Britain has been presented with two visions of a high-tech future over the past couple of days by the government, one aimed at tackling climate change and the other at taking on the UK’s enemies with a new defence doctrine and modernisation of the armed forces.
Critics have reacted to the first by saying the proposals are a “far cry” from what will be needed to meet the legally binding 2050 target of net zero carbon emissions. The government’s £3bn in new commitments falls far short of what is needed to transform the UK into a country expanding nuclear and wind power for the grid, using hydrogen and heat pumps rather than gas in our homes and ensuring electric cars populate our roads.
In contrast, the case for the defence of the realm means the largest investment since the Cold War, although the emphasis from the prime minister was on how software and emerging technologies would mean big cost savings in military hardware. Boris Johnson spoke on Thursday about how tech would make the returns from defence investment “infinitely greater” and allow the UK to break free from “a vicious circle whereby we ordered ever decreasing numbers of ever more expensive items of military hardware, squandering billions along the way”.
His vision for warfare would make a good storyboard for a future Call of Duty video game: “A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors or satellites or drones instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal response and offering an array of options from summoning an air strike to ordering a swarm attack by drones or paralysing the enemy with cyber weapons,” he said.
Expensive ordnance and the logistics of supplying it will become things of the past: “Our warships and combat vehicles will carry directed-energy weapons, destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers, and for them the phrase ‘Out of ammunition’ will become redundant.”
But if money, and hopefully lives, can be saved in conventional warfare, there will have to be big investment to meet the challenge in the new tech-created battlegrounds of cyberwarfare and space.
The government will be putting £1.5bn into military research and development, an Artificial Intelligence centre is being established and an RAF space command that will launch a rocket and satellites from Scotland. A new National Cyber Force is combining intelligence agencies and service personnel to combat terrorism and hostile state activity.
It is online, networked warfare in which, to return to that video game analogy, the age of Minesweeper and World of Tanks is coming to an abrupt end.
The Internet of (Five) Things
1. Take-off a struggle for Amazon drones
Amazon is laying off dozens of R&D and manufacturing staff working on its much-anticipated delivery drone project, with the company turning to outside help to get its heavily delayed ambitions off the ground. Drone deliveries at scale are still a “years away” prospect, a person familiar with Amazon’s plans told us.
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2. EU ‘slow’ to tackle Big Tech
Brussels has failed to tame Big Tech because it has moved too slowly and lacked the legal muscle to restrain the likes of Google and Facebook from crushing their rivals, a new report from the EU’s external auditor has said. Our own John Thornhill has been looking at the challenges faced by the European Commission over the next few months as it unveils landmark legislation to help protect consumers and smaller companies from the overmighty US tech giants.
3. Bitcoin near record high
The digital currency has surged to within striking distance of the record high it set three years ago, but some analysts cautioned that further gains would leave the price “screaming” for a major correction. Is it a boom or a bubble? asks Adam Samson.
4. Joyy’s share misery and muddied waters
Shares in Chinese technology group Joyy fell as much as 26 per cent on Wednesday after short-seller Muddy Waters alleged its video streaming site was a fraud. Joyy has denied claims its YY Live service has fake transactions, fake users and uses bots. Lex says this could present a problem for Baidu, China’s version of Google, which agreed to buy YY for $3.6bn this week.
5. Be rude and save the planet
British officials working on plans to tackle climate change have alighted on research suggesting that more than 64m unnecessary emails are sent by Britons every day, pumping thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere owing to the power they consume. The 10 most “unnecessary” emails included messages saying only “thank you”, “appreciated”, “cheers” and “LOL”.
Forwarded from Sifted — the European start-up week
The art on the 29th floor London penthouse apartment of German tech investor and entrepreneur Christian Angermayer has two themes: psychedelia and gay emperors. It is fittingly eccentric for a man who has been perhaps the single biggest financial driving force behind shifting psychedelic drugs from being a dusty relic of 1960s’ counterculture into the medical mainstream as a legal medicine to treat mental illnesses. But who is Angermayer? And what is he up to next?
Elsewhere in European start-ups, there is increasing hype about a new breed of companies that are buying up huge portfolios of Amazon stores and scaling them up. Last week, Heroes launched in the UK with a $65m seed round and Berlin-based Razor Group raised €25m. This week SellerX raised €100m to become the “Procter & Gamble of Amazon”. There was also on Wednesday a good lesson about how not to launch a fintech start-up from Lanistar; Sifted also has news that even pets are learning online during the lockdown while it discovered what Paris campus Station F’s list of promising start-ups tells us about European tech today.
Tech tools — Google Pay
Like a number of the internet giant’s services over the years, Google Pay has been through long fallow periods without much in the way of innovation, writes Richard Waters. It is used on only about 4 per cent of the 2.5bn Android devices around the world, according to Statista.
But now the app is going through a two-stage revamp in the rather backward-on-banking US. The first, this week, adds new bells and whistles to make it more engaging, as Google tries to make up for lost time. It will now be a place to keep tabs on your various bank and credit card accounts, as well as a conduit for Google to serve up personalised offers from merchants.
The second step is the more groundbreaking. Next year, users will be able to open and manage a mobile bank account directly from the app, starting with Citibank and 10 other banks and credit unions in the US. Apple’s groundbreaking credit card with Goldman Sachs has become the model for arrangements like this, as well as a strong motivator for other financial institutions to get off the sidelines and find a way to work with Big Tech. Google’s would be the first regular Big Tech checking account, though almost certainly not the last.