Semiconductor superpower. Where have I heard that before? Let’s go back to the moment when the silicon revolution was a topic of popular conversations. Today, as much as people are speaking of AI. It has been difficult to accept that Moore’s Law is real. Early on, the notion that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years seemed far fetched.

I remember the 1980s, and the privatisation drive that effectively gave away the country’s technology crown jewels. UK semiconductor manufacturers of the 1980s such as GEC, Plessey, Ferranti and Inmos waned or sold-up[1]. Policy makers of that time saw globalisation as risk free. Now, that looks like selling off the family silver.

At the time, silicon chips were predicted to kill off a substantial percentage of white colour jobs. Only a few people saw the potential for massive new industries to spring-up and employ large numbers of new workers. It’s true that the jobs created were, on the whole, quite different from the ones they displaced. Admin work in a giant insurance office is miles from that of a being an on-line games developer, tester, or marketer.

My point is that Government intervention in technology hasn’t got a good record. That’s not an argument for a hands-off approach. That too has proven to have negative outcomes. I’m often tempted to go back to the story of videotape and VHS against Betamax[2] The better technology is not always the one that wins in the global marketplace. Boring reality and dull pragmatic considerations can tip the balance.

The record shows Government Ministers get swayed by the whizzy, super advanced, “superpower” labels that get stuck on the latest promotion. Let’s face it, a photo opportunity next to an exciting futuristic image gets the media’s heart beating. Marketing hype is not new. It has a role in druming-up investments in risky ventures.

Unquestionable is the intense level of competition in the global semiconductor marketplace. If the UK is to be taken seriously when billions of dollars are placed on the table by others there really must be a matching offer. One billion over a decade will end up getting spread as thin as oil on water. A strong collaboration with other, who have common interests would help. Let’s not forget that doing the “dull stuff” can be highly profitable too.

The open market, in deals of the past, has seen a concentration of power. This is not good for a medium sized country on the edge of a continent. Inward investment is to be welcomed. At the same time strategic domestic protections should have a place. Investments in domestic technology capabilities secures a future.



AI awakens

Artificial Intelligence (AI)[1] is with us. Give it a question and it will answer you. Do it many times, with access to many information sources and it will improve its answer to you. That seems like a computer that can act like a human. In everyday reality, AI mimics a small number of the tasks that “intelligent” humans can do and do with little effort.

AI has a future. It could be immensely useful to humanity. As with other revolutions, it could take the drudgery out of administrative tasks, simple research, and well characterised human activities. One reaction to this is to joke that – I like the drudgery. Certainly, there’s work that could be classified as better done by machine but there’s pleasure to be had in doing that work.

AI will transform many industries but will it ever wake-up[2].  Will it ever become conscious.

A machine acting human is not the same as it becoming conscious. AI mimicking humans can give the appearance of being self-aware but it’s not. Digging deep inside the mechanism it remains a computational machine that knows nothing of its own existence.

We don’t know what it is that can give rise to consciousness. It’s a mystery how it happens within our own brains. It’s not a simple matter. It’s not magic either but it is a product of millions of years of evolution.

Humans learn from our senses. A vast quantity of experiences over millennia have shaped us. Not by our own choosing but by chance and circumstances. Fortunately, a degree of planetary stability has aided this growth from simple life to the complex creatures we are now.

One proposition is that complexity and conscious are linked. That is that conscious in a machine may arise from billions and billions of connections and experiences. It’s an emergent behaviour that arises at some unknown threshold. As such this proposition leaves us with a major dilemma. What if we inadvertently create conscious AI? What do we do at that moment?

Will it be an accidental event? There are far more questions than answers. No wonder there’s a call for more research[3].




Light touch folly

Light touch regulation. Now, there’s a senseless folly. It’s a green light to bad actors wherever they operate. It’s like building a medieval castle’s walls half as thick as planned to save money in the belief that enemies are too stupid to work it out. Saying that the public good far less important than the speed of developments is unwise to say the least.

