The following column was first published in The Times on Monday 20 March, 2017. To see the original story click here.
Commitments by Google and Apple to build new UK headquarters are not just a reflection of Britain’s status as a world-leading tech hub but a strong vote of confidence in our economic prospects. After meeting the prime minister last month, the Apple CEO, Tim Cook, described his business as a “big believer in the UK”, adding that we’ll be “just fine” after Brexit.
This cutting-edge investment bodes well for Britain as we enter an unprecedented period of economic change driven by disruptive technologies. Dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, this new wave is being propelled by artificial intelligence, mass automation and hyper-connectivity. Breakthroughs in robotics, driverless cars, drones, 3D printing, the Internet of Things and nanotechnology will transform how we live and work.
Now politicians must respond. As the 4IR gathers pace, Britain can — and should — lead by ensuring that political and economic structures are fit for purpose. This month’s budget laid firm foundations, with the chancellor providing £300 million for new academic research, £200 million to expand high-speed broadband and £500 million per year for technical skills. These measures strengthen digital infrastructure, increase the skills of our workforce and boost productivity.
Nonetheless, the fast-paced nature of change means policymakers often struggle to keep up with innovation and its implications. Today’s launch of the new all-party parliamentary group on the 4IR by the chancellor can change that. By connecting politicians to businesses, academia, the media and other stakeholders, this group can become the focal point we need in Westminster to get to grips with the legal, ethical and economic questions that new technologies pose, such as who is liable if a driverless car crashes.
But to turbo-charge Britain’s leadership of the 4IR, policymakers must get behind key new policies.
First, spending on research and development must rise substantially, so we match the best performing OECD economies, which spend around 3 per cent of GDP on R&D. The government has committed to an extra £4.7 billion by 2020-21 — the largest increase since 1979 — but the private sector must step up.
Second, Britain needs a new national institute for robotics and artificial intelligence to bring together expertise on two all-pervasive 4IR disciplines. This would be the centre of the country’s AI ecosystem, combining engagement between government and industry on issues of regulation and policy with a hub for R&D and commercialisation. It would replicate the success of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which enticed Boeing to locate its new parts plant in the city.
Finally, government should carry out a future skills review at the start of each parliament, taking a long-term look at what skills employers will need over the next decade. This would do for skills what the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review already do for defence and public spending.
While ideas and leadership are key to sustaining a competitive edge, policymakers have a vital role too. In the 1970s this meant propping up failing nationalised industries, “picking winners” and sclerotic growth. Today we need a smart state, not big government. Politicians must focus on the conditions for innovation to thrive, setting out the direction of travel but not dictating the detail.
The new all-party group’s aim is to help Westminster get that balance right so Britain can lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution, just as we led the first.
Alan Mak MP is chairman of the all-party group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution