Secretary of State speech at Tech UK, London

A speech delivered by Secretary of State for Science, Innovation, and Technology, Michelle Donelan, at Tech UK on Monday 11 March

The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP

[Political content removed from this transcript.]

Good morning, everybody, and thank you to techUK for bringing us together today and choosing the theme of growth and public services for our discussion.  

It is no secret that what really motivates and excites me about science and technology and innovation is the truly transformative effect on public services and our economy that new advancements bring. 

My officials will testify that I constantly bang on about public services, and I have made it somewhat my mission to hammer home the real world impact of technology has and can have on people. 

Everything we do in DSIT is shaped around a common goal of improving people’s lives from new lifesaving AI cancer treatments to reinvigorating left behind communities by fuelling their growth with new STEM skills.  

Far from being a kind of side objective of science and technology, I actually believe that transforming public services and driving growth is quite literally the whole point of our science and technology superpower mission.  

That is why I have listened to industry and formed three pillars of what will take us there – skills, scale-up and regulation.  

The right skills to meet the future needs of emerging tech and science businesses…  

The right ecosystem for start-ups to scale-up through homegrown capital investment… 

And common-sense regulation that supports and facilitates innovation… 

These three pillars are critical to turning the incredible Whitehall startup story that is my department, DSIT, into a success story for our public services and our economy.  

So, I am pleased to see this on the agenda…  

…and today, in fact, we have launched our science and technology superpower campaign, showcasing the very best of British business to investors here in the UK.

But for this session I want to touch on three areas as illustrative examples of how we are really driving growth and improving public services just as we speak.

And what better way to start than on broadband and connectivity – which form the basic foundation of all digital growth and – particularly when it comes to advanced wireless connectivity like 5G – it truly has the potential for a new, locally delivered, high tech health service as well.  

Every single house and business we connect to gigabit broadband, and every new mobile connection represents a step closer to a true digital economy where opportunity is spread equally.  

That is why we have embarked on one of the largest infrastructure projects since the Victorian era.  

In fact, we have laid enough fibre optic cable to go around the Earth five times over.  

And by the time we have connected the remaining homes, we’ll have laid enough cable to go nearly halfway to the Moon.  

That’s been achieved in the space of just a single Parliament.

For communities across the country, that means we have gone from just 6% coverage in 2019 to over 81% coverage today.   

Thanks to a unique public-private partnership that this government decided to pioneer, [political content removed] our plan we’re now rolling out Gigabit broadband faster than anywhere else in the EU.

With the government working hand-in-hand with business right now we connect a premises to gigabit broadband every 13 seconds.  

And independent research estimates that a gigabit connection adds an extra £217 per person, per year to the UK economy.  

Let’s think about that for a moment – every 13 seconds, this government, working with industry, is improving another person’s economic output by £217 – and probably more in the same household.  

Since I started speaking, in fact, today, that’s about 50 new premises and several times that number in terms of people with access to connections which are adding hundreds of pounds more to our economy each year.  

That means more money into our economy and more money into public services.  

But it goes well beyond economics. 

To me that is 50 young families with access to education and employment opportunities that they didn’t have before.

It’s 50 businesses with access to new markets for their products and services.  

It’s 50 elderly people able to keep in touch with their loved ones and using better healthcare technology in their home.  

That is what I mean when I say that everything we do must be geared toward real, tangible outcomes for real people.  

I saw that when I visited Northumberland just the other week, celebrating the millionth home connected by the government funded-rollout of Gigabit broadband, I saw how it is changing lives for people young and old – especially outside our cities, in our rural communities.

And we have a bold ambition – as set out in our Wireless Infrastructure Strategy- for all populated areas to have access to higher quality standalone 5G connectivity by the end of the decade.   

But this advanced wireless technology is so much more than connecting smart phones – it offers a very high grade of connectivity that can unleash growth and productivity in sectors across the economy, from manufacturing, to agritech, to the creative industries.  

Our £40 million 5G Innovations Regions programme is about realising the vast potential that exists in sectors across the economy and in every corner of the United Kingdom.  

And we won’t stop at 5G. Our work is well underway to prepare for the next generation of wireless technologies that will emerge in the next decade: and that is, of course, 6G. 

The next thing I want to discuss today really doesn’t get enough attention in my opinion – yet is one of the great untapped resources that we have right at our fingertips.  

When it comes to delivering public services, every developed country faces the same fundamental challenge – we have to deliver more services… For more people… Using fewer resources.  And what is that thing that I’m alluding to? It is, of course, data.

So, best public services in the 21st Century will be defined by their ability to be delivered in an efficient and effective way.  

In my view, data will be absolutely critical to this.

I said in my recent scaleup speech the other month that the public sector and other organisations are sitting on mountains of incredibly useful data that could be used more to improve public services while of course protecting privacy. 

I am making it my mission to help unlock that hidden potential and ensure that the UK catches up with other countries who are already reaping the rewards of better data utilisation.  

In last week’s Budget, the Chancellor confirmed two new pilots to improve data access whilst protecting data protection and security. The pilots will help generate new AI services to support teaching and promote better data access and services in the adult social care sector. 

The Data Bill that I am currently steering through Parliament with my wonderful team of ministers is just one step in the making of this a reality – on its own it will add £10 billion to our economy and most crucially – we designed it so that the greatest benefit would be felt by small businesses across our country.  

