Whilst the full implications of last week’s election in the UK are still not clear, one certainty that remains is that Britain and the European Union will soon enter the Brexit negotiations. As we go through this period the UK business community stands ready for a new era which will bring with it a whole new set of challenges – and opportunities.
Amongst the many economic, social, technological and geopolitical changes happening in our world today, Britain faces two real and immediate changes which on face value may appear separate but together present a moment in time opportunity for Britain to lead.
Firstly, as we are all aware, in two years’ time Britain will leave the European Union. However, regardless of what happens through all the negotiations, the real opportunity for our country is to forge a new direction, a new place, and a new competitive edge on the global stage. As we look ahead to that time I think the most important question is “what is the vision for Britain and its place within Europe, and beyond, in an increasingly interconnected and digital world?”. We have to think of this as a critical time in our history. The world we live in is rapidly changing and this is our opportunity to redefine our standing globally — strengthening our connections around the world and opening up new opportunities for all Britons to forge a place in our future.
Secondly, I believe we are reaching a tipping point where artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming mainstream. There has been a lot of talk about AI – and indeed you can map back to the early days of AI research more than 50 years ago. However, today’s reality of AI has only become possible with the advent of high performance computing – available over the cloud, advanced analytics and cognitive capabilities, and then most importantly the abundant supply of a new “natural” resource — data, generated in its many varied forms across all disciplines and industries on a scale which exceeds human capacity to digest. In a recent survey sponsored by the CBI and IBM we found that AI now tops the list of technologies that organisations plan to invest in over the next five years. Already 20% of British firms have deployed practical applications of AI – most notably in their customer facing operations but increasingly organisations are looking at AI to help automate and improve a wide number of business processes. This pace of adoption will only continue to accelerate with Forrester Research predicting a greater than 300% increase in investment in AI in 2017 compared with 2016.
In order to make a success of leaving the EU, businesses must remain competitive within their industries, they must start to think about what technologies like AI (amongst others) can do for their business and the impact it will have, from consumers to suppliers. Businesses must constantly rethink what customer’s value most by creating operating models that take advantage of what is now possible for competitive differentiation. The challenge for businesses is how fast and how far to go. They must commit to making changes not only in their business but also in developing the next generation of talent and helping the workforce learn the relevant skills to set in motion much needed progress towards embracing this new technological era. How they do this, will define the businesses who come out on top. Those that do will not only embrace technological change, but the cultural and skill changes necessary to becoming a truly sustainable and smarter business than their competitors.
However, the rise of AI and the related opportunities go beyond just benefiting business per se. Much has been written about the divides in our world and indeed there have been those that advocate the view that the pace of technological change over the last two decades is partly responsible. As the government prepares Britain for a new era it is important that the introduction of AI addresses some of the real issues and perceptions that exist. This will require ever greater collaboration between government, education and business – as well as leaders of key industry bodies – working together to clear the way for innovation and invest in building the right skills for the future (not just deep data science skills but greater analytical capabilities that will augment new and traditional professional skills), establishing transparent data privacy rules – whilst avoiding over regulation that stifles the inherent creativity, and entrepreneurship that is one of this country’s greatest strengths.
One area where there is a need to be clearer is on purpose. AI is often portrayed as man replacing machine – whilst technology has always led to some level of productivity and therefore replacement of traditional roles, AI’s real potential for our country will be fulfilled by embracing the notion of man and machine working together to create a more efficient, safer and fairer world. Some may say this is idealistic – but as technology eras that have gone before us have proven that does not make the opportunity any less real – the only question is are we ready to lead or follow ?
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