Is the UK ready for the future of compute?

Written by Laura Foster on 17 June 2022 in Opinion

The government’s upcoming review should consider ways to increase the country’s computing capacity, believes Laura Foster of techUK

Credit: Rawpixel

We are at an exciting juncture for technology and innovation in the UK.

The government’s future of compute review, launched during this week’s London Tech Week, foresees a world where nearly every aspect of business and research is transformed by the rapid growth in computing capabilities. 

High-performance computing (HPC) and artificial intelligence are already vital tools for R&D, helping to solve complex scientific and industrial challenges in sectors like life sciences, financial services, energy and manufacturing, and these capabilities are increasingly essential for research, product development, prototyping and testing. From protein folding at Deepmind, to weather and climate modelling at the Met Office, we are already experiencing the impact of AI and HPC here in the UK. 

The UK still lags other nations when it comes to the infrastructure, skills and resources needed for UK businesses to engage and lead the future of computing. At present, the UK has only 1.4% of the world’s HPC performance capacity and does not host any of the top 20 most powerful systems globally. 

We are also seeing a growing convergence of these technologies with quantum and cloud computing, heralding a future of on-demand and quantum accelerated compute, delivered as a service through public or private cloud, without the huge capital investment involved in on-premises capabilities. This has the potential to democratise access to deep tech and foster a more open and diverse innovation ecosystem, but the growing importance of compute to the UK’s position as a leader in science and technology also makes these capabilities a strategic resource and key to future economic growth. 

However, research by the Government Office for Science found that, although the UK has a strong tech sector, our large-scale computing infrastructure lags behind other major global economies and there is a clear need for a new long-term strategy and sustained public and private investment driven by close collaboration between government, academia and industry. 

For the UK to be a science and technology superpower, techUK believes we need an approach to expanding our computing capacity to nurture this growing convergence between HPC, AI, quantum and cloud.

Building on the UK’s strengths 
It is important to acknowledge that the UK does have some significant strengths that will support the next generation of computing. For example, The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Hartree Centre has been working to bring together HPC, AI, and quantum in a public-private partnership that aims to accelerate R&D and open access to these capabilities across a broad ecosystem of partners in industry and academia.

The UK should also be vocal about its success in quantum. The establishment of the National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) and four technology hubs in 2014 have been crucial in growing our thriving quantum sector, which has seen steadily increasing investment in UK start-ups. The forthcoming UK Government Quantum Strategy will showcase how quantum will be instrumental to breakthroughs in areas like climate science, drug discovery, molecular dynamics, physical simulation, and more powerful machine learning. 

Location of the world's 500 most powerful computers

China – 173
US – 128
Japan – 33
Germany – 31
France – 22
Canada – 13
UK – 12

Other – 88

Source: TOP500

Underpinning this potential is the UK’s strong heritage of innovation, with an established legacy of turning research into development, from Turing’s computer to the recent Covid-19 vaccine.

We are also home to high R&D sectors such as telecoms, automotive and aerospace, which are key players in new technology development. In academia, the UK has four out of the top ten global universities and accounts for 4% of researchers, 7% of academic publications, and 14% of highly cited academic publications in the world – despite having less than 1% of the world’s population. These factors could be major pulls for global computing talent, catalysts for partnerships, and key tools for international influence in this space.

Positioning the UK for success
The UK still lags other nations when it comes to the infrastructure, skills and resources needed for UK businesses to engage and lead the future of computing. At present, the UK has only 1.4% of the world’s HPC performance capacity and does not host any of the top 20 most powerful systems globally. 

To solve these challenges, we need a national mission to grow our large-scale computing capacity and improve access for businesses and research organisations of all sizes to leading-edge systems. This could include through international partnerships with PRACE (in Europe) and the US’s DOE INCITE Program, as well as investment in domestic capabilities through organisations like the Hartree Centre and NQCC.

This national mission must also recognise that many smaller users will have difficulty accessing these cutting-edge tools of innovation, due to high capital or skill requirements, or they simply may not be aware of the potential applications in their industry. We also need to consider how to build a broader and more diverse ecosystem while addressing issues like security, interoperability, data portability, and ethical innovation.  

As the government embarks on its review of the UK’s computing infrastructure this summer, it should consider how to leverage this convergence of technologies and work with the UK tech sector to improve access to these powerful tools of discovery and innovation.  


About the author

Laura Foster is head of technology and innovation at techUK

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