The INTERNET arrived in the UK in the late 1980s. Now, it seems strange to recount. Clunky Personal Commuters (PCs) and basic e-mail were the hight of sophistication as we moved from an office of typewriters and Tipp-Ex to the simple word processor[1]. Generations will marvel at the primitive nature of our former working lives. Getting scissors and cutting out paper text and pasting it into a better place in a draft document. Tippexing out errors and scribbling notes in the spaces between sentences. Yet, that’s what we did when first certifying many of the commercial airliners in regular use across the globe (Boeing 777. Airbus A320). Desktop computers took centre stage early in the 1990s, but administrations were amid a transition. Clickable icons hit screens in 1990. Gradually and progressively new ways of working evolved.

Microsoft Windows 95 and the INTERNET were heralded as the dawn of a new age. Not much thought was given to PCs being used for criminal or malicious purposes. No more thought than the use of a typewriter to commit crime. That doesn’t mean such considerations were ignored it just means that they were deemed a lower-level importance.

In 2023, everyday there’s a new warning about scammers. Even fake warnings about scammers coming from scammers with the aim of scamming. Identifying whose real and whose a fake is becoming ever more difficult. Being asked to update subscriptions that were never opened in the first places is a good indicator that there’s some dirty work afoot. Notices that accounts are about to be blocked referring to accounts that don’t exist is another.

In 30-years the INTERNET has taken on the good and bad of the greater world. It hasn’t become a safer place. In fact, it’s become a bit like the Wild West[2].

Our digital space continues to evolve but has nowhere near reached its potential. It’s like those great western plains where waggons headed out looking for rich new lands. In any towns on the way the shop fronts are gleaming and inviting but if you look around the back there’s a desperate attempt to keep bad actors at bay.

Only a fraction of the suspicious, emails, texts, and messages get reported. People unconsciously pile up a digital legacy and rarely clean out the trash that accumulates. A rich messiness of personal information can lie hidden to the eyes but just bellow the digital surface.

When politicians and technocrats talk of “light touch regulation” it’s as if none of this matters. In the race to be first in technology, public protection is given a light touch. This can’t be a good way to go.

[1] Still available – Tipp-Ex Rapid, Correction Fluid Bottle, High Quality Correction Fluid, Excellent Coverage, 20ml, Pack of 3, white.


The past

What’s disheartening about the current political debate in the UK is that it’s so backward looking. Now, I appreciate the real impact of demographics. Yes, we have an aging population and the trend for population ageing is continuing[1]. So, the audience of voters that existing politicians are trying to seduce is predominantly over 50 years old. This shapes the message that they send out.

If I go on about how much the world has changed since my school days, I’ll bore your paints off. I have endured such stories from local Councillors, relatives, and work colleagues for many a year. Nevertheless, perspective can be lost if I don’t make a few points on this subject.

I was surprised to read that the world’s first e-mail is over 50 years old. So, that medium that has taken over our lives and practically displaced post office delivered mail and that ancient artifact, the letter, is a decade younger than me. Of course, the use of e-mails took a while to get going and so it’s the time since Windows 95 when the greatest change has taken place. The first website is just over 30 years old. Now, it’s impossible to imagine a world where everyday information is not displayed on a screen of one size or another.

The transition has been from a predominantly analogue world to an almost exclusively digital one.

What I find amusing is occasionally having to explain analogue technology. Although some long-standing devices have endured. Mechanical wristwatches continue to be valued and vinyl records are making a resurgence.

Before I get side-tracked the core of my argument is that we have been through a monumental transition in my working life. It’s happened at pace. It’s happened well ahead of political thinking. OK, savvy political operators have populated social media. Although, many campaigning efforts are derisory and ineffective. We are in an era when about 242 million iPhones are sold annually. Not doing social media is not an option.

If it’s worth engaging in political debate it should be about what happens next. What’s behind us can teach us but it’s not a pattern for the future: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.[2]” Endlessly raking over the past can be a huge distraction. Thatcher, Blair, and Ashdown were of their time. The global issues they faced were of their time.

Instagram is 12 years old; Snapchat is a year younger, and we have only had TikTok for 5 years. These social media platforms are the places where younger people get their daily news. On that basis they form opinions and may act on those opinion.

The further monumental transitions that are coming our way ought to occupy, at least, a part of contemporary political thinking. That doesn’t seem to be happening. If the UK wants to play a leading role on world stage our traditional myopic attitudes need a good shake up. If we intervene on global issues promoting 19th century views the results will be disastrous. Be warned.


[2] Leslie P. Hartley (1895-1972) British novelist and short story writer