Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report



11.1  As we have found, the United Kingdom has substantial but under-recognised strengths in microprocessing — part of one of the world's largest industries. Building on these strengths, there are substantial and exciting opportunities for the United Kingdom. Action is needed by Government and others as identified in our various recommendations[106] if those strengths are to be maintained — let alone expanded — in the global market for computing.

11.2  Our detailed recommendations are made throughout this Report, where they are highlighted in bold type. For convenience, all the recommendations are collected together at the end of the Executive Summary in Chapter 1. In this concluding Chapter, we summarise the principal conclusions arising from our Inquiry.

The need for ever greater computer performance

11.3  Demand for computing performance has increased rapidly over the 50 year life of the computer. We see no prospect of this abating. The need for more accurate modelling — for example, of the oceans and atmosphere for climate prediction[107] or of the airflow through aero engines[108] — creates an insatiable demand at the top of the performance range for supercomputers of the highest feasible computational performance. As Fujitsu noted (p 196) it is, even in consumer products, already possible to see how a hundred times the current performance could readily be employed to deliver higher quality moving and still images.

11.4  However, sheer speed is not the only factor by which the performance of computers should be assessed. In many of the latest consumer applications — such as mobile telephony — low power and functional performance[109] are equally important. (In passing, it is worth noting that mobile telephony is not only a consumer application. As the Ministry of Defence noted (p 207), secure communications in the military domain rely on increasing mobile computing performance.)

The current UK position

11.5  There are significant UK industrial strengths in the design of microprocessors and related components. This seems not to be widely recognised, probably because the companies (most of which have developed only recently) are generally small and diverse in their activities. Academic strengths are in evidence too, although the activity in universities is limited to a relatively small number of groups that can claim to be world-class in their research activities.

11.6  As far as mainstream CMOS semiconductor manufacturing is concerned, the United Kingdom (like many other countries) no longer has a significant presence, and there is no realistic prospect of this position changing. However, as CMOS technology matures over the next 15 years or so, we see room for alternative technologies — particularly in niche areas. When new technologies are introduced, there is an opportunity for new players to gain a foothold in the market, and the United Kingdom has promising research activities in alternatives to CMOS. These research activities should continue to be supported but with better co-ordination and focus. As the winning technology has still to emerge, resources should be allocated broadly in response to promising lines of research.

Building on strengths

11.7  The existence of a thriving UK design and architecture industry is a major strength upon which future policy should aim to build. Maintaining and developing this industry requires not only a robust base of appropriate academic research but also depends on the availability of a suitably skilled workforce. Both of these need attention if the industry is to maximise its potential to contribute to the UK economy in the coming years.

11.8  One of our key recommendations is for the establishment of a national research institute to provide an appropriate focus for a new industry/university collaboration on research and development. The brief for the institute to pursue SoC initiatives might usefully be given greater impetus by pursuing particular challenges — for example, in ambient computing or biomedical systems. This new institute should also be supported by a wider networking programme, on the lines of the e-Science initiative.

11.9  It is also essential that more attention should be paid to the supply of skills and IP into the UK design and architecture industry. The expansion and better co-ordination of academic research in this area (which will lead to the expansion of postgraduate research training) and the expansion of Masters-level training will both contribute directly to satisfying the needs of industry.

The need to improve exploitation

11.10  As the UK design and architecture industry is characterised by a dynamic and diverse mix of small and medium-sized companies, a major mechanism for the exploitation of research is through start-up companies. Typically, these may be spun out from other (larger) companies or from universities. Alternatively, they may be started by independent individuals.

11.11  Whatever the origin of such start-ups, however, there is a requirement for an entrepreneurial culture where technologists, entrepreneurs and financiers mix and network on a regular basis. The establishment of clusters of start-up companies in a localised area, as is happening in the Cambridge and Bristol areas in the United Kingdom, will enhance the opportunities for economic benefit that we found so evident in Silicon Valley.

