Dr Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, academic project manager of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, on government efforts to harness the potential of new technologies.
Led by input from the research councils, the United Kingdom is investing £600m in the development of 'eight great technologies of the future'. The aim is to make the most of the UK’s scientific and intellectual leadership in order to gain major economic benefits from these technologies.
The selection, announced earlier this year, is an interesting one. Critics might point to green energy’s absence on the menu. However the focus on developing better energy storage technologies is insightful. At the moment, the efficacy of solar and wind energy is limited by the fact that they produce energy intermittently; with the ability to better store electricity, these could play a much greater role in the UK’s energy profile. Furthermore, as we move to electric vehicles, battery capacity will play a key role. In his lecture for the Oxford Martin School at the Sheldonian Theatre last year, entrepreneur Elon Musk even hinted at electric aeroplanes being in his long-term plan.
Synthetic biology and regenerative medicine represent other insightful choices. With synthetic biology, we may be at the dawn of a new, transformative technology. Engineers, biologists and computer modellers are currently working together to achieve proof-of-principle experiments – substituting natural amino acids for artificial ones or developing biological “on-off” switches – with the goal of eventually creating artificial organisms tailor-made for our uses: antibiotic biofactories, organisms that break down waste and create plastics, hydrocarbons and other useful substances, even biological nanoparticles that could study and heal us from the inside out.
Regenerative medicine will draw on recent advances in stem cells and other technology, and may allow us the ability to target and cure paralysis and neurodegenerative diseases, grow replacement organs, and more.
The full list of technologies is:
1. The big data revolution and energy-efficient computing
2. Satellites and commercial applications of space
3. Robotics and autonomous systems
4. Life sciences, genomics and synthetic biology
5. Regenerative medicine
7. Advanced materials and nano-technology
8. Energy and its storage
The focus aligns well with areas previously identified by the Oxford Martin School as key: some of the UK’s most valuable breakthroughs are being made by institutes such as the Institute for Future of Computing, Computational Cosmology, Oxford Stem Cell Institute, the Plants for the 21st Century Institute and the Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology.
And the architect of the initiative, David Willetts, (the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science), has ambitions that reach to the stars. In his report,Willetts’ goals include paving the way for a breakthrough in reusable spacecraft, and he points to “opportunities for the UK to host a spaceport if we get the regulatory framework right”.
Much, as he points out, depends on bridging the “valley of death” between discovery and commercialisation – the technologies that change the world are those that can be brought out of the lab and made mass-producible and profitable.