UK government's 'tech superpower' ambitions must be matched by realism and collaboration

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt went for it in a big way in his Budget speech this week. Fewer than 400 words were spoken, barely three minutes completed, before we got to cross off the Budget Bingo card space labelled “science and technology superpower”.

As time passed, all the expected boxes were ticked off – quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI), R&D, innovation, digital. We had a nod to the Hot Topic Of The Moment, ChatGPT, with a mention of Generative AI. And we even had what must have been the first budgetary appearance of “exascale”.

In case you didn’t get Hunt’s message – this is a government that wants to be serious (or at least, seen to be serious) about tech. And to be fair, it’s a welcome, refreshing change from budgets of yore, where you might find a passing reference to technology on page 136 of the accompanying HM Treasury “red book”. So, on that level – thanks, Jeremy. Much appreciated.

But as ever, context is everything. For example, Hunt announced a £2.5bn investment in quantum computing, alongside the long-awaited publication of a UK quantum strategy. However, that’s a 10-year funding period – so, £250m a year. Helpful, of course, but hardly world-changing. In comparison, China has so far committed over $15bn to its quantum sector, according to McKinsey.

By the way, we still await the equally long-promised strategy for the UK semiconductor industry, which perhaps needed revision after ARM confirmed its plan to list shares in the US, not its original home in the UK.

Hunt also announced a new £1m annual award for the best British AI research, labelled the Manchester Prize. Meanwhile, the US is investing $71bn into AI, and China $34bn. To be fair, the UK is recognised as the third highest investor in AI globally – fourth if you include the EU as a single block – at $7.2bn in total. Not insignificant, but a relative drop in the ocean compared to the US and China. Which of those would you label as “superpowers”?

The UK finds itself in something of an invidious position. Let’s not doubt the ambition – the government recognises that leadership in technology will be fundamental to economic growth and global influence. In certain niches, perhaps we can still be world-leading. But realistically, we cannot compete on money, resources or skills against the US, China and EU. Brexit has, of course, exacerbated the problem – look at the devastating effect of losing EU Horizon funding on UK science research.

Aiming to be a standalone science and technology superpower makes for a great headline. But it needs to be matched with realism – and an acknowledgement that in tech, great power ultimately comes from great collaborations.

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