Encouraging the market

11.12  The chip technology and design matters at the centre of our Inquiry are at a remove from the new high-technology products that will capture the imagination of the mass market. The role of chip technology and design in facilitating those products, and the long lead times involved, are insufficiently understood. Leaders of the UK computing industry and those who help fund the ground-breaking developments should do more to inform and enthuse the rest of industry and the finance sector about the possibilities and, in a two-way dialogue, the way that they can be realised.

11.13  The public sector is an enormous user of computing power in all its forms, and its procurements are significant events in the market. We think the Government should develop a more strategic view of the positive influence aggregate public sector computing needs could have on the market and the R&D on which the market depends.

The difficulty of making projections

11.14  Our Inquiry has attempted to look ten to twenty years into the future. The dominant CMOS chip technology still has some years of development to come before either the fundamental properties of matter will make further progress impossible or, before then, manufacture becomes too expensive. On the technical side, the global industry's Roadmap (the ITRS) makes projections that extend out almost to the end of the twenty year period. In the past, these projections have been met — and, in some cases, surpassed.

11.15  While it may be possible to project the development of computer technology with some degree of reliability ten or more years ahead, it is much more difficult to predict the development of high-technology products — not to mention the evolution of the industries that manufacture them. This is amply illustrated by the case study of mobile phones in Appendix 10. Who, in 1980, would have confidently predicted that:

(a)  there would be European dominance of the industry;

(b)  a microprocessor designed by a UK company would be integrated into over 75% of handsets; and

(c)  UK mobile phone users would be sending each other a billion text messages every month?

What the future holds

11.16  What is abundantly clear, however, is that computing's integral place in every aspect of our lives will extend. That will result from both evolutionary and radical developments.

Evolutionary changes

11.17  On the evolutionary front, the dominant and already powerful CMOS chip technology will mature into a relatively inexpensive workhorse. Some advances in raw computer speed (or, for the same speed, improvements in power consumption) will flow from continuing miniaturisation down to the ultimate CMOS transistor, but most of the developments needed here are already in train. Many more improvements in computing performance will flow from better design and architecture, in which the United Kingdom has considerable world-class strength.

11.18  There will also be evolutionary advances in the applications and devices with embedded computing — and we cannot emphasise strongly enough that the consumer market is driven by these rather than the enabling technology. Improved applications and devices are not necessarily dependent on any advances in either chip technology or design. Evolutionary advances in those areas would doubtless encourage improvements in applications and devices, and revolutionary changes (such as the effective implementation of artificial intelligence) would seem bound to lead to new products.

11.19  We have seen the potential of near-future microelectronic technology to deliver pervasive computing devices that are everywhere around us: unobtrusively monitoring the state of buildings, vehicles and appliances; and quietly communicating with each other so that we can access the information we want, whenever and wherever we want it. Some of these devices may be on or even inside us, monitoring us to improve the quality and lower the cost of our health care.

Revolutionary change

11.20  In the longer term, such systems may be able to anticipate our wishes, requiring far less explicit instruction than today's machines require for even the simplest of tasks. Computing would then become an information utility — like other household utilities, simply on tap when needed and used with little or no thought about the delivery arrangements. Through evolutionary change, the way we live may be revolutionised.

11.21  The prospects for revolutionary change in chip technology seem less certain. In our view, the new technology would have to offer significant advantages of one kind or another over the established CMOS — at least in niche areas — to stand a chance of success. At the moment, quantum computing seems the most radical breakthrough area. However, merits are not always easy to spot in the short term and may, indeed, be different from those for which the research was devised. There are several revolutionary possibilities that are worth pursuing.


11.22  Our lives are already heavily dependent on computing and will become more so. There seems nothing unrealistic in the aspirations we heard from a number of witnesses to develop ambient or pervasive computing. Moreover, these could be achieved within even the current chip technology.

11.23  The United Kingdom can either consolidate and expand its contribution to this global growth industry or watch others overtake us. We are clear that there are opportunities here which the country would be foolish to miss.

As repeated in paragraph 1.24. Back

107   As described in the memorandum by the Meteorological Office (p 206). Back

108   As described in the memorandum by Rolls Royce (p 218). Back

109   The complete performance of the integrated system, as opposed to just the microprocessor within it. Back

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