Feature: Why Britain must use AI to spark a new productivity boom

By Johan De Mulder

SAP S/4HANA's Darren Roos on why AI matters to UK businesses.

When the government releases a 78-page report on how to grow the UK’s artificial intelligence (AI) industry, you can bet this technology is about to have its day. 

The MPs behind this independent review certainly seem to think so. 

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley suggested AI has "the potential to improve our everyday lives", while Business Secretary Greg Clark praised the "huge social and economic benefits its use can bring".

More than that: they want to make Britain the world leader in AI and add £630bn to the UK economy. 

It’s an ambitious vision, and one I absolutely welcome. With UK productivity having remained largely stagnant since the 2008 financial crisis, we need to start innovating in areas like AI to create bold new ways of working. 

But to make this work we need more than government reports. The only way to fully realise the potential of this technology is through a joint effort between business, academia and government. 

Why AI matters to UK business
The current pace of technological change is incredible. A decade ago smartphones were only just beginning to take off – now we use them more than desktop computers. Entering an intelligent virtual world is no longer the preserve of science fiction. We generate more data in a day than we used to produce in a decade.

And the fact we’re even talking about AI in the context of everyday business use is incredible when you consider where it was even five short years ago – it’s jumped from something people talk about at conferences to a serious contender for investment. 

But as technology transforms the world around us, customer expectations change with it. In PwC’s latest Global Operations Survey 63% of operations leaders said understanding what customers value is a challenge. 

The truth is, no matter how many brilliant people you employ, the human mind alone can’t even begin to keep up with the speed at which things are moving. 

That’s where AI can really make a difference. By making connections much more quickly than we can, it can empower us to learn and accomplish things at a fraction of the speed we previously could – literally making the impossible achievable. 

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Some of the most forward-thinking companies on the planet have already realised this and taken steps to make AI a fundamental part of the way they operate. 

Earlier this year Google announced it was switching from ‘mobile-first’ to ‘AI-first’ – a major conceptual shift for the brand, with CEO Sundar Pichai suggesting advanced AI functions like instant language translation could be available within a few years. 

But the real value of AI for businesses lies in its power to make sense of data in a way humans alone will never manage. And as we’ve seen in the past few years, data – or more specifically how you manage and apply it – is the most effective way to gain the edge over your competitors. 

The Economist recently went as far as to say data is giving rise to a whole new economy, suggesting it is as important to this century as oil was to the last, creating new infrastructure, new businesses, new monopolies and new politics. 

If data really is going to shape the world in the coming decades, those that can make sense of it now could be setting themselves up for a very bright future indeed. It’s also worth noting that while AI can absolutely help you reduce operational costs by automating manual tasks, this isn’t about replacing people with artificial minds – Gartner predicts AI will be a ‘net job creator’ in the long run.  

Technology can raise the limit of what your employees can collectively achieve. And you do that by freeing them from repetitive tasks and enabling them to focus on things that bring more value to them and your business. 

Turning talk into action
The government’s report focuses on four key areas: 
•    Developing AI skills
•    Increasing AI uptake
•    Improving data use and availability
•    Building on AI research

All these points are music to my ears, and if the above list quickly comes to fruition I’m confident the UK will have a good chance of leading the way globally on this technology. 

Reading through the report, words and phrases like ‘carefully considered’, ‘discussions’ and ‘potential deal’ do concern me. 

I hope the promising content that came out of this much-needed review will turn into the kind of action the UK economy needs. Not next year or next month, but now. Otherwise Britain risks being left behind as other developed nations race ahead with innovation. And now more than ever we need to secure and increase the UK’s competitiveness on the global stage. 

At SAP we’ve already taken action, by building a truly intelligent enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution in the cloud. Using machine learning or AI, we can deliver predictive insights and automate processes across a business, helping organisations free up their employees to focus on innovation and growth in a competitive environment. This kind of automation is particularly vital for the finance function, bringing them closer to ‘lights-out’ operations, and allowing them to focus on strategic growth for their organisations. 

AI or machine learning has the potential to directly support the success and growth of UK businesses. The future of our economy depends on us getting this right and the time to embrace it is now.


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