Friday, 25 January 2013

8 Great Technologies and 24th January 2023...

I don't make a habit of quoting UK Conservative Ministers, but I was impressed with Rt Hon David Willetts MP, UK Minister for Universites and Science policy speech yesterday about our future's 8 great technologies...

big data
robotics and autonomous systems
synthetic biology
regenerative medicine
advanced materials

As a relatively junior lecturer in an Irish Institute of Technology, I wonder if our Institute's strategic vision, or the strategic vision of our Irish IoT sector sufficiently factors in the potentials and challenges of such technologies...

I've shamelessly stripped Willett's speech - removing much of his government PR and his fiscal ideas. Here I try to quote something about the ideas... (The link to the full text (official) of the Minister's speech is at the bottom of this blogpost...

1. Big data

The power of computing and data handling is now becoming so great that classic distinctions between micro and macro effects are breaking down. We are reaching the stage of being able to model airflow across a turbine blade or the movement of a liquid through a tube at the molecular level. Computer modelling of an economy, a substance or a process is therefore becoming very different and far more sophisticated than it was even a decade ago. The importance of these developments is being recognised around the world. I note that I am giving this speech on the same date as the Data Innovation Day in the US.

We have set up the e-infrastructure leadership council co chaired by Dominic Tildesley, formerly a senior business executive from Unilever, and myself. We share with industry our plans for research funding so as to encourage co-investment by them. We are seeing the benefits already with companies such as IBM, Cisco and Intel making a number of investments into the UK. Business will invest more as they see us invest more in computational infrastructure to capture and analyse data flows released by the open data revolution.

2. Space

The UK is once more seen as a leading space science nation. Companies have focussed on making satellite technology more affordable with smaller, lighter-weight satellites that lower the cost of commercial launches. Surrey Satellites Technologies (SSTL), one of the UK’s single most successful university spin-outs, is the world leader in high-performance small satellites. Roughly 40 per cent of the world’s small satellites come from Guildford – and now even smaller nano-satellites are coming from SSTL and Clydespace in Glasgow.

The Space Leadership Council is co-chaired by an industry executive and myself. The Coalition has made a series of significant investments in space over the past two years, and these investments have given the industry confidence to invest more for the future. Every major public sector investment has triggered commercial investments several times greater. We have also set up a Satellite Applications Catapult at Harwell.

3. Robotics and autonomous systems

The UK has some distinctive strengths in this area, going back yet again to our abilities in software programming and data handling. Effective handling of data from a range of sources is key to autonomous systems and we have real skills here. It was an extraordinary feat of engineering to land NASA’s Curiosity probe on Mars last year. Its Mars Rover vehicle is however largely controlled from Earth with a delay of at least seven minutes as instructions travel to Mars. The European Mars Rover vehicle, due to land in 2018, is more autonomous, using mainly British technology to enable it to travel further during the Martian day and therefore carry out more investigations during its design life.

4. Synthetic biology

Many of the critical discoveries related to DNA were made in Britain, in perhaps the world’s greatest post-War research institute – the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. It is not just the original discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, drawing on work by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.

More recently researchers funded by EPSRC, have successfully demonstrated that they can build some of the basic components for digital devices out of bacteria and DNA, which could pave the way for a new generation of biological computing devices. The researchers, from Imperial College London, have demonstrated that they can build logic gates or switches, which are used for processing information in devices such as computers and microprocessors, out of harmless gut bacteria and DNA. Although still a long way off, the team suggests that these biological logic gates or switches could one day form the building blocks in microscopic biological computers.

5. Regenerative medicine

Regenerative medicine involves restoring function by replacing or restoring human cells, tissues or organs. There are three main approaches researchers are pursuing – transplantation of cells, tissues and organs, stimulation of the body’s own self-repair mechanisms; and the development of biomaterials for structural repairs. This is led by world class research in centres such as Edinburgh (where Dolly the sheep was cloned), Cambridge, Leeds, and London. Our research has moved on from Dolly the sheep to Jasper the dog. He had spinal injuries but was able to walk again by injecting his spinal cords with a specific type of stem cell. The potential applications for human medicine are easy to envisage.

6. Agri-science

Britain did not just lead the Industrial Revolution, we pioneered the Agricultural Revolution too. From leading that Agricultural Revolution in the late eighteenth century to new biotechnology-led advances, the UK has remained at the forefront of agricultural research.

