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Why DSIT’s success is vital for British power

‘We have all we asked for…We must use DSIT and make something great or lose it’ proclaimed Sir Anthony Finkelstein, former Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security. The creation of ‘DSIT’ – His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology – earlier this month has been broadly welcomed as an important step forward in the United Kingdom’s (UK) bid to unlock the immense powers of science and technology, and rightly so. Fusing the long overdue science and technology fissures that have existed across Whitehall for years, this new department will house under its roof the near-complete panoply of HM Government’s science and tech levers – from innovation policy to research and development, and from digital and data to life sciences. DSIT will also exercise responsibility for cross-government coordination, as the now formerly Cabinet Office-based Office for Science and Tech Strategy is reportedly folded into the department.

This is all welcome reform. But it is DSIT’s explicit focus on ‘priority technologies’ – quantum, artificial intelligence (AI), engineering biology, semiconductors and future telecoms – which is perhaps the most eye-catching and potentially important.

It is worth noting firstly that HM Government has been gearing up towards organising its science capabilities around priority technologies for some time. The Integrated Review in March 2021, for example, discussed the need for ‘influence over the critical and emerging technologies that are central to geopolitical competition and our future prosperity’ listing AI, quantum and engineering biology as key examples. The Innovation Strategy, released a few months later, talked about driving capability in ‘the key seven technology families that will transform our economy in the future.’ And the main cross-government decision-making body on science and tech – the National Science and Technology Council – has channelled its focus on five ‘priority technologies’.

This matters because as the world moves further into the digital and data-driven age, scientific discovery, emerging technologies and the ability to exploit vast quantities of data will have profound effects on Britain’s economy and society. By HM Government’s own estimates, AI and robotics are set to have increased the country’s economic output by 10% by the end of the decade. Future technologies will open whole new frontiers in the years to come. Exploiting them is vital for the UK’s future prosperity.

But more than that, they are also key sources of national power. Building strategic advantage in these technologies is the route to shoring up Britain’s security at home and influence abroad for the long run. As the Integrated Review identified: ‘in the years ahead, the countries which establish a leading role in critical and emerging technologies will be at the forefront of global leadership.’ DSIT being organised around these technologies is the latest sign that HM Government is taking the realisation of this long-term objective seriously.

How does it translate to power?

Economically, most obviously, these technologies offer states new routes in ensuring their national power is underpinned by prosperity. Beyond the opportunities for innovation and disruption they bring, the technologies of tomorrow are also opening new worlds of wealth creation which are unrestricted by factors that have withheld them previously. With technologies like advanced automation and AI, no more are the historic limitations to output – namely, population size and natural resources – the key determinants of a country’s economic might.

But their economic importance runs deeper than that still. In a world where geoeconomic competition is intensifying, global interdependence on these technologies is being weaponised for geopolitical gain. Given the potency of these technologies, lacking access to them creates vulnerabilities which can be exploited by adversaries. Of course, semiconductors are the primary example, but it applies to the others too. An adversary buying up a nation’s domestic cutting-edge companies to secure its dependence can be as damaging in the long run as a military attack, but far harder to respond to.

Informationally, combining data with the powers of these priority technologies will provide countries with unprecedented insight, foresight, and influence at their fingertips. Foundation models – upon which revolutionary ‘generative AI’ like Chat-GPT and DALL-E are built – for instance, will create vast new avenues of insights for countries across diplomatic, military, and economic spheres by their ability to interrogate data and information at a mammoth scale.

Building strategic advantage in these technologies is the route to shoring up Britain’s security at home and influence abroad for the long run.

On the military front, realising the economic potential of these technologies will help provide the means for funding British defence needs. But it is far more than that. These technologies are changing warfare itself. AI systems are said to be creating a ‘new revolution in military affairs’ by allowing real-time networking of the vast array of data sources available across the battlefield so that militaries can understand, decide, and act (known as ‘closing the kill chain’) much more rapidly. So taken by these implications are the United States (US) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that they are pouring huge sums into developing such capabilities – the US is even undergoing an internal restructure to exploit the military advantage they could bring. A country seeking to possess a first-class military in the years to come cannot afford to ignore this revolution.

With the potential to transform the geoeconomic, geopolitical and military balances between nations and the way people interact with information as individuals, groups, societies and nations – the way in which power is created, shaped and deployed – the technologies of tomorrow are, and will continue to be, central to the UK’s influence on the global stage. For these reasons, science and technology will remain at the heart of British strategic interests for decades to come. The creation of a dedicated science and technology department explicitly focused on exploiting the critical technologies of tomorrow is the latest sign that the UK gets this reality.

HM Government has arranged itself accordingly. The real test now is delivery.

Allan Nixon is Director of Strategic Collaboration at Fujitsu’s Centre for Cognitive and Advanced Technologies.

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