Trillion dollar tech ambitions
Behind each of these trends is the battle to define Britain’s post-Brexit future, a battle in which the vision of one man - Dominic Cummings - is of large and increasing influence.
It has been a month of moonshots, trillion-dollar tech ambitions, the ‘national tragedy’ of a company sale, and not-so-subtle military signalling. On Wednesday 9th September, details of a proposed ‘moonshot’ plan to provide millions of daily covid-19 tests were leaked, sparking intense debate at the tech tools - some apparently yet to be invented - needed to achieve this goal. Over the same week, journalists reported on Downing Street’s ambition to build a ‘trillion dollar tech company’ - an ambition, some claimed, contributing to disputed state aid provisions in the EU Withdrawal Agreement. No sooner had the policy and business worlds begun digesting this ambition, it was announced that the US chip making giant Nvidia would buy Arm from Softbank. Days later, the Prime Minister’s powerful aide, Dominic Cummings, was spotted walking into Downing Street brandishing a famous letter on tech-driven military innovation. What connects these trends?
Behind each of these is the battle to define Britain’s post-Brexit future, a battle in which the vision of one man - Dominic Cummings - is of large and increasing influence. While assumed by the Remain-centric press have been motivated either by deluded post-imperial romanticism or simple bigotry on the part of the English mass, the Brexiteer movement was surprisingly heterodox. Working class voters seeking controls on immigration combined with Tories committed to widening relations with the Commonwealth; left wingers wishing to take down the ‘neoliberal’ EU joined with libertarians inspired by notions of a ‘Singapore on Thames’. To a numerically small but influential grouping, Brexit was motivated by an altogether different dream - a techno-nationalist vision of state-driven scientific and institutional revolution.
The architect of the Vote Leave campaign, treated to a Cummerbatch portrayal in Brexit: the Uncivil War, Cummings is now famous for his successful and controversial applications of big data and analytics to political campaigning. But his interest in tech goes far beyond mere electoral advantage. Alleged to have placed ‘get Brexit done, then DARPA’ upon his whatsapp profile, Cummings is a man on a quest to transform the UK - or so he would have us believe. For several years the keeper of a lengthy blog, his writings reveal his driving interests lie in the study and improvement of technology and institutions - and the urgency of doing so.
To read the work of Cummings to gain a sense of time running out, of creeping existential anxiety about British society, it’s place in the world order, and the survival of humanity itself. In 2014 he described a UK elite unable to adapt to change, a system “stuck in a vicious circle – held in place by feedback loops between people, ideas, and institutions – whatever the outcome of the next election, the big problems will remain, No10 will continue to hurtle from crisis to crisis with no priorities and no understanding of how to get things done”. The risks from this go beyond mere government dysfunction; it leads to a “mismatch between a) the growing reach of technology and the fragility of our civilisation, and b) the quality of elite decision makers and their institutions’ capacity to cope with these technologies and fragilities”. He went on to warn that “If this mismatch persists, if we continue to pursue ‘traditional politics’ in the context of contemporary civilisation, it will sooner or later blow up in our faces.”
Adapting to these challenges requires sweeping reforms of state institutions, all aimed at developing ‘institutional mechanism for error-correction’ and enabling complex systems-management; a reshaping of national educational priorities to favour STEM and management training; and for the UK, a new “national goal and organising principle” - a focus on “making ourselves the leading country for education and science.”
In this view, Brexit was thus above all the opportunity for an institutional re-set, a chance to break free of received patterns imposed both by European regulations and British bureaucratic inertia. An opportunity, therefore, for creative destruction. But this breaker of norms and institutions is one notably enthused by the prospect of an activist state, keen to highlight in particular that the “that the high tech market ecosystem depends on government funded basic science.”
This is obvious in his interest in ARPA, the US government-funded fundamental research institute, work from which lay behind many of the 20th century’s most famous inventions. In 2018 he wrote: Post-Brexit Britain should be considering the intersection of 1) ARPA/PARC-style science research and ‘systems management’ for managing complex projects with 2) the reform of government institutions so that high performance teams — with different education/training (‘Tetlock processes’) and tools (including data science and visualisations of interactive models of complex systems) — can make ‘better decisions in a complex world’.
“In power, government policymaking has followed this priority. The March budget saw £800 million set aside to fund a ARPA like institute, with a further £140 devoted to similar projects in the new NHSx lab. Time will tell if this investment brings fruit.
Moonshot to Manhattan
No society has been left untouched by the pandemic, and those with capacity to conduct an organised response have mobilised resources to a degree rarely witnessed outside of wartime. It is not surprising therefore, that the pandemic response has given expression to a long-term interest of Cummings - how to inspire and run ‘high-performing teams’ capable of gigantic endeavours like the Manhattan Project. Months before the pandemic, he invited cross-disciplinary job applicants to learn from the Manhattan Project itself. Eight months later, leaks reveal the government to be considering a ‘Manhattan Project’-style effort of massive mobilisation to control the virus. An idea is having its time.
The second part of the article will be available tomorrow.