Interview part 1: The Government’s chief technology adviser highlights the potential of AI and 5G, along with some established collaboration tools
It is 10 months since Liam Maxwell changed jobs, moving from the role of government chief technology officer to its national technology adviser, but he is still covering some of the same ground.
While stepping back from the task of setting out the tech framework for central government, he continues to work with the industry on the digital foundations of the UK, and give plenty of thought to where public services fit in the larger picture.
“The best way of describing it is doing for the digital economy what I did for government tech,” he says. “The brief is to give us the opportunity to have a solid, coherent approach that is based on good tech fundamentals.”
Speaking to UKAuthority he outlines those fundamentals as issues that have been prominent since he moved into government in 2010: infrastructure and connectivity; the availability of hyper scale cloud computing; and building digital skills. But he also has an eye on the potential for technologies that are in their early days of implementation – or still on the drawing board.
This includes machine learning and artificial intelligence, for which there has been a surge in interest around what it can do in public services. Maxwell agrees it has a lot of potential in areas such as smart transport and for supporting complex decision-making; and despite recent forecasts that it could replace hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs, he takes the upbeat view that it could lead to “a more fulfilling public service career set”.
But he adds his voice to those saying the ethical issues have to be taken seriously. He relates it to the way two other controversial scientific advances have taken shape. Work on human embryos has generally been well received because of work done by the Human Fertilisation Embryology Authority in spreading understanding and building public trust. In contrast, efforts to introduce GM crops went ahead without such an effort, following which a lot of people quickly identified them as a threat.
The emergence of artificial intelligence is a similar step change that needs that trust.
“There is a settlement we need to reach. Although the tech is great and will grow, you have to trust the solution it gives you,” he says, adding: “If the public don’t trust your tech they won’t use it, particularly in the public services space.”
Similarly, he is watching developments around the internet of things and smart places, and says bodies such as the Digital Catapult are doing valuable work. But the crucial developments will not be around the proliferation of connected sensors and devices, but the “fundamentally transformative technology” of 5G networks.
“It’s the intelligence around what it’s doing,” he says. “It’s not just ‘Here, have a signal’, it’s ‘This signal is being used in a particular way and can be fine-tuned to work in the best way for that device in that environment’.
“It gives a much more granular understanding of what you are doing, where and how.”
5G will not be available in the UK for a few years yet, and while it is not quite at the centre of public sector thinking, he believes there is a growing understanding of its potential in government.
“I would not say that people don’t understand the opportunity, but they are learning much more about wider opportunities which you only get when you sit down and work with the stuff. It is really going to change the way we live.
“I see all the issues around planning and being able to get reach are issues, but we just have to work our way through them. The ability to transmit to a wider area will be fascinating. Fibre to the lamppost might be the thing.”
Maxwell acknowledges there could be privacy implications, and that government will have to learn more about some of the components. This has prompted the Government to provide backing for the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey, which he expects to make a big contribution to the broader understanding of the technology.
Other tech developments that he sees as important are the work on autonomous vehicles, the arrival of drones, and the potential for more people to create digital content without traditional coding skills. And others that are already here could be used more widely, especially those supporting collaboration at work.
“It supports much greater sharing of content and ideas,” he says. “That’s going to be where you will see more people collaborating across industry boundaries. The ability for people to collaborate more will reap many more rewards that it probably has in the past, and that’s because we have technologies that allow it to happen quickly, smoothly and effectively.”
He speaks approvingly of a couple of established packages for collaboration – Evernote and G-Suite – and suggests the next set of technologies will be based on such platforms.
Meanwhile, he believes there has been good progress on those three fundamentals. Despite the criticisms over the roll out of superfast broadband, he praises the work done by Broadband Delivery UK and is confident that 95% of the country will have coverage by the end of the year.
“There is always going to be more to do in that space, but we feel that’s now working really well,” he says.
He sees a good mix of availability in cloud services, from big multinationals such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, and UK outfits such as UKCloud and Memset. This has been accompanied by the Crown Hosting data centres for the public sector, which he says are providing big savings and providing a route of getting away from legacy providers.
“The uptake is not as strong as it should be in local government, and a lot of it is down to getting the message out there,” he says. “It’s at different stages of maturity, and central government telling local government to do something is never the way to get enormous traction.”
As he acknowledges the local government challenges, Maxwell also has an eye on the international scene and some of its possibilities. More in the second part of our interview to be published on 1 March.