Chickens are a prime example. Chickens are the world’s biggest source of meat, and are particularly important in Asia. We breed the world’s chickens - of the £85 billion global poultry market, 80 per cent of breeding chickens come from genetic stock developed in the UK. Thanks to our genetics research you get twice as much chicken for a given amount of chicken feed as 20 years ago. Each year we launch a new breed of chicken which will produce many generations over a year or more before a new improved version comes along. This is possible because of close links between the Roslin Institute, with its world leading R&D, and our commercial sector.

7. Advanced materials

Advanced materials are a key tool for advanced manufacturing. UK businesses that produce and process materials have a turnover of around £170 billion per annum, represent 15 per cent of the country’s GDP and have exports valued at £50 billion. There has been quite rightly a flurry of interest in 3D printing, or ‘additive layer manufacturing’. This new technology is possible not just because of advances in IT but also because of advances in the materials that go into the process. It is no longer just a matter of printing out designer dolls: Southampton University has used advanced materials to show how we could print out a new aeroplane.

8. Energy

Efficient energy storage technologies could allow the UK to capitalise on its considerable excess energy production. While UK consumption peaks at 60GW, the UK has generation capacity of 80GW but storage capacity of only 3GW (primarily from the single Dinorwig water system in Wales). Greater energy storage capacity can save money and reduce the national carbon footprint at the same time.

It has the potential for delivering massive benefits – in terms of savings on UK energy spend, environmental benefits, economic growth and in enabling UK business to exploit these technologies internationally. Energy is one of the largest single themes in Research Council funded research, with a portfolio of over £600 million of total current awards. In addition the government will invest an extra £30 million to create dedicated R&D facilities to develop and test new grid scale storage technologies.
We are also considering a strategic opportunity to partner with the US Department of Energy in the development of small modular reactor technology.

Minister Willetts also asks us to place a date in our diaries... 24th January 2023...

The pamphlet on our eight great technologies is being published today. I would like to invite you back in ten years time on 24 January 2023. There are risks of course. I may not be around. Policy Exchange may not be. But I hope most of us are and that we are still excited about science. Imagine that today we are burying a time capsule and we are going to open it up in ten years when we can take stock. One possibility is that of course technology has developed in a way completely different than set out here. I am still waiting to commute to work on a personal jet booster pack as operated by James Bond in Thunderball. There could well be new technologies which we just have not considered. We are not claiming perfect foresight. But in addition there are six real possibilities for the long-term impact of our strategy for these eight great technologies. Here they are.

1. False dawn
We are still waiting. The analysis broadly stands but it all takes longer than we had hoped. Robots for example are still trundling round labs but not yet waiting at our tables.

2. Transmutation
The technologies will not have worked out in the way we expected but new businesses have emerged in a more indirect route. As every romcom shows, things rarely work out in the direct routes we expect. ARM originates with the BBC Acorn computer project run out of Bristol.

3. Gone abroad
The technologies play out roughly as we describe but it all happens abroad. We have a few multi-millionaires who sold their ideas to foreign multinationals but not much else. This is one of my fears. It is the observation that we grow the world’s best corporate veal.

4. It’s here but it isn’t ours
We have grown the companies here so they have put down roots and we have got genuine expertise which cannot be shifted. But ultimately they are owned by a big corporate which has HQ somewhere else. Illumina is a happy example.

5. We have grown big new companies
Just as the US has got Google Amazon Facebook Ebay. We have got more companies like Vodaphone or GSK or Rolls Royce. We get regulations right. We have patient capital. We are the home to more top 500 companies than we are now.

6. We are purveyors of R&D to the world
We host the world’s clusters. From Formula One in Oxford/Warwick/Birmingham to Tech City in East London and space activity around Harwell, we are famous for our world class R&D centres. The emerging economies are keen to work with us because creating a world-class university from scratch is hard. It is smarter to work with ones you have. Britain is increasingly recognised as the world’s best R&D lab. We have achieved our ambition of being the best place in the world to do science. Multinationals base their R&D facilities here. Smart people from around the world want to come and research here. We have also earned a reputation as the best managers of big international scientific projects.

I believe that with our eight technologies we will probably have a mix of these outcomes. But I am optimistic. With our strong public support for R&D and these new measures for converting discovery into commercial opportunities we can indeed achieve a lot. We can help new businesses grow. We can be world’s R&D lab. We can indeed be the best place in the world to do science.

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