Accelerating competitive advantage with AI report, Rose noted that projects are still very much in pilot and proof-of-concept stages. “The challenge now is to move beyond tinkering, break out of the sandbox and harness the power of this technology at scale,” she said.

The study, based on a survey of 5,000 UK businesses, reported that more than half (56%) were doing something with AI, and only 34% said they were not using AI at all.

However, Microsoft found that many UK leaders lack an understanding of how AI can be used in a fair, responsible and effective way in their businesses. Speaking to Computer Weekly about the findings, Microsoft UK’s chief operating officer, Clare Barclay, said: “The pace of change makes it a challenge for organisations to prioritise AI initiatives, but every company will become an AI company.”

The report found that advanced AI organisations tend to have a strong data strategy – and the tools and capabilities to deliver it. Microsoft’s research found that 43% of business leaders agree that preparing usable data represents their biggest challenge to scaling AI.  It also found that analytics and big data technologies currently top the list of AI applications being used by UK businesses.

Microsoft said it found that the need for companies to get their data house in order is true across all sectors, with experts from the fields of finance, healthcare, retail and manufacturing united in seeing it as a critical component of any AI scaling plan.

According to Barclay, any successful implementation of AI requires a fundamental rethink of business strategy, and successful projects must be underpinned by clean data. “CIOs will need to work in a world where they have to keep the basic stuff running and find new ways to innovate,” she said.

Read more about intelligent automation

  • RPA is no longer comprised of simple chatbots or repetitive programmed tasks. Enterprises are looking at RPA to move up the ladder of cognitive automation.
  • Intelligent automation and IoT data work together to optimise information-intensive processes. Kofax’s Chris Huff says these two pieces are key to creating a better customer experience.

The need for strong data skills is reflected in a separate study, Harnessing the power of AI,  from global recruiter Robert Walters and market analysis experts Vacancy Soft. This report found that the uptake of AI across multiple industries is creating “next generation” jobs, defined as having data skillsets at their core.

In the report, Robert Walters noted: “We are seeing retail, professional services and technology industries strive to develop digital products and services that are digitally engaging, secure and instantaneous for the customer – leading to huge waves of recruitment of professionals who are skilled in implementing, monitoring and gaining the desired output from facial recognition, checkout-free retail and computer vision, among other automation technologies.”

The study found that vacancies for general data professionals have increased by 79.5% since 2015, with key areas of growth including data scientists and engineers. 

IT professionals dedicated to data management appear to be the fastest-growing area within large or global organisations, with volumes increasing tenfold in three years – and a 160% increase in vacancies since 2015.

The emergence of data scientist as a mainstream profession has led to job vacancies for this role increasing by 110% year on year. The same trend can be seen with data engineers, averaging 86% year-on-year job growth, according to Robert Walters.

Ollie Sexton, principal at Robert Walters, said: “As businesses become ever more reliant on AI, there is increasing pressure on the processes of data capture and integration. Our job force cannot afford not to get to grips with data and digitisation. Now is the perfect time to start honing UK talent for the next generation of AI-influenced jobs.”

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