Microsoft UK CEO Clare Barclay delivering keynote speech at London Tech Week on Monday 10 June 2024

Pace of AI change ‘breathtaking’, says Microsoft UK CEO

Clare Barclay, CEO, Microsoft UK, gave a keynote speech about AI on Monday 10 June, the opening day of London Tech Week hosted at the cavernous Olympia convention centre near Earls Court.

She outlined the huge impact Generative AI (GenAI) was having on most aspects of our lives, from medicine to education, retailing to public services, and how quickly this fundamental change had come about.

Over the last 12 months, she said, AI has made headlines as it helped organisations across the public and private sectors transform their operations, whether detecting cancer, preparing lessons for teachers, helping students with learning difficulties, reducing fraud in financial services, or enabling retailers to manage their stock and supply chains more efficiently.

“We’ve seen demand for AI grow, creating market opportunity for tech companies and ecosystems across the UK,” she told a packed hall.

The impact of this new technology had been “breathtaking”, she said.

Economic impact

The number of AI-based start-ups had risen significantly over the last 12 months, with the UK now home to a third of all Europe’s AI start-ups and ranking third in the global 2023 AI readiness index, she said.

Panoramic view of the Kensington Olympia exhibition centre during first day of London Tech Week (10 June 2024)

Microsoft is investing £2.5bn in the UK on new AI datacentre infrastructure and digital skills training – the largest ever inward investment in the company’s 40-year history in the UK. Microsoft research forecasts that AI and cloud technologies could add £550bn to UK GDP [gross domestic product] by 2035.

Banging the drum for London, Mayor Sadiq Khan had earlier told the conference that the city was “diverse, dynamic and daring” and that “we’re unashamedly pro-business, pro tech and pro purpose” – sentiments Clare later endorsed.

Return on investment

Companies embracing AI are seeing their investment being rewarded, with every £1 spent on technology and digital skills producing a £5 return in value created, she said, adding that the pace of adoption is remarkable.

When Microsoft-owned LinkedIn surveyed 30,000 people globally across 31 countries for its 2024 Work Trend Index, 75% said they were already using AI at work in some form, and just 46% of these said they’d only started using AI within the last six months.

Such is the demand for these tools, employees are bringing their own AI to work if employers aren’t providing it for them, she pointed out, while people who embrace AI most enthusiastically are proving to be a valuable asset for companies looking to spread adoption throughout their organisations.

New roles, such as prompt engineering, are being created already and there is huge demand for skills training in this area, she said. Consumers, developers, start-ups and customers have been asking “a whole ton of questions” about how they can improve their skills, which has helped Microsoft improve its learning resources.

Exponential growth

Clare invited Mark Chaban, Microsoft General Manager, Customer Success & Innovation, to show the audience some of the latest developments in GenAI technology and AI infrastructure.

Microsoft's Mark Chaban telling the London Tech Week audience about the latest developments in AI, 10.6.24
Microsoft’s Mark Chaban tells the London Tech Week audience about the latest developments in AI

He demonstrated Copilot’s reasoning ability by asking it if the London Eye could take him into space – that would be “ridiculous” the AI chatbot correctly concluded – and showed off Microsoft’s yet-to-be-released text-to-video creation tool, Sora, as well as the publicly available Image Creator powered by DALL.E3.

The rate of compute power – and therefore the rate at which Large and Small Language Models are learning and improving – had grown exponentially, he explained, with the latest computers capable of more than 40 trillion operations a second.

Dawn of a new era

Clare wrapped up her talk by acknowledging the legitimate concerns people have about the potential impact of AI on jobs, but encouraged the audience to think of any job as just a “series of tasks”, with AI giving them the ability to improve efficiency and productivity for each of those tasks.

Employers are rightly concerned about a lack of digital skills in their companies to make the most of these new AI tools, she said, which is why Microsoft has committed to upskilling a million people.

“I don’t know about you, but I think this is one of the most remarkable times for the tech sector,” she concluded.

“We really are on the cusp of the next era, and I can’t wait to see how we shape this era together.”

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