Cashing in on a Brexit opportunity that only we were prepared to take, and now those rewards are going to be felt by the next generation of founders and business owners in local communities.  

But as I said earlier this year, data-driven public services are not just a nice to have, they are an absolute necessity if we are going to be able to deliver more for the public at better value for money.   

The NHS has already used innovative data analysis to target the HPV vaccine at younger patients, where its benefits will be felt most strongly. When used in this way, the vaccine has reduced incidents of cervical cancer by up to 87%, which I personally think is absolutely remarkable.

All parts of the public sector can play a part here in finding ways to use anonymised local and national data to target public services more effectively.

I take an unapologetically pro-business, pro-common-sense approach when it comes to people’s lives and making sure technology delivers for them.  

That approach is indispensable for the final example I want to talk about today, and that is artificial intelligence – the technology that, perhaps more than any other, will define the decade to come.   

AI is where we see technology’s potential for the public sector go into overdrive. Whether in our health service or our transport systems, there is quite literally no limit to what AI could achieve.

It really is one of those areas that does keep me up at night, but in a good way. 

Today, because of the bold and unique approach the UK has taken on AI since the creation of my department, our AI sector is widely regarded as the third largest in the world, behind only the US and China.   

And, as the technology evolves even faster, and the world’s leading companies choose to locate themselves in London, we can expect it to go from strength of strength.   

We are leading the way with AI safety so that we can grip the risks to seize the opportunities. Having convened the world last year at Bletchley Park and secured landmark agreements including access to pre and post deployment testing of models. And we are now home to the world’s very first AI Institute which is already functioning and has begun testing models.

Our AI market is predicted to grow to over one trillion dollars by 2035 – now to put that into context, that is the same size as our entire tech sector put together today. The economic possibilities for the UK are genuinely staggering.  

But all this is quite meaningless unless behind those stats, they translate into tangible benefits small businesses and communities.  

In the same way as the internet boom has enriched the lives of every single person across the country, so too can AI.  

Imagine for a minute a transport network where the network is smart enough to work around passengers rather than the passengers working around the network.  

Or imagine a fully scaled, smart electricity grid that smashes the UK’s net zero targets on time because we only generate what we actually use.  

And the one that really means something to many of you here today I believe, is the power of what it could do for our NHS. Imagine an NHS where AI is detecting cancer earlier than we ever thought possible, or where new drugs are available to cure illnesses that we have tried and failed to do for centuries.  

Through the AI in Health and Care Award, we have invested £123 million to test and evaluate artificial intelligence technologies in crucial areas that cause the most harm to health and the economy.  

For instance, technology being used in stroke care and is significantly increasing the speed at which patients are diagnosed and treated, which in turn is improving the rates of independent living following a stroke. In fact, we have deployed AI technology into 95% of stroke units in England. That’s not what could happen, that is what is happening.

Like data, it can help medical professionals across the country in more everyday ways, too – saving them time, saving them money and helping them to focus their efforts where it really makes a difference.     

An AI-enabled NHS could give doctors an AI co-pilot working for them 24/7 – allowing them to spend more time with their patients and improving overall patient care.  

Curing cruel diseases like cancer and dementia are genuinely now on the cards with advancements in AI around the corner, which is great news but should not mean we just sit and wait and expect it to happen.

Because what actually really excites me today in the here and now is how AI is making us far better at predicting and preventing disease – and ultimately that is what the goal of the NHS should one day be – not to treat existing disease, but to prevent it altogether.  

But however exciting this all is, I want to make a very important point today – and that is that none of these opportunities that I have spoken about today are inevitable. It, of course, requires a government that sees the potential of AI, is prepared to take the necessary steps to make sure the UK is leading the way in the safe development and deployment of AI, and is supporting our businesses and our public services to adopt AI.

If we go down the route of stifling innovation and closing the door to AI technologies, we have no hope of achieving the kind of public sector adoption that is needed to make these goals a reality.  

The Budget last week was the latest affirmation of our commitment here, from a new £7.4 million upskilling fund pilot that will help SMEs develop AI skills of the future… to the announcement that we will invest in AI Document Processing and a new pilot for using AI in speeding up planning processes.  

Our wider agile, fast-paced, but also safety-first approach has been welcomed across the board and I know techUK have been very supportive of our process and the White Paper that we recently responded to.

Now if you let me, I could of course go into the details of how our work on quantum is literally pushing the boundaries of a transformational field…  

Or how the UK compound semiconductor design power is growing through extraordinary research here on our shores…  

Or how the UK’s world-leading cyber security expertise is now sought after across the globe…  

But I am conscious of the fact that I’m probably already running over time, so I want to leave you with one final thought.  

Although we in Westminster can often get wrapped up in the theory and the policy – we have to remember how real the benefits of these technologies are to the British people.  

If you came in for your radiotherapy treatment a year or two ago, it might have taken a doctor three whole hours just to prepare you safely for the procedure.  

That is three hours per patient, and a long queue of patients each in desperate need.  

Today, right now, that same procedure is being done in the amount of time I have stood up here speaking, thanks to an amazing AI tool.

These are incredible leaps that are not just changing lives but saving them too. I want us to continue building a public service system that can deliver for the British people today and well into the future.

Thank you.

From: Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP