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Is the workplace AI revolution under way? This study suggests the answer is 'not yet'

Only 36% of UK employers have so far invested in AI and machine-learning technologies, according to a new survey
Only 36% of UK employers have so far invested in AI and machine-learning technologies, according to a new survey Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Luke Hurst
Published on Updated
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The popularity of generative AI tools has led to predictions that the world of work is about to be turned on its head - or is it?

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The hype around artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential transformation of the world of work has been at a fever pitch throughout 2023 so far.

But while AI has been steadily adopted by companies within different industries over the last few decades, a new survey suggests the predicted AI revolution hasn’t yet started in the workplace.

In findings released on Tuesday, researchers found only around a third of businesses in the UK have so far invested in AI and machine-learning technologies.

“A mix of hope, speculation, and hype is fuelling a runaway narrative that the adoption of new AI-enabled digital technologies will rapidly transform the UK’s labour market, boosting productivity and growth,” said Professor Mark Stuart, Pro Dean for Research and Innovation at Leeds University Business School, who was the lead researcher for the study.

“These hopes are often accompanied by fears about the consequences for jobs and even of existential risk,” he added.

“However, 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 realise the potential benefits of digital transformation”.

The survey was carried out between November 2021 and June 2022, and since then generative AI tools such as ChatGPT and Midjourney have been adopted by millions of users around the world. A second round of the survey is now underway.

Low investment in new technology and digital skills

Just 36 per cent of UK employers have so far invested in AI and machine-learning, the survey reveals. Of those that hadn’t invested yet, only 10 per cent planned to do so in the next two years.

The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit) survey, led by researchers from the Universities of Leeds, Sussex, and Cambridge, points to a growing skills problem in the UK, according to the study’s authors.

Less than 10 per cent of employers surveyed felt they would need to make an investment in digital skills training in the years to come, despite around three-quarters of them finding recruitment a particular challenge.

Nearly 60 per cent of employers said none of their employees had received formal digital skills training in the past year.

“At a time when AI is shifting digitalisation into a higher gear, it is important to move beyond the hype and have a debate that is driven by evidence rather than fear and anecdote,” said Stijn Broecke, Senior Economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The researchers warn the UK is at risk of seeing a growing divide between organisations that have invested in new AI-enabled tech, and those that haven’t.

Of those that have invested in AI-enabled technology, such as industrial robots, chatbots, smart assistants, and cloud computing, the main reasons for doing so were to improve efficiency, productivity, and product and service quality.

For those that hadn’t invested in the tech, the key reasons for that were it being irrelevant to business activity, risks, and the nature of the skills needed amongst workers.

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Which types of companies are investing in AI?

The researchers found that the size of an organisation was a big factor in whether it had invested in AI technology.

Around 50 per cent of firms with more than 100 employees were classed as “digital adopters,” as opposed to one in three at firms with fewer than 50 employees.

There were correlations around industries too. Around two-thirds of employers in public administration and information and communication had invested in digital technologies, while only 22 per cent of those in accommodation and food service and 30 per cent in education had invested.

A recent paper published in the International Journal of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Technology Management found that AI adoption is associated with higher revenue growth for companies - but only at high levels of adoption.

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At lower levels of adoption, the researchers did not find performance benefits.

“We also find that the positive relationship between higher levels of AI adoption and revenue growth is significant at firms that invest in complementary technologies, such as database systems and cloud computing,” the authors stated.

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