To unleash Britain's potential in science and technology we need to invest in the future of compute - and we need to invest now
The UK has played a historic and leading role in developing the field of computing, with figures such as Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing known around the world for extending the frontiers of science and technology.
This legacy of innovation, built on the first mechanical computer (the Difference Engine), the first programmable computer (Colossus) and the first commercial computer (Ferranti Mark 1), continues today with world-leading UK research communities in quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
Building on that foundation, the UK’s scientists continue to achieve breakthroughs in fields such as life sciences and drug discovery, with academia and industry working together. It is because of this science and technology capability that the UK was ranked 4th in the Global Innovation Index 2021.
Innovation boosts productivity, raises living standards, and acts as a catalyst for economic growth, but if we want to safeguard this heritage of discovery, we need to give our scientists and engineers access to the most powerful tools for research and development.
As other nations invest heavily in their compute infrastructure and begin to outpace the UK in both power and total capacity of high-performance compute, there is real danger that the UK could fall behind.
Access to advanced compute power - the ability to process data at scale and solve complex problems at speed, whether through high-performance computing, quantum computing, or cloud computing - is essential to R&D in a range of sectors, including healthcare and drug discovery, engineering and manufacturing, financial services and risk analysis, particle physics, materials science and more.
techUK believes that compute should be seen as strategic national infrastructure, as important to our economic future in an information age as steel was in the industrial age.
The UK is a global leader in areas such as data analytics, cybersecurity, AI, machine learning, and more recently quantum technologies (to be propelled forward by the upcoming quantum strategy by UK government). However, the UK is falling behind in large-scale compute (LSC) infrastructure when compared to other leading nations, and the window for the UK to remain competitive in LSC is quickly closing: Whilst the EU, USA, China, and Japan are all pushing forward with exascale systems (the latest generation of LSC), the UK’s share of global LSC capacity has decreased by three-fifths over five years, falling to 2.0% in 2019. The UK’s technology chain is only as strong as its weakest link and underinvestment in LSC will imperil our broader goals in science and technology.
So how do we empower our scientists and engineers by ensuring they always have access to the latest and most powerful compute infrastructure?
In our response to the Government’s recent Future of Compute Review, techUK argued that we need a long-term strategy to develop access to LSC and build a thriving ecosystem here in the UK. The strategy should examine supporting factors like skills, routes of access, data policy, safeguarding intellectual property, and supply chain resilience. It should also explore the convergence of LSC with other key technologies like quantum, cloud, and AI.
It is important to remember that the UK isn’t doing this alone, and access to international systems, collaborating on research, and working together to solve international challenges such as those around climate change, will only bring added benefit to the UK ecosystem. We should work to make the UK the best place in the world to bring your data for R&D. Investing in UK compute capacity should not close the UK to collaboration but open the doors to innovation for all.
For all these reasons and more, techUK is launching our Future of Compute Campaign in September to explore with members how we can develop our compute infrastructure, safeguard the legacy of Turing and Lovelace, and support the UK’s ambitions as a science and technology superpower. This work begins as UK Government works on its Future of Compute review, and techUK will continue to work with the Government on this important issue through the new campaign.
28 September | Future of compute launch event: How can we make the UK a leader in compute?
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Laura is techUK’s Head of Programme for Technology and Innovation.
She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies, including Quantum Computing, High-Performance Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies, across the UK. As part of this, she works alongside techUK members and UK Government to champion long-term and sustainable innovation policy that will ensure the UK is a pioneer in science and technology
Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.
Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.
Rory joined techUK in June 2023 after three years in the Civil Service on its Fast Stream leadership development programme.
During this time, Rory worked on the Government's response to Covid-19 (NHS Test & Trace), school funding strategy (Department for Education) and international climate and nature policy (Cabinet Office). He also tackled the social care crisis whilst on secondment to techUK's Health and Social Care programme in 2022.
Before this, Rory worked in the House of Commons and House of Lords alongside completing degrees in Political Economy and Global Politics.
Today, he is techUK's Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies, covering dozens of technologies including metaverse, drones, future materials, robotics, blockchain, space technologies, nanotechnology, gaming tech and Web3.0.