With the worlds’ economies digitalising around us understanding the areas where the UK can be a global leader will be fundamental to our future success. Chaired by Bryan Glick Editor in Chief, Computer Weekly, our first panel kicked off the discussion on how we can supercharge our digital economy by taking advantage of leadership potential in 5G, Blockchain, AI, IoT and quantum computing.
Samsung’s Dan Warren got the ball rolling by looking at where the UK stood in terms of 5G. With previous rollouts the UK was a clear leader but with 5G this isn’t the case and we are playing catch-up to a number of countries including the USA. With commercials having changed, meaning lower margins, industry has found that there is less money to play with. This has led to a reduction in inward investment impacting operator led R&D – the hallmark of our advantage in 2G.
This isn’t the end of the story however. Much like other technologies represented on the panel, value to the UK economy is not just about being the first to define technical requirements, but rather there is an opportunity to look at use cases. Dan sees a real opportunity for the to define some of the economic requirements of 5G. In particular around latency and interfaces with new tech such as AI and IoT. It’s important not to think of 5G as a silver bullet but there are very real opportunities for how 5G can support broader economic efficiencies particularly in a world where data is king and services are increasingly integrated.
Turning to AI, Phil Brougham, DigitalGenius commented that we are reaching the peak of the hype cycle. Which means that now is the time define the real and tangible, breaking away from the ‘Hollywood’ version of AI and look to the real value AI can add to the economy.
Some see AI as a threat to the UK economy however Phil is clear that this is actually a great moment to enhance productivity. AI is not about removing jobs, rather it’s about augmenting them – helping people to do work which is more valuable to a company and ultimately the individual. This is work that involves less repetition and instead focuses on the more human elements of business, unlocking greater creativity in the process. Phil sees consistency and efficiency as the main benefits of AI and argues that this is what businesses should be clamouring at the door to take advantage of.
Turning to export potential its useful to remember that UK has always been a leader in AI innovation. Although now owned by Google DeepMind was a UK-born innovation. However to keep this edge and drive the market forward it will be important to take a moment and look at what we are developing AI for. Much like 5G there is a great opportunity for the UK to diagnose use cases by finding pain points across the economy. This will not only tackle broader challenges around productivity but also drive greater acceptance of the technology.
With Cloud the challenge is not about technology acceptance. Cloud is already mainstream in environments such as Enterprise. Instead the challenge is about what next and how companies can capture that value. IBM’s Helen Kelisky noted that we are now moving into ‘Phase 3’ where the questions are about data. How we collect it, how we manage it and ultimately how we unlock the ‘nuggets’ held within. This is where Cloud can play a massive role, accelerating innovation and acting as an enabler by providing the part of the underlying infrastructure supporting the data economy and its spread across borders.
Countering audience views that the UK has little opportunity to become a global leader in Blockchain Genevieve Leveille, AgriLedger, reminded us that Ethereum actually started in the UK. She noted that we already have the expertise, what we are missing is the right environment to capitalise on this expertise. As with many other areas of innovation the UK is failing to create the framework within which ideas can flourish, meaning those who are looking to build a market turn to other countries like Switzerland. What’s more a failure to articulate how blockchain can improve business operations means UK companies are missing a trick. As vice chair of techUK’s Distributed Ledger Technology Group Genevieve is clear that now more than ever we need to demystify the technology and its multiple applications. Most knowledge of blockchain is about bitcoin but actually that’s just one example of a blockchain in action. Blockchain is an infrastructure that can enhance trust in data by providing a trusted truth that an event has happened. It also serves to increase efficiency and reduce costs by removing intermediaries.
Whilst the UK is certainly behind the curve there is still an opportunity within Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). ICOs are a new approach to public market offerings and are being used widely by the start-up community. £2.8bn has been raised so far, showing clear investor interest, however there are significant risks due to a lack of regulations. The UK has an opportunity to get a handle on this ‘wild west’, creating a framework which will allow ICOs to be explored more fully.
It is a well-known fact that the UK has a productivity deficit. One reason is due to the failure of UK businesses to exploit technology in the same way as countries such as Germany for example. All of the technologies looked at this year offer a solution. AI offers an opportunity to increase productivity by freeing up people time, allowing them to focus on the creative and more personal elements of their role. Blockchain will further facilitate new ways of working reducing the number of intermediaries involved. This is already being seen in the financial services sector where trades that used to take days can now happen in a matter of seconds. Cloud delivers value by centralising operations cutting costs and enhancing agility delivering better services not just internally but also to customers. But using technology to solve the productivity challenge is not just down to businesses. To support all of this there is a clear need for improved connectivity, both to reduce latency but also improve coverage.
How can a CIO take advantage of innovation?
When asked how larger companies can take advantage of opportunities the panel agreed that creating the right framework to empower CIO’s is fundamental. This includes ensuring the governance around innovation labs allows a proper assessment of the value of new technologies. Large organisations should also seek to explore the innovation that already exists within their business. Taking a view of how grass root innovations can add value across multiple business lines.
The message was clear – don’t let being overly cautious get in the way, now is the time to be bold. Take new technologies and innovations seriously. Emerging technology is not out of the box, so if you see an opportunity be patient and keep testing. One failure does not mean the game is over.
Of course no discussion is complete without the mention of Brexit. With more than 2/3 of attendees seeing Brexit as a challenge and the panel citing the loss of talent; policy isolation; and loss of Commission R&D funding as real risks to the UK there is clearly more to be done in providing certainty, ensuring the UK economy is kept on track. The story isn’t all bad however. As the panel showed there are still areas within which the UK can thrive, growing export potential but also supporting domestic productivity. What is needed is affirmative action within companies to explore innovation despite uncertainty and a government willing to explore new support frameworks.