The following column was first published in the Evening Standard on 16 March, 2017. To see the original story click here.
When London-based computer scientists created a “thinking computer” last year capable of beating one of the world’s best players of the Chinese board game Go, some unfairly dismissed it as a gimmick. After all, IBM’s supercomputer beat humans at chess 20 years ago.
Yet Go’s complexity means the game has more possible positions than there are atoms in the universe, and to beat a human, the machine used more than sheer computing power — it had to think like a human. This technology, developed by artificial intelligence start-up DeepMind (later acquired by Google), is now starting to have real-world impact.
For example, DeepMind is in talks with National Grid, and the tech firm predicts the same technology could cut the UK’s energy usage by 10 per cent by forecasting demand patterns more accurately.
Artificial intelligence is just one exciting development amongst a vast wave of breakthroughs collectively dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). From driverless cars and 3D printers to Amazon’s drone deliveries and internet-connected household devices, these products and services are revolutionising the way we live and work. To future-proof our economy, Britain must seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the 4IR, not be buffeted by it.
Today we stand at an inflection point. We can move quickly, backing new industries such as robotics and 3D printing to create high-value jobs and generate new wealth — or we can be startled by the pace of change and watch other countries race ahead.
As we develop our former industrial strategy, the Government has a key role to play in helping Britain lead this new Industrial Revolution. In the Seventies, industrial strategy meant the failure of nationalised industries like British Leyland, “picking winners”, poorly targeted Government investment, and sclerotic growth. Today, our approach must be different: we need a smart state, not a big government. Policymakers must create the conditions for innovation to thrive with investment and political backing — setting the direction of travel — but not dictating the detail. Ultimately, businesses and sectors have a responsibility to organise themselves for success too.
This month’s Budget saw the Chancellor get the balance right, with strong political and financial backing for the 4IR through new money for technical education, research and development, and digital infrastructure. He’ll follow that up next Monday by launching the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on the 4IR, which I’ve founded. By connecting politicians to businesses, academia, media and other stakeholders, this new group will harness ideas from across the ideological spectrum — and from beyond Westminster — to give the 4IR the strongest possible political support.
Britain is in a global race for success, and if we don’t act now, we will be left behind. In the future, every sector of our economy will be a tech sector, so only by tacking action now to back innovation, train our workforce and boost our digital infrastructure, can we reap the benefits just as we did in the first industrial revolution 200 years ago.
Alan Mak MP is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution