The UK is lagging well behind other developed countries in its quest to refocus the economy on new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, augmented/virtual reality, and high-performance technologies, says a report.
The new survey from Dell EMC finds that, as the UK looks to beat its own path away from the world’s biggest trading bloc, the EU, it is trailing a long way behind Europe in both current and planned investments in most high-tech applications.
For example, only 16 percent of UK businesses are investing in advanced AI, behind France (31 percent), Germany (26 percent), Italy (22 percent), and the Netherlands (17 percent), it says.
• Mayor of London Sadiq Khan today launched a new programme to attract AI companies and programmes to the capital. Read our separate report here.
Compared with the global average, the UK is also behind its competitors on current investments in: IoT technologies (world 46 percent, UK 34 percent); application acceleration (world 39 percent, UK 30 percent); converged infrastructures (world 39 percent, UK 34 percent); high-performance computing (world 36 percent, UK 29 percent); and virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR, world 28 percent, UK 23 percent).
The UK surpasses the global average in just two areas, according to Dell; analytics, big data, and data processing (world 50 percent, UK 53 percent) and hybrid cloud (Global 49 percent, UK 50 percent).
The report, Realizing 2030: A Divided Vision of the Future, is based on a survey of 3,800 business leaders across Europe, America, and Asia, and aims to help businesses understand what steps they need to take in order to remain competitive in their markets.
“The results demonstrate that UK businesses are placing less of a focus on investing in sophisticated technologies than not only their European counterparts, but also many other global competitors,” said Dayne Turbitt, senior VP Enterprise, UK & Ireland, at Dell EMC.
“At a time when the UK is looking to make its own path outside of the EU, there has to be a greater investment in technologies that have the potential to deliver a significant competitive advantage.”
Where are the robots?
The Dell survey is merely the latest credible, evidence-backed report to cast serious doubt on the UK’s claims to be leading the world in areas such as AI and the IoT.
For example, earlier this year a report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) found that South Korea is easily the most automated nation on Earth.
Despite its expertise across many areas of robotics and AI, the UK lags behind other developed economies in 22nd place, with a robot density of just 71 (robots per 10,000 human workers). That’s below the global average of 74, and well behind Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Spain, and France, among many others.
The UK is the only G7 nation with a robot density below the global average. Even Belgium is automating faster than the UK, and is ninth in the global league.
The only good news from the IFR is that the UK is still one place above China. However, China has a human population of well over one billion people, and a strategy to push into the automation top 10 by 2020. It is already automating faster than any other country.
In 2016 alone, China bought 66,000 industrial robots for its manufacturing sector. With each machine capable of doing the equivalent work of 15 or more full-time workers, this means that China has effectively automated one million factory jobs in one year for the cost of those robots.
Meanwhile, Japan is investing £161 billion by 2020 to build what it calls a “super-smart society”. By contrast, the UK is investing just £200-300 million in the same timeframe – a sum that is 500 to 800 times smaller than Japan’s.
And there’s worse news for Britain: 85 per cent of that investment comes directly from the EU, according to Parliament’s own figures (quoted in the small print of the RSA’s Age of Automation report last year).
The IFR had this to say of the UK’s plight: “General industry is highly in need of necessary investment in order to modernise and increase productivity. The low robot density rate is indicative of this fact.
“Despite the decision to leave the EU, there are currently many suggested investment plans for capacity expansion and modernisation of foreign and local automotive companies. However, it is not evident whether companies will hold back investments due to uncertainties concerning customs duties.”
Low business confidence
One possible explanation for the apparent reluctance to date of UK businesses to adopt new technologies is uncertainty about the future, said Dell.
Two-thirds of UK respondents to its survey said they were not sure what the next 10-15 years will look like for their industry, let alone for their employees. This was the highest result among the respondents’ countries, with only Japan – where investments are massively higher – experiencing the same levels of doubt.
However, there are signs of hope. Despite the current lack of investment from the UK, there is a marked increase in the number of businesses planning on investing over the next five years.
For example, while only 29 percent of UK businesses are currently investing in high-performance computing, 49 percent plan to over the next five years. The results are more hopeful than the figures for France (41 percent) and Italy (45 percent), but still a long way behind the Netherlands (53 percent), India (56 percent),Germany (59 percent), and Mexico (62 percent).
“Businesses in the UK need to understand how their competitors in other countries plan to adopt more sophisticated technologies to deliver greater business performance. Home to some great start-ups and innovative technologies, the UK is ideally placed to spearhead the adoption,” concludes the report.
Internet of Business says
The report reveals a worrying mismatch between policy and results in the UK.
However, in recent months the UK has taken a number of bold steps in terms of its new technology policy. The new Industrial Strategy puts technologies such as robotics, AI, and autonomous systems at the centre of the UK’s future vision – and among the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ that are critical for future economic prosperity.
Whitehall has also carried out strategic reviews in AI, robotics, skills, and other areas, and created new deals between government and industry to spearhead their adoption. And only last month, the government announced the opening of a dedicated Office for AI.
All of these are positive, forward-looking moves.
Yet it is hard to avoid the impression that the UK is playing catchup, not leading from the front, while central investment in these technologies is nowhere near the levels that are needed on the world stage to back vision with concerted action.
It may be that the UK is so preoccupied with what it doesn’t want – membership of the world’s biggest trading bloc – that it has forgotten to make what it does want happen by investing in it.
Meanwhile – and despite the undoubted vision and expertise of its technology advisors – responsibility for all of this change rests with a department with the most unmanageable brief in modern politics: the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and (as BBC1 satire W1A famously put it) “for some reason also Sport”.
This is akin to calling it “the Department for Everything This Government Doesn’t Take Seriously”. It’s time for that Department to broken up into its constituent briefs, so that each area gets the attention and time it deserves – and, demonstrably, needs.