Theresa May's welcome tech enthusiasm comes with a huge Brexit caveat

It’s nice that we have a prime minister that chooses to use one of her most high-profile speeches of the year to talk about technology.

It’s equally good that her chancellor similarly discussed the opportunities of IT at the World Economic Forum on Davos, warning of “a generation of 21st century Luddites” and asking, “Do we look inward or outward, look to the future or cleave to the past?”

We also saw Matt Hancock, previously digital minister and now secretary of state for digital, culture media and sport, talking at a Davos debate on “reimagining policy-making for the fourth industrial revolution”. Marvellous.

These are all things that the tech community has wanted to see for years – at Computer Weekly we’ve called repeatedly for our most senior politicians to understand, address and plan for just these developments.

And yet…

During her speech, Theresa May clearly suffered from a bad case of what we must call Hancockism – the ability to ignore an elephant so large that it’s not so much in the room, as it is the room.

In his time as digital minister, Hancock was renowned for his prodigious speech-giving, talking up the tech sector without ever mentioning the one thing everybody listening wanted him to talk about – what Brexit means (other than “Brexit”).

May’s outbreak of Hancockism was particularly acute, given that world leaders and business chiefs from around the world were hoping she would take the opportunity of such an influential forum to explain more about her vision for a post-Brexit Britain, or to offer some detail on what the words “deep” and “special” will mean in practice when it comes to our future relationship with the EU.

There are few people in the UK tech sector who would express disappointment at the welcome priority that May and her government are giving to technology. It feels almost churlish to have to add a Brexit caveat, but it’s such a huge caveat.

As Computer Weekly has reported, tech leaders are holding their breath waiting for guidance on what the future might look like, given the intimacy of the business and tech relationships we have across Europe.

It’s great that May sees technology as key to building the new, global Britain we are promised. Undoubtedly a connected, digital Britain offers a way to open up new opportunities. But it’s not going to magically happen.

The prime minister touted investments in artificial intelligence, including £45m for 200 new PhD places, yet in the same week Google announced its new AI research centre in France even though its DeepMind AI subsidiary is in London. Earlier this month China announced a $2.1bn investment in an AI tech park in Beijing. Let’s keep our investments in context.

If the UK wants to lead the world in AI, we need to maintain the “deep and special” research and development partnerships that we have across the EU – we simply won’t have the resources to compete otherwise.

So it’s a big step forward to see technology taking its place at the political and business top table. Thank you, prime minister. But if tech is the future, we need to know what that future looks like.

Here’s what Dennis Snower, president of the Global Economic Symposium, thought of Theresa May’s Davos speech:

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