Technology Landscapes

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by ...

I have accepted that much of what I write will be judged inadequate, but I rarely complete a piece knowing, from the off, that it is incomplete and inconclusive. It is even more unsatisfactory, and profoundly frustrating, as I am addressing a topic of importance, and one that I have thought about a great deal.

I apologise.

I am passionately interested in technology and, in particular, technology strategy. Specifically, I am interested in how to select and invest in (a portfolio of) emerging technologies to secure strategic advantage on behalf of the UK.

Strategic advantage is, in this context, a durable, asymmetric advantage, in which, by way of differentiating factors that are difficult to replicate, substitute or remove the UK secures a significant, enduring and exploitable edge over competitors. This advantage is principally in prosperity but can also relate to resilience, security or the exercise of influence or ‘soft power’. I do not apologise for the explicitly competitive framing. Such a framing does not rule out, as will be seen, collaboration and partnership, indeed it demands it, but does entail an open-eyed view of geopolitical contest and the central role of technology in this.

It is easy to set strategic advantage as a goal but much more difficult to work out what the approach to achieving it should be. What technologies specifically should we focus on? What exactly should we seek to ‘own’, ‘collaborate’ or ‘access’?

I greatly enjoy lists of hot technologies. Will Artificial Intelligence be overtaken by Quantum Computers? Is Synthetic Biology slipping down the list? Is Robotics still hot? Is Nanotechnology so yesterday? Are batteries in? What touch of individuality will the author add to the list, will they dare to include Nuclear Fusion or something a bit edgier on Anti-Ageing? My pleasure in reading, critiquing and even, occasionally, composing these lists should not however be mistaken for believing them to be a valuable strategic tool, on the contrary.

Now things get complicated quickly. Technologies are frequently composites of different component technologies. They may build on a coherent scientific foundation, but not necessarily. They may have diverse applications or may be anchored in a specific sector. They may require access to particular materials, technical facilities or skills. There may be significant scientific or technical uncertainties and a path to exploitation that is of varying length and requires more or less capital to navigate. There may be dependencies between different technologies. In each regard, the position of the UK may vary, most notably the industrial or sectoral capacity to exploit may be present or not.

A further complication is that technologies have a lifecycle, transitioning from emerging, where uncertainty is high but the margin to be secured on exploitation is also high, to commoditised, where uncertainty is low but margins are tight.

None of this leads us to a straightforward analysis even if we did not assume, as we have, a competitive, and in some cases directly adversarial, setting. Let me try two partial metaphors, both drawing on games, that seem to me more directly to capture the essence of the analytic challenge.

The first is a strategic tabletop on which we array our resources. We assess our strengths and look for heights, choke points, logistic lines, the deployment of our adversaries. We place a division here and a squadron there, we consider the concentration of our forces conscious of our overall resources, we hold some positions lightly, others with greater determination, we look for exposed flanks and reinforce them, we hold reserves, build alliances and post lookouts. As the game on this tabletop plays out we adjust our positions in response to the other players with our strategic advantage in mind. This metaphor is, to me, very appealing but wholly incomplete. What is the topography? What are the units and how are they composed? How are wins and losses calculated?

The second is a network in which the nodes represent units of technological, scientific or process knowledge. The connections in the network represent dependencies between these units of knowledge. Nodes and connections have attributes associated with them, principally the extent to which different 'players' possess and have the capacity to exploit that knowledge. The game is played over the network in which the goal is to achieve and hold a strategic and defensible network position (think the game of Go). Again, the metaphor is incomplete. How are the units of knowledge delineated? What exactly are the attributes and weights? What does it mean to hold a network position and how are the dynamics of the game achieved?

Overall, I wish to convey the image of a 'technology landscape' as a more satisfactory way of conceptualising the space in which we might make our strategic choices. I appreciate that I have left the specifics of those choices unresolved. Quantum computers or quantum sensors? Quantum hardware or algorithms? Quantum simulation for materials and drug discovery?

As I said, apologies.