Sunday 12th March 2017
Alan Mak, Conservative MP for Havant
This January, world leaders gathered in Davos to hear about how radical scientific breakthroughs will impact every aspect of our lives.
Those new disruptive technologies, dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), are characterised by their combination of artificial intelligence, hyper-connectivity and mass-automation. That covers everything from driverless car, 3D printers and nanotechnology to smart sensors in fridges which will let you know when the milk has gone off, automatically adding a fresh pint to your shopping list.
The topic was the top item on the agenda this year of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, and global policymakers were warned to prepare now or face job losses and an economic slowdown in the future.
Since that meeting, and since last year’s Forum which also focused on the 4IR, we have seen a steady stream of announcements relating to advancements in the field of 4IR technology – many of them British.
According to the journal Science, one of the top ten breakthroughs of 2016 was when a team from the London-based Google DeepMind developed a computer which beat a human grandmaster in the complex ancient game of Go. That demonstration of machine learning has practical uses, especially as we develop driverless technology; for instance, Amazon’s drone programme, which is being developed in the UK, recently made its first tentative steps towards airmail deliveries by serving its first customer.
But we are merely at the tip of the iceberg, warned Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF. “These technologies have only begun to show their full potential; in 2017, we will increasingly see what used to be science fiction become reality”, he wrote ahead of this year’s meeting, which again focused on preparing for the 4IR.
The avalanche of new developments means that politicians need to stay ahead of the curve, fostering the British spirit of innovation which has existed here since James Watt invented the steam engine in the 19th century.
Importantly, our Government has moved quickly to try and harness the huge potential of the 4IR, with Chancellor Philip Hammond saying it is “once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to cement its role as a leader in tech innovation.” That has been followed by the exciting publication of a modern Industrial Strategy.
Our fast-moving approach is already paying dividends, with the recent news that flagship tech firms such as Snapchat and Apple were expanding their international operations in this country. Our combination of a highly skilled workforce, as well as the most competitive corporation tax in the G20, is proving to be an irresistible draw.
A number of other policies, including the Catapult network of regional innovation centres, have also been a great success. Those physical centres allow the very best UK businesses, scientists and engineers to work side by side, transforming high potential ideas into new products and services. We need more of them across the country, including at least one in every strategic region of the UK.
Similarly, Innovate UK, the government’s innovation arm, can also be given a stronger role to help foster more 4IR businesses. It is already doing an excellent job, helping to create 55,000 jobs since its launch in 2007.
Better infrastructure will also help new firms to flourish, especially in areas where traditional manufacturing is in decline. The government has already committed to “targeted public investment in high value infrastructure”, and is spending £13 billion on transport improvements, including on high-speed trains as well as promising that 95 per cent of the country will have super-fast broadband by 2017.
We have more work to do in order to make Britain the capital of the new 4IR world, but we do have a number of strategic advantages, including a trusted legal system, an advantageous time zone, the English language, highly respected universities and access to finance which put us in a strong position.
Britain is in an exciting position to shape its own future in a post-Brexit environment and has a long history in adopting a pro-innovation approach to business. From farming mechanisation and domestic labour-saving devices to the creation of the internet and the City’s Big Bang, we did not allow fears about the future to stunt our economic and social progress.
With our strong track record so far of pro-innovation policies, we are now in poll position to lead the world in developing 4IR technologies. But we must not now allow fear of change to stifle our access to potential unrivalled growth.