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Why the UK’s backward stance is a disaster for tech


Chris Middleton expresses a personal view on the PR problem created by the UK’s double-headed approach to technology

For the past three years, the UK has had the bare bones of a new Industrial Strategy that is forward-looking, and imaginative, and sees technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, digital health, and renewable energy sources as critical to economic prosperity.

These technologies will help the UK meet the ‘grand challenges’ of the future, says the government – clean growth, caring for an ageing society, future mobility, and forging a role for AI in a data-driven society. Those concepts are core to the Industrial Strategy and its associated missions.

One problem facing the UK, however, is that this strong message – which could inform and inspire the populace, galvanise business, and impress overseas investors, partners, and researchers – has been largely drowned out by the political infighting of Brexit. As the Chair of a Westminster eForum event observed earlier this year, both the country and Parliament are “impaled” on the issue.

That hasn’t stopped some ambitious programmes from taking place. Investments from UK Research & Innovation – via Innovate UK and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund – have bet millions of pounds on British startups and innovators, alongside the new Sector Deals that combine public funds with private sector backing.

Meanwhile, via Innovate UK’s and the Knowledge Transfer Network’s Expert Missions, the UK has been reaching out to countries such as the US, China, Japan, Canada, and South Korea to open the door to British startups, academics, and blue chips. The programme puts technologies such as robotics, AI, digital health, and quantum computing at its core.

On 9 September, a new report, Automation and the Future of Work was put to the government, a draft document that seeks explanations for why UK productivity has been flatlining since 2008-09. It proposes the operational and strategic opportunities presented by robotics and artificial intelligence as a partial remedy.

It explains that the problem is not that the UK has too many robots in the workplace – despite the media’s obsession with job-taking machines – but that it has too few. In 2015, the UK had just 10 robots for every million hours worked, compared with 167 in Japan. By 2017, we represented just 0.6 per cent of industrial robotics shipments worldwide.

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the UK is the only G7 economy with a below-average robot density: 71 robots per 10,000 workers, against a global average of 74 (a more recent study suggests the global average is 85).

By contrast, South Korea has 631 – and, it’s worth noting, a human unemployment rate of just 3.1%. Japan has nearly 300,000 industrial robots (and 23 percent of all the world’s robots) and an even lower unemployment rate: of 2.4 percent. The UK is a mere 22nd in the world automation league, and this is a major reason for its lack of productivity growth.

The report adds that, despite its many promises and endorsements, the government needs to start backing its vision with concerted action and bigger investments to match the ambitions of China, Japan, and the US in these fields. Yet despite the report’s strong wording and resolute aim, it was presented on the same day that Parliament was prorogued, meaning that, once again, a powerful message was lost amid the uproar of Brexit.

Of course, Leavers and political commentators would maintain that these problems would be solved by simply enacting Brexit and shifting focus back to the domestic and international agendas. But that isn’t the case. For one thing, roughly 80 per cent of the UK’s investment in robotics and AI in recent years has come from the EU. For another, the robotics report (commissioned by the government itself) explains that immigration and Europe remain critical to the UK’s ambitions in this field.

“Government’s immigration policy should provide certainty and ensure that as we leave the EU, we can recruit and retain researchers from around the world to support the sector, including where they earn below the £30,000 threshold recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee.

“We recommend that the government seeks to ensure that the UK has at least associate membership of EU research projects and can effectively collaborate with neighbouring states. The Government should seek to ensure that our future relationship with the EU and future deals with the rest of the world support new collaboration between institutions, including the free flow of researchers and academics.”

In other words, this story will run and run – and keep running for years into the future.

But there is another problem facing the UK, one that may be tougher to solve: it’s a generational issue rooted in the country’s political institutions.

Whatever your party’s political views may be, and whatever your views on Europe, Leave, or Remain, one thing is becoming increasingly obvious. The very people who are leading the charge out of Europe consistently present themselves as Luddites, rather than as forward-thinkers who are presenting a bold, technology-backed vision of the future to the nation’s youth.

Take the words of the Prime Minister himself at the UN this month – a speech that took place just before he was forced to return to the UK and reopen Parliament. “AI – what will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an ageing population? Or pink-eyed Terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?

“What will synthetic biology stand for – restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues, like some fantastic hangover cure? Or will it bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?

“In the future, voice connectivity will be in every room and almost every object: your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese.

“A future Alexa will pretend to take orders. But this Alexa will be watching you, clucking her tongue and stamping her foot.

“You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor – even your personal trainer – but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google.”

He concluded his speech by – like the Victoriana-obsessed Jacob Rees-Mogg before him – wearing his classical education on his sleeve, rather than a bold vision of the future.

“When Prometheus brought fire to mankind. In a tube of fennel, as you may remember, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a Tartarean crag while his liver was pecked out by an eagle. And every time his liver regrew the eagle came back and pecked it again. And this went on forever – a bit like the experience of Brexit in the UK if some of our parliamentarians had their way.”

This is precisely the wrong note to hit if Britain is to have a global future outside of the EU, striking new deals and leading the way into a more modern economy.

Why? This is the voice of a Luddite and a reactionary, not a voice that entrepreneurs, business leaders, scientists, technologists, or anyone under the age of 50 want to hear. Where is the vision to inspire the nation’s young people? (This is one reason for the rise of the youth-led anti-climate-change movement: young people are crying out for leaders who speak their language – or who even notice that they exist.)

The voice that Johnson presented to the world on his UN platform was more concerned with its own wit, making jokes about drunkenness, dominant women, cheese, and mythology – more a vision of domestic life with Boris Johnson, in fact, than of Britain standing proud in the world. This was a self-conscious, backwards-looking, traditional, gluttonous, joker’s voice, playing to the gallery of angry middle England.

It’s time for a reality check. The UK can’t have both a modern Industrial strategy with a global stance, and this kind of public persona on the world stage. Not for any party political reasons (the leaders of other political parties are often seen as Luddites too), but because one comprehensively undermines the other. It’s akin to taking a cricket bat to the UK’s industrial policy – the one written by this government.

The more our political representatives, whichever party they front, use this kind of tone, the more they make it impossible for the nation to succeed in the modern world and restore global confidence in its vision and economy. It’s time to ask: Who is the UK in 2019: Downton Abbey in Downturn Valley? Or a modern industrial, forward-looking country with a bold vision of the future?

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