Friday 2 August 2019 6:41 am

Artificial intelligence could solve Britain's productivity puzzle

Clare Barclay is chief operating officer at Microsoft UK.

At a time of technological innovation and low unemployment, why is UK productivity close to 16 per cent behind other advanced economies in the world? 

Experts disagree on the causes of the UK’s “productivity puzzle” but they, the government, and technology companies like ours agree that artificial intelligence (AI) will form a crucial part of the solution. 

Much has been said about AI’s potential to increase business productivity by cutting costs, saving time, and supporting innovation. Accounting firm PwC has predicted that the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) will be up to 10.3 per cent higher in 2030 because of AI. 

Meanwhile, Microsoft research has revealed that organisations already on the AI journey are outperforming those that are not by five per cent on factors like productivity, performance, and business outcomes. 

By taking on mundane tasks, AI frees up time for people to be more productive and adds more value to their roles. What’s more, the growing use of AI in back-office systems – to scan documents or autofill forms – gives employees time to focus on the more “human” requirements of their job, like critical thinking, empathy, and creativity, which leads to potentially greater job satisfaction.

AI has also the potential to help companies adapt their business models to compete more effectively globally. But leaders must act now, because according to our research, four in 10 UK companies don’t think that their business models will exist in five years’ time. 

Act now to identify how AI can boost the bottom line 

Business leaders and employees are enthusiastic about AI’s potential – the majority of leaders (67 per cent) and employees (59 per cent) say that they are open to experimenting with AI to do new things at work. 

However, for positive transformation to truly take place, every organisation requires a clear roadmap for change – one that gives its people the tools and training to understand how, when, and why to incorporate AI into their jobs, and considers the ethical implications of merging human and machine.

UK businesses should act now by: identifying what problems they want AI to solve; determining how ready their organisation is to build, manage, and support AI applications; and developing a manifesto for using the technology responsibly. 

Leaders can then encourage a workplace culture in which employees can experiment with AI solutions, evaluate them, and suggest iterative improvements. 

It’s not what AI can do, but what it should do 

AI must be designed, developed and deployed responsibly to unlock its extraordinary value for good. Microsoft’s data shows that this will positively affect the bottom line, with companies that approach AI ethically outperforming the competition by nine per cent. 

Amid widespread public concern about how personal data is handled, it’s clear that we need an ethical framework for this technology. As Lord Clement-Jones, chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, noted in a Microsoft report: “Today the UK enjoys a position of AI innovation, so as we enter a crucial stage in its development and adoption, the country has a clear opportunity to be a world leader.”

Poor productivity has blighted the UK for too long and AI presents a huge opportunity, when approached in an ethical way, to significantly improve it. The technology’s potential is bigger than most of us can imagine – but success tomorrow requires action today.

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