Management / Why the UK could dominate the age of automation

Why the UK could dominate the age of automation

Silicon Valley is still the centre of tech innovation – but with a clearer direction, the country that started the first industrial revolution could be at the vanguard of the next. Joanne Frearson talks to two innovators about how that could happen

Over the next decade in the UK, driverless cars could be transporting us to work, robots washing and drying our clothes and waste-management trucks picking up our rubbish on demand. “By 2030 every car will be self-driving,” believes Dr John Bates, CEO of Testplant and author of Thingalytics. “This is going to have a lot of implications for a lot of systems, not just technological, but also ethical.” For example, if a person suddenly steps out in front of a car, it may not be possible for a human driver to stop before hitting them. But when the car is being driven by an AI, sub-micro second decision-making is possible.

If someone jumps out in front of the car, there is also an ethical dimension to the course of action to take. “Should all roadways be covered so no-one can even walk across them?” asks Dr Bates. “Should [the AI] make the decision of always protecting the driver or always protecting the pedestrian?”

By 2030, Dr Bates – who has been listed as one of the “Tech 50” most influential technologists by Institutional Investor magazine – points out there will be a whole new set of legislation that is introduced, so governments can ensure driverless cars are safe. They will also have to meet a set of certification standards.

Driverless cars will obviously be a huge change to the way we drive, but Bates thinks they will also affect the way we live, work and even interact with each other. “It completely changes my possible commute,” he says. “I can have my car pick up my CTO, and we can have a meeting somewhere. We don’t need to go anywhere – we are already in the office. Maybe there will be people just driving around in their office all the time. We could have these enormous people-movers, around which are mobile offices, clogging up the roadways of the UK. Think of the implications.”

Meanwhile, according to Antony Edwards, CTO of software testing firm Testplant, the introduction of driverless cars could also disrupt the way car ownership is viewed, as people no longer use cars as we do today. “Once you don’t get any joy from driving – because you are not driving – [a car] just becomes a commodity,” Edwards says. “Why would you bother owning it? Everything starts to become a service a lot more.”

Car manufacturers have already begun to start to change their business models to become more service-oriented. They now fit sensors in vehicles that can give feedback on how someone is driving. And instead of just manufacturers of vehicles, car companies are also becoming big data analytics providers.

“Suddenly you know all the telemetry about that vehicle,” says Edwards. “The tyres are talking [via] wireless, [telling you that] if you pump up this tyre you can save 10p a mile on fuel.”

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Because they understand how you drive because of the data their products feed back to them, car companies could go down the road of leasing parts – such as tyres for example – as a service, rather than selling them. By 2030, as Edwards points out, car ownership itself might be a thing of the distant past.

Over the next 10 years it is likely that most of the major cities in the UK will also be using to data to become smarter via the internet of things (IoT). “There will be smart lighting, smart waste management, all interacting with each other,” says Dr Bates.

“Once you don’t get any joy from driving – because you aren’t driving – a car just becomes a commodity. Why would you bother owning it? Everything starts to become a service a lot more” – Antony Edwards, Testplant

According to Edwards, one of the first smart city projects local authorities will take up is waste management. “It is one where you can get massive savings,” he says. “You have tags in your bin and it tells you if they are full or not. Around 50 per cent of the trips trucks do are wasted.”

He explains that by tagging rubbish the amount of potential waste could be halved. Edwards thinks it could encourage some councils to take more responsibility for the project management of IT infrastructure.

Dr Bates, meanwhile, points to personal robotics as being the next big thing by 2030: we’ll have “robots in the home and robots in the cities,” he says. He points out that one of the mundane chores we still have to do in person is filling and emptying the washing machine and dryer, as it is a difficult process to automate. “By 2030 we will have personal home automation that can load the washing machine and dryer,” Dr Bates says. “In smart cities you are going to see some of this as well. You are going to see retailers have shelf-stacking robots – they are already starting to come in.”

However, Dr Bates does not think it will be easy getting to this stage by 2030, with the number one challenge being the UK’s attitude to business. “The UK is producing some of the best and most innovative people in the world, but yet how many billion dollar technology companies come out of the UK? Autonomy, Arm, Sage – that is about it,” he says. “But if you drive around the San Francisco Bay area, there is one on every street corner. There is something going wrong somewhere.”

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Despite the cynicism, Dr Bates has not given up hope – one of the reasons why he moved back was because he thinks the UK has the chance to dominate smart industries by 2030. “The industrial revolution started in Britain,” Dr Bates says. “This country invented Silicon Valley – now we have lost it. How do we get that back? That is the biggest problem to me. We should lead the way in smart cities. We can do it. We just have to have the right attitude.

“This is an old country – the plumbing does not work, the sewers were built in the Victorian era. This is an opportunity because maybe the UK can augment these systems with smart sensors to detect problems and do predictive maintenance before it gets critical. We can augment our cities with technology to make them absolutely cutting edge.”

Technology will be disrupting the way we live, work and potentially own things by 2030. And while some of the buildings, infrastructure and systems in the UK may be past their sell-by date, over the next decade many opportunities await – not least the tantalising prospect of finally having a robot to do the laundry…

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Robots vs. Humans.
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