Britain must find its tech champions or be left behind

Britain must find its tech champions or be left behind

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But the growing disparity also raises questions about Europe’s failure to generate anything comparable.

Europe may have some fine universities, brainy entrepreneurs and a few exciting 
start-ups, but it has so far utterly failed to produce genuine competitors to Silicon Valley.

Consider the fact that Europe’s most valuable listed tech company is SAP, a German software giant, which at €167bn, or $198bn, is worth less than one tenth of Apple’s valuation.

Next largest is Dutch chipmaker ASML, at €158bn (£142bn) while a cursory glance down the list makes clear an obvious fact: Europe’s next biggest tech players are a puny bunch compared with Silicon Valley’s muscle men.

London’s top tech offerings are even more feeble with Sage, an £8bn accounting software provider, representing Britain’s largest listed technology company.

But what is to blame for this situation? Is it a more conservative business culture? A failure to effectively commercialise academic research? Or the dead hand of European regulation that stifles the kind of red-blooded capitalist endeavour on which Silicon Valley was built? 

Or perhaps a mixture of all of these factors and more. Either way, as Britain looks ahead to Brexit, an opportunity exists to differentiate itself by becoming a better place for technology companies to invest and grow.

That must mean a more competitive tax regime and the rollback of regulations that have held it back in the past to boost innovation.

The comparison between the US and European public markets is not entirely fair, of course.

Some of the top technology companies in the UK, Germany and Scandinavia remain in private ownership, while US investors have always had a better understanding of the tech industry and markets there are more liquid.

That means many European technology companies end up shifting to the US or listing their shares there. 

For example, Spotify – the Swedish music streaming company – is worth $49bn but decided to list its shares on the NYSE.

That trend, however, is part of the problem. Either way, as the global economy becomes ever more centred on technology, Europeans continue to buy their phones from US and Korean companies, use US and Chinese social networks and shop online via Amazon.

In the long -run that could ultimately mean they find it tougher to generate jobs and tax revenue to fund government services. Britain needs to find a solution to the problem.

 

Much to learn on the use of AI

The fiasco over exam marking this month has caused anguish for millions of pupils and exposed the big social risks of relying too heavily on algorithmic decision-making.

A hasty about-turn by ministers might have helped rescue Gavin Williamson’s career – for now at least.

But the implications don’t end there. Algorithmic governance is emerging as a red hot legal area likely to prove to be a honeypot for lawyers for the foreseeable future. 

From criminal justice to healthcare and education and employment, computational and predictive technologies are being rolled out at a rapid rate. 

Like Ofqual’s flawed grading algorithm, which used incomplete and biased data, many of these systems are poorly designed and are likely to spit out bad decisions. 

The failure to properly supervise its creation and worse, press ahead with issuing results when it was obvious they were wrong, points to the urgent need for greater oversight. 

Fortunately, a clear legal avenue exists for challenging these decisions. It may be about to grow increasingly congested.

Under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and the UK Data Protection Act 2018, decisions about people’s lives that are entirely automated are afforded extra protections to prevent discrimination and unfairness.

Ofqual has already sought to defend itself against a potential deluge of legal challenges by claiming the grade decisions did not count as being fully automated. 

Many lawyers believe Ofqual is on very shaky legal ground here.

This is opening up a whole new area of law that government lawyers are going to have to bone up on quickly if such decisions keep on being made by algorithms for everything from determining exam grades to welfare payments, the likelihood that a prisoner may reoffend or to sift through visa applications for immigrants.

 

Christopher Williams is away



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