Harnessing the power of digital technologies: insights from industry leaders

Industry leaders joined us for a panel discussion at the Hartree Centre, sharing how digital tech has impacted their sectors and their thoughts on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the future.

From left to right: Annemarie Naylor, Peter Waggett, Jason Kingston, Kate Royse, Jonathan Hague.

On 21 March 2024, we launched our new five-year strategy to stakeholders and business leaders. The strategy sets out six key strategic priorities that will build on our achievements so far and continue to deliver significant societal and economic impact for the UK. Following the launch, a panel discussion made up of industry leaders that have worked with the Hartree Centre answered questions about how digital technologies have benefitted their sectors so far, and how technologies like AI might impact their organisations in the future.

The panel comprised of leaders in digital innovation from across the Liverpool City Region:

  • Annemarie Naylor, Director of HealthTech and Innovation Growth, University of Liverpool
  • Peter Waggett, Director of Research, IBM
  • Jason Kingston, Founder and Director, Cube Thinking
  • Kate Royse, Director, Hartree Centre
  • Jonathan Hague, Head of Research & Development, Clean Future Science and Technology, Unilever

The panel began by discussing where they thought the biggest impacts to be seen from AI, data driven, and emerging digital technologies could be in their respective sectors.

From life science to materials, AI is already cutting time and costs in research and development. AI can be used to extract the most relevant academic literature for a given topic and help focus research efforts to the most promising areas – streamlining and optimising research efforts. Digital technologies also allow us to simulate compounds and materials. This allows businesses to fine-tune and optimise production, as well as create and develop novel products. Using digital technologies in this way also means we can better identify multiple candidates for testing that are the likely to be successful without the need for time consuming physical laboratory experiments.

Jonathan Hague, on how AI and data-driven technologies are already transforming materials discovery in the development of cleaning products:

“We’re creating enzymes that are far, far more effective than what you can find in nature. The whole thing starts by designing an enzyme digitally by using data, along with a wealth of known structures, combined machine learning techniques.”

Thinking more about these digital technologies from a business perspective, the panel discussed how these can be used to reduce emissions. To meet net zero targets, there must be a huge reduction in greenhouse gasses being produced, this is normally a slow incremental process for companies that can take several years. Digital technologies can be used to make these leaps and create more environmentally friendly products faster, moving us towards a greener future.

Annemarie then spoke on how digital technologies like AI are also making a massive impact across social care and health. In social care, AI has the potential to alleviate the burden of care by the automation of routine tasks, remote health monitoring devices, and more. Women are disproportionately responsible for social care. This can result in career disruption, reduced earning potential and limited development opportunities. Reducing time spent on, often unpaid social care commitments will free up time allowing women to pursue employment opportunities without compromising caregiving responsibilities. The need to enable women to more easily access and inhabit digital technology spaces in industry and academia was pointed out as currently the space is dominated by men. Bringing women into these spaces would not only provide new perspectives, but also would bring more communities with us on the journey as new digital technologies are developed. In health, AI has been implemented to successfully to assist in breast cancer detection. This not only helps patients access treatment sooner, ultimately improving patient outcomes. It also helps reduce pressure on a short-staffed NHS by making the diagnostic process more efficient.

“It was exciting to hear about the fact that we’re now able to identify breast cancer 12% more accurately than previously possible due to new AI technologies”

Annemarie Naylor

Following on from this, the panel discussed the challenges of adopting digital technologies for organisations in their industries and sectors.

A common theme in the answers from the panel here was that we need to work on building public trust and support for digital technologies. There is, understandably uncertainty around some technologies due to a lack of understanding and previous instances where the transformative impacts of AI have been over promised and have perhaps under delivered. This may significantly delay progress in digital technology adoption if we do not address public distrust. The panel agreed that more needs to be done to engage with the public and businesses, upskilling people and bolstering their understanding and confidence with digital technology to help them make informed decisions on its applications. It was highlighted here that the Hartree Centre has a role to play as a trusted partner to UK industry, guiding them through the digital adoption journey and ensuring they are choosing the most efficient, simple, and cost-effective solution for their business.

“We’re really about people coming to us with problems and us turning those problems into solutions, using the most appropriate technologies, and then ensuring that they actually deliver against their promises.”

Peter Waggett
Peter Waggett speaking on AI challenges.

In the spirit of familiarising AI and explaining concepts around new digital technologies, the panel then discussed how they explained these technologies and their jobs simply, to help bring people with us.

The panel had a few different approaches to this topic, opting to explain things simply and concisely with examples such as comparing the introduction of AI to that of calculators; people were scared that they would become crutches, instead they became helpful tools. This is how new and emerging digital technologies should also be viewed.

“AI is a tool, it is not a replacement for thinking, it complements us.”

Kate Royse

There were also explanations in the form of how they were impacting the world, boosting innovation to be better, faster and more efficient, as well as bringing people with us as the development of digital technologies progresses. Annemarie highlighted that her work engages communities with digital technologies, teaching them how to use it themselves, such as installing their own broadband and Wi-Fi networks and understanding how they function. This illustrates to these communities the importance and capabilities of new digital technologies, fostering trust through understanding and participation. By engaging communities throughout, it encourages more people to learn and work with digital technologies, providing skills that are in demand and will go on to help them thrive in the jobs created in modern society.

“There are a couple of national campaigns centred around getting children interested in computing and computer engineering, these are great stepping stones for them to become interested in digital technologies and aspire to work with them in the future.”

Jason Kingston

The panel then discussed the recent rise in media focus on the ethical use of AI, and the demand for more guidance and regulation in industry and the public sector.

Jonathan Hague pointed out that many businesses, when using AI, fall back on their business principles and safeguards against bad practise. Businesses often build and test with ethics in mind as well as embedding safeguards in their designs, so that there aren’t issues in the future. One example of this would be in AI used for selecting job candidates. Safeguards must be included to prevent bias or unfair judgement based on information that is available online but is irrelevant to the candidate’s ability to do the job. AI solutions must also be rigorously tested before their release and use. Government guidance would help towards the prevention of harmful software being made and broader misuse of digital technology at a national scale.

Lastly, the panel focussed on how this guidance should be made.

Kate discussed the need for appropriate support and engagement from leaders in digital technology to the policymakers who are working to create guidance. Guidance can be complex and overwhelming especially for smaller companies, therefore, it’s important for organisations like the Hartree Centre and IBM to work alongside policymakers in this process as they are already responsible for guiding businesses through adopting digital technology. This would ensure that any future government guidance is clear and addresses the breadth of the digital technology landscape, ensuring guidance can be fully adopted. By working together, partnering across communities, UK Government and industry, we can ensure that trust can be built and maintained towards digital technologies while creating an environment that supports innovation.


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