The majority of UK firms are lagging behind in adopting artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, leading to a widening digital divide, according to new research by the University of Leeds. The research, conducted by the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit), indicates that only 36% of UK employers have invested in AI and machine-learning technologies such as industrial robots, chat bots, smart assistants, and cloud computing over the past five years.
The survey, representative of the national landscape and conducted between November 2021 and June 2022, also revealed that only 10% of the firms that have not invested in AI technologies plan to do so in the next two years.
The study also indicates a looming skills shortage, with 75% of employers reporting difficulties in recruiting individuals with the required digital skills. Despite this, fewer than 10% of employers anticipate making significant investments in digital skills training in the upcoming years. In fact, nearly 60% of employers reported that none of their employees had received formal digital skills training in the past year.
“A mix of hope, speculation, and hype is fueling a narrative that the adoption of new AI-enabled digital technologies will rapidly transform the UK’s labor market, boosting productivity and growth,” said Professor Mark Stuart, Lead Researcher and Pro Dean for Research and Innovation at Leeds University Business School. “Our findings suggest there is a need to focus on a different policy challenge. The workplace AI revolution is not happening quite yet. Policymakers will need to address both low employer investment in digital technologies and low investment in digital skills if the UK economy is to realize the potential benefits of digital transformation.”
The main reasons for investing in AI technology, according to the survey, were to improve efficiency, productivity, and the quality of products and services. Conversely, reasons cited for non-investment included irrelevance to business activity, wider business risks, and the nature of skills demanded.
Interestingly, the study found little evidence to suggest that investing in AI-enabled technology leads to job losses. Instead, firms that adopted digital technologies were more likely to have increased their employment in the five-year period before the survey.
As global economies continue to digitize, and AI accelerates the process, the research underscores the need for a more evidence-driven dialogue on AI and digital skills training. The researchers urge policymakers to base their decisions on these facts as they strive to close the digital skills gap and increase AI adoption in the workplace.