New IBM Data: European businesses have accelerated the adoption of artificial intelligence due to the pandemic

UK slowly increases its adoption of artificial intelligence but lags behind Europe: do UK businesses risk losing out to their more tech-savvy neighbours?

May 13, 2021

4 Min Read

UK slowly increases its adoption of artificial intelligence but lags behind Europe

Artificial intelligence (AI) sits at the very heart of digital transformation; its increasing adoption is fundamentally changing how businesses of all sizes operate and perform.

However, to fully benefit from the technology, organisations need to set aside some common misconceptions and tackle lingering challenges.

To better understand the stumbling blocks, and gain insights into how they can be overcome, IBM commissioned an in-depth, study “Global AI Adoption Index 2021” into attitudes about AI and its use. The results are highly instructive; they illustrate just how far AI has come in a few short years and how far it still has to go before becoming a fully accepted business tool.

Across Europe the study, conducted by Morning Consult, surveyed 500 senior decision makers each from UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than a third (36 percent) reported that their companies have accelerated their rollout of AI as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, just 27 percent of UK IT professionals report their company has accelerated the rollout of AI in response to the virus.

This sort of disparity risks many UK enterprises losing out to their more tech-savvy competitors, at home and abroad, during the bourgeoning post-pandemic economic recovery. Worse still, 38 percent of UK respondents state their employer has made no change to their adoption of the technology as a response to the global health crisis, compared with a European average of 33 percent. Spain, by contrast, leads with 45 percent of respondents reporting a Covid-19 related acceleration of AI use, with just 26 percent stating no difference.

The UK’s relatively slow pick-up is despite there being widespread acceptance that AI can enhance competitiveness and streamline productivity through the use of automation tools. In fact, automating processes to empower higher value work was the single biggest reason for the adoption of AI across Europe – picked by 43 percent of the study group. Perhaps the business case for automation is yet to resonate on these shores, with just 35 percent of UK respondents selecting it as a reason to invest in AI.

Overcoming barriers to AI adoption

So, what is holding companies back from taking the plunge? The answer comes in four parts: a lack of related skills, the challenges of data complexity, issues around trust, and the perceived complexity of infusing AI throughout a business. For example, when asked how their company plans to invest in AI adoption over the next 12-months, 33 percent of IT professionals across European organisations said in reskilling and workforce development. However, in Spain, which leads the way in its AI response to Covid-19, that figure drops to the continent’s lowest, just 20 percent, suggesting that the country is already well on the way to obtaining the prerequisite competences. The UK, on the other hand, tops with the list at 40 percent, possibly an acknowledgement of the need to catch up.

The increasing complexity of data is another significant roadblock for widespread adoption. However, this is one area the UK appears to have an advantage, with 24 percent identifying increasing data complexity and the existence of siloed data as barriers to adoption, compared to 29 percent of European respondents.

The proliferation of data across the enterprise has resulted in six in ten UK IT professionals drawing from more than 20 different data sources to inform their AI; reducing these data complexities will be vital to make AI more accessible. This need for improved accessibility is confirmed by a resounding 82 percent of UK IT pros who believe it is preferable to run AI projects wherever the data resides, with a similar proportion of their European counterparts sharing this view.

Trust in AI is a major hurdle. Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of European IT professionals think it is critically or very important to their business that they can trust the AI’s output to be fair, safe and reliable. The UK actually beats that figure at 76 percent highlighting the significance of trust to UK business.

Well over a third (38 percent) of European IT professionals think infusing AI throughout their business is the most difficult part of their organisations’ AI journey. The UK once again tops the average at 40 percent, perhaps as a result of the need to reskill its workforce.

What is clear, however, is that as more organisations move beyond experimentation to full-scale AI projects, they are recognising there’s more to successful implementations than simply having the right datasets, AI models and scalability. There is also a need to surmount those three hurdles. That’s why IBM has developed an ethical framework as part of its AI offer; we not only provide the tools, we explain how they work and support their implementation. This combination of products, policy and services has enabled us to deliver trusted AI solutions across a wide variety of sectors.

Jean-Philippe Desbiolles is Vice-President for Cognitive Solutions at IBM Watson Group

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