01 December 2016

Professor Sir Mark Walport, Government chief scientific advisor, explains how new technology can and is coming together for considerable effect

If attempting to look 30 years into the future carries a decent probability of being wrong, the endeavour remains essential all the same. A significant aspect of the work of the Government Office for Science is to carry out horizon scanning on behalf of government, to identify both opportunities and risks – and to consider how to exploit or mitigate them.

Some futures, of course, are clearer than others. We are surely on firm ground in anticipating a steady increase in the impact of technology on our daily lives. While it may be unwise to prophesy which specific technologies will come to dominate – or their eventual applications (mobile phone engineers, for example, never anticipated the popularity of text messaging) – some distinct trends are emerging.

One of these might be best described as “convergence”. We have reached a point where the source of greatest disruption could well come from the interaction of several kinds of technologies rather than a single technology proving to be a game changer on its own.

In the simplest terms, we are seeing technologies that, in combination, enable us to:

• sense, detect and measure what it happening around – and within – us

• transmit, collect, combine and mine data, at ever increasing pace, to generate fresh insights, and

• make these insights readily available to inform individual and social behaviour, commercial decisions and government activities.

Ours, then, is the age of data and connectivity – a world in which the so-called Internet of Things is forecast, by 2020, to link up anywhere between 20 and 100 billion devices.

Unsurprisingly, achieving convergence is far from simple. There are practical challenges, from increasing battery capacity to managing data storage to producing simple, intuitive interfaces for consumers. There are social and ethical issues to confront, including tackling legitimate public concerns about privacy, security and the impacts of artificial intelligence. Indeed, my office has just issued a report on AI.

And government itself has an important part to play in enabling technological interaction by using the policy levers at its disposal. Regulation, standard setting, testing facilities, support for innovative companies: these activities and others should be delivered in a coordinated manner so that the UK can make technology work for people and for businesses.

If we can get convergence right, the benefits would be considerable. It could transform our cities, streets and homes – improving transport, resource use and quality of life. It could revolutionise public health – reducing costs, personalising treatment, offering independence to older people for longer. It could remove humans from hazardous environments and mundane work.

Driverless cars, assisted living, precision farming, smarter public services: these are all within our grasp in the UK. We have an outstanding research base and companies operating at the cutting edge in the life sciences, quantum, artificial intelligence, robotics and e-commerce. We must therefore grasp this opportunity to grow our economy and enhance our lived experience.

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