National power is going to be defined not by the number of tanks and ships a rustic possesses but by its science and technology, and therefore the quality of its algorithms.
That is the message of the UK’s Integrated Review, which says the government’s aim is for the country to become an innovation “superpower” by 2030.
“This is going to be essential in gaining economic, political, and security advantages within the coming decade,” it says.
It marks a serious strategic shift in thinking. But the delivery won’t be straightforward.
US V CHINA
A global tech race is heating up.
China this month announced its latest five-year plan, including significant increases in research and development spending.
It highlighted seven areas including:
- artificial intelligence (AI)
- quantum information
- brain science
A report this month led by former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt focused on the safety risks of falling behind China in AI.
Wars of the longer term may involve AI algorithms battling one another.
The first nation to master this and other technologies might not just have a big military advantage on the battlefield, but also in protecting its people reception and in spurring economic process.
That is why the UK’s review says its “first goal” is growing the UK’s science and technology power “in pursuit of strategic advantage”.
“We got to generate strength through technological innovation,” former MI6 Chief Alex Younger told the BBC.
Some of this focuses on traditional areas. a minimum of £6.6bn of defense funding over subsequent four years will continue research and development.
Some of this may support industries especially regions of the United Kingdom – a symbol of the fusing of security and economic priorities.
Besides, a national space strategy is going to be launched, also as a replacement cyber-strategy that would see more frequent use of offensive capabilities by the new National Cyber Force.
UK investment is going to be dwarfed by China and therefore the US. But the ambition is that a more activist, industrial policy can create “thriving ecosystems” in crucial areas.
Three fields are picked out for case studies.
One is quantum computing, where the review argues the United Kingdom is “well placed to emerge as a worldwide leader”.
The much-heralded quantum breakthrough will offer major advantages to those that get there first.
This includes one field governments don’t talk about: breaking the encryption which keeps messages secret.
Another is engineering biology – the planning and redesign of biological systems through techniques like gene editing.
This has potential for health and environmental benefits but also, because the report notes, defense, and security.
US intelligence officials have suggested China was exploring gene-editing its soldiers to enhance their performance.
The third is AI. the United Kingdom is home to cutting-edge research. But critics also say it highlights a number of the historic problems in commercializing domestic innovation.
London-based DeepMind is world-class but sold itself to Google. The US could also be an in-depth ally, but there are still officials who believe the shift of ownership represented a strategic loss.
The failure to require UK research and grow tech giants from it’s not a replacement problem.
The UK built the primary semi-programmable computer in war Two to interrupt codes at Bletchley Park.
But it did so secretly and therefore the computing industry it led to has been limited in terms of scale.
By contrast, the US, with a revolving door between the government and therefore the private sector, massive investment from the Pentagon and spy agencies, and a bigger domestic market, created Silicon Valley.
There is also an issue about where it’ll be practical to undertake to convince what’s a highly international workforce at UK companies and universities, to figure on defense and security-related projects.
In the US, a staff revolt led Google to tug out of Project Maven which wanted to use AI to tag objects in drone-collected video.
Other US companies are more willing to figure with the Pentagon.
But copying the military-civil fusion that China talks about might not be either desirable or possible.
Lessons from Huawei
One criticism of the review is that it tries to possess it both ways with China – stressing the necessity to be hospitable Beijing for trade and investment, while also engaging in systemic competition.
This is not always easy. Last year’s decision to effectively kick out Huawei from 5G telecoms showed hard choices are sometimes involved.
In areas like 5G, the main target today isn’t just on developing cutting-edge technology, but also on setting global standards and rules for the longer term.
And here China has invested heavily.
The UK will get to exerting with allies to catch up and convince other countries to share its vision.
That is only one of the areas where becoming a science and tech superpower could also be a troublesome promise to deliver on.