Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.” These were the stirring words President Kennedy used to persuade the American people of the benefits of the Apollo programme in the wake of being caught off guard by the Soviet Union putting the first satellite and man in space.
But to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon, the Americans needed a radical new organisation that would be a catalyst for new ideas and bring together the country’s brightest minds. Founded in 1958, America’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) – DARPA as it’s now known; “D” added for Defence – not only helped deliver the Moon Landings but is also credited with innovations including an early version of the internet, GPS and driverless cars. By launching ARPA, the United States were determined that in the future they would be the “initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises”.
As Britain leaves the EU and forges a new role for itself in the world, this is the right time for us to be bold in every field. In particular, Brexit gives Britain the opportunity (and the impetus) to establish ourselves as a world leader in the new advanced technologies of the future, from robotics and artificial intelligence to clean energy and quantum computing. These Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies will enable our entrepreneurs to launch new businesses and create new jobs across the whole country. As new sources of employment, wealth and innovation, they have the potential to re-industrialise parts of our country where traditional industries have declined, raising living standards and our national productivity.
Key to seizing this opportunity and fulfilling Britain’s potential is the creation of a “new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government” promised in our last election manifesto. Media reports suggest the agency could be modelled on the American ARPA, the organisation that helped deliver those moon landings 50 years ago.
Properly funded and focused, an ARPA-style British innovation and research agency would do the same for our strategic interests too – and put us on the front foot. By turbo-charging our own science and technology capabilities as we deliver Brexit, we can innovate, invent and invest our way to the head of the pack when it comes to leading the 4IR.
We would build on our strong record of innovation and discovery over the centuries. It was in Britain that the First Industrial Revolution took off in the 18th century. Our country gave the world penicillin, the World Wide Web; and unravelled the structure of DNA. Cambridge alone has produced more Nobel Laureates than any country in the world except America – and more than France, Japan and China combined. In fact, Cambridge’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology has secured 12 Nobel Prizes on its own.
It would be tempting for the British ARPA to spread itself widely and thinly, diversifying across a range of technologies and disciplines, in the hope of securing a few successes from backing many hundreds of scientific teams, investments and projects. This would be the wrong approach.
Instead, the British ARPA should focus its efforts on the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s technologies – the most impactful and transformative technologies that are likely to create whole new industries (and millions of jobs), apply across a wide range of economic sectors, and where our country can develop a strong competitive advantage or a commanding scientific lead. The key technologies that it should focus on include:
- Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Both these technologies will become all-pervasive across most sectors of the economy in the coming decade, from obvious applications such as in manufacturing processes to newer fields such as fashion and retail. Machines are often seen as competitors to human workers, but this need not be the case. For example, over the last 25 years, the Siemens factory in Amberg, Germany has been transformed into a “smart factory” with almost 75 per cent automation. This has produced an almost 1000% increase in productivity – yet the human workforce has remained the same size. Establishing a new National Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the British ARPA would focus the efforts of industry, investors, academia and government on the two most impactful, cross-sector, enabling technologies of the 4IR. Britain must lead the world in these two areas.
- Life Sciences: Personalisation will be the big theme of the next decade, in terms of medicines, vaccines, medical devices and wearable technologies. Patients and consumers will no longer want a “one size fits all” medicine or vaccine, but drugs designed for their unique physiology. The growth in wearable consumer technologies and diagnostic devices like smartwatches which monitor and record health data represents the biggest opportunity to develop new drugs and devices and bring them to market, each tailored to individual patients. With a life science sector already worth £70billion, the UK has a golden opportunity to be at the forefront of these developments. A British ARPA would continue to channel funding and ideas to ensure we remain a world leader.
- Clean energy & fusion: Last May, the UK went two weeks without burning any coal for electricity – the longest coal-free stretch since the first coal-fired power station came online in 1882. 2019 itself was the first year since the First Industrial Revolution that fossil fuels generated less than half of our total electricity – a proud achievement for our Conservative Government. Britain’s clean energy trend is moving in the right direction, but the biggest prize this decade is getting fusion right. Fusion aims to copy the process which powers the Sun to deliver a new carbon-free source of clean energy. Just a 30-minute drive apart, the Government’s Atomic Energy Authority at its Culham facility in Oxfordshire is competing with First Light Fusion, the leading privately-backed innovator, to turn this promising energy source into reality. British ARPA could work with, and help, them both.
- Space: The UK’s space industry is worth around £15bn per year and growing rapidly, driven by space manufacturing including satellites, ground systems and components. Britain builds major parts for one in four of the world’s commercial telecommunications satellites, and the country’s first spaceport is due to open this year in Scotland, giving the UK domestic satellite and rocket launch capability. Earth Observation services, such as data for monitoring land use and agriculture, is a significant growth area, as are satellites, given the growth in broadcasting and telecoms. The nascent space tourism and exploration sector is also ripe for innovation – NASA will open up the International Space Station to “private astronauts” for the first time this year. British ARPA could play a key role in developing products for both consumers/space tourists as well as traditional governmental defence and security clients.
- Quantum computing: Classical computers, and the tablets, mobile phones and laptops that are ubiquitous today, operate on a system based on “bits” which represent either one or zero. Quantum computers use “quantum bits” which can be both one and zero at the same time meaning they can store more information, expanding exponentially the power of the computer and its ability to compute calculations. Quantum computers are super computers, with the ability to solve problems and process data that existing computers can’t handle such as modelling complex chemical processes and analysing large batches of medical data to diagnose diseases.
IBM, Google and other tech firms are racing to develop quantum computers. As the home of computing – and the World Wide Web – Britain has a key role to play in developing the quantum ecosystem, just as Microsoft, IBM and other American companies came to dominate the classical, binary model of computers. This is the new “space race” for the 4IR.
Delivering Brexit is rightly the Government’s most pressing short-term priority, but our long-term success rests on ensuring Britain’s continued prosperity after Brexit. Firstly, that means Levelling Up our economy so the benefits of our technological creativity – jobs, apprenticeships, higher wages and skills training – are better shared around the country. Secondly, it means ensuring Britain as a nation is a world leader in the new technologies that are already changing the world – we cannot afford to fall behind in these key areas when countries like China are investing over $150 billion in artificial intelligence.
The new British ARPA will be play a crucial role in focusing our national efforts, funding and creativity on the areas that matter – the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – and we should all look forward to its creation as soon as possible.