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Britain can be a major player in the new technological revolution

Germany, 2021 IBM quantum computer | (Alamy)

3 min read

We are living through perhaps the most extraordinary time for scientific and technological innovation since the first industrial revolution.

During the life of this Parliament alone we have seen the development and global deployment of multiple, highly effective vaccines against the worst pandemic in the last 100 years. Large language models of artificial intelligence (AI) are already upending the way that even recently deployed digital technology is used. Innovations in clean technologies have transformed green energy into requiring a premium to global prices to being often the cheapest source of power.

The Science, Innovation and Technology Committee which I chair has the privilege of having a role in shaping the environment in which these discoveries and innovations can best be made and what policy safeguards should govern their deployment.

Quantum computers could crack calculations that would take current computers millions of years and break encryption protocols

Our committee has always had a cross-cutting remit – examining science, technology and research across the whole of government and beyond. We also have the responsibility of scrutinising the work of the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, following its creation in February this year.

Our current inquiry into the governance of Artificial intelligence (AI) is looking at how government can, at pace, encourage innovation that can bring benefits to society and the economy whilst protecting citizens from potential harms. So far we have heard from a range of experts on the use of AI in medicine, education, the creative industries and policing.

We have heard how the power of AI to analyse massive datasets has led to breakthroughs in cancer treatment – in one example by better matching a patient with the drug that would be most effective with their cell biology. We have also heard about the risks of systems trained on data which has bias embedded into it. Our inquiry will also examine how other jurisdictions, such as the United States and the European Union, are responding to this global issue. 

Quantum is another critical area for innovation. We are looking at how the United Kingdom can better turn exciting technological advances in this field into commercial products that bring wider societal benefit. There are also national security concerns that could arise when we see the first quantum computers. Such computers could crack calculations that would take current computers millions of years and consequently break current encryption protocols. 
Technological advances and innovation are at the core of many of our other inquiries too, from nuclear power – the subject of a substantial report to be published shortly – to space and satellite infrastructure, from insect decline and UK food security to the potential of phages – bacteria-killing viruses – in tackling antimicrobial resistance.

Many of our country’s scientists, researchers and businesses are world-class. But the flip side of an accelerating pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation is that other countries are taking great strides – often reflecting clear national strategies to do so. Only last month scientists in Canada and the US used AI to discover a new antibiotic that can kill a deadly species of superbug, demonstrating just how revolutionary AI can and will be in science and medicine. 

In its work, the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee seeks to guide the government and other leaders in what we need to do to make sure the UK advances in the technological revolution taking place, as we did in the industrial revolution that first established our technological renown.

 

Greg Clark, Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells and chair of the Science, Innovation & Technology Committee

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