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Here’s What Killed The British Technology Industry

2015 January 28
by Greg Satell

The award winning movie, The Imitation Game, based on Andrew Hodges’ definitive biography of Alan Turing, won rave reviews for its portrayal of a rare genius.  Turing not only invented modern computing, but helped win World War II by breaking the German Enigma code and was a pioneer in artificial intelligence.

Even today, it’s difficult to have a serious discussion about information technology without eventually hitting on Turing machinesTuring tests or some other concept that he invented.  It’d be hard to think of anyone who matches his impact on information technology.

So it’s curious, to say the least, that his country has fared so poorly in the industry that Turing helped create.  There is no British Apple, Google or IBM.  In fact, only one company on the FTSE 100 is a computer firm.  The story of how that happened is more than a mere historical curiosity, but offers important lessons for how to foster technology and innovation.

The Improbable Origins Of Modern Computing

To understand what Turing did, we first must understand the context under which he did it. Mathematics in the early 20th century was in a state of disarray.  Its basic foundation of logic was under siege from people like CantorFrege and Russell and nobody was sure quite what to do about it.

The problem was that it had become unclear whether it is possible for a logical system to be complete, consistent and computable.  In other words, we expect math to answer questions and, if it is shown to be unable to give us answers reliably, then we have a real problem.  In effect, there was a massive hole at the very center of logic.

Faced with a foundational crisis, David Hilbert, perhaps the most influential mathematician at the time, instituted a program of problems to be solved that would set things aright.  In 1931, a little over a decade since he first posed his challenges, Hilbert got the first answers, although not the ones he was looking for.

A young Austrian logician named Kurt Gödel proved a pair of theorems that showed a system could be complete or consistent, but not both.  In effect, all systems eventually crash. Mathematics, as the world knew it, was dead forever.  Ironically, it was that insight that made computers possible.

Turing Machines And Unbreakable Codes

Alan Turing was still an undergraduate when Gödel published his famous theorems and was fascinated by his work.  As he thought about it, he realized thathe could use the Austrian’s methods, called Gödel numbering, to solve the computability problem.  It was an astounding achievement that put Turing in the first rank of mathematicians.

Yet what makes his solution important for our story is a thought experiment he invented to help him think about the problem.  He imagined a machine, consisting of little more than a strip of tape, a head that is able to read and write on that tape and a device which can move the head.  Turing showed that such a machine could calculate any computable number.
In essence, what Turing created in his mind was a universal computer.  There were computing machines before Turing’s, but they were fairly narrowly conceived machines designed to perform a specific task.  This one, in theory, could calculate anything, much like our computers today.

It was this line of thinking that led to the breaking of the German Enigma code and the development of the Colossus, the world’s first digital computer.  Due to the sensitive nature of its work, however, Winston Churchill ordered it to be destroyed after the end of the war.

The First Computers

Most people have never heard of the Colossus and, for a long time, the ENIAC, developed at the University of Pennsylvania, was considered to be the world’s first digital computer.  In truth, however, neither authentially resembles the computers that we have today.  That honor goes to the IAS machine, developed by John von Neumann at Princeton.

What von Neumann conceived, now known as the Von Neumann architecture, was a computer with separate units for storage, mathematical logic and control.  Organized this way, a machine could store separate programs to carry out specific tasks, which could then be replaced by new programs that would perform different tasks.

Another interesting aspect of the IAS machine was that it was essentially an open source technology.  Although funded by the US government to perform calculations for the development of the hydrogen bomb, it was also used for civilian work and its design was shared widely.  Neumann himself consulted for GE, IBM and other companies.

Turing continued to work on computers and, in fact, improved on von Neumann’s design with the Automatic Computing Engine he developed at England’s National Physics Laboratory.  However, its commercial development was hindered by concerns about secrecy, lack of financing and, not least, Turing’s suicide following his arrest for homosexual acts.

The Rise (And Fall?) Of The Creative Class

When we think about technological development, we usually think of white coats and labs. So it’s understandable that when governments seek to promote technology, they build massive industrial parks where talented people work quietly in pristine isolation to dream up the next big thing.

However, in The Rise Of The Creative Class, author Richard Florida presents an alternative vision.  As he tells it, it is not fancy labs that produce breakthroughs, but technology, talent and tolerance.  In effect, art galleries, cafes and a thriving social scenes are just as important as big budgets and elaborate facilities.

The story of Alan Turing bears this out.  The US, with its more tolerant society and freewheeling lifestyle, was able to attract talented immigrants like John von Neumann, Andy Grove and others.  Government support of basic research led, albeit indirectly, to the Haight-Ashbury scene as much as it did to Silicon Valley.  UK policies, on the other hand, killed its technology industry, quite literally in the case of Alan Turing.

However, past is not necessarily prologue.  Although the US stands atop the world of technology today, immigration, tolerance and funding for basic research are under fierce attack.  In fact, it has become fashionable for politicians to not only question the science that that underlies today’s technology, but even higher education itself.

So in the case of Alan Turing, we should not only remember what he lived for, but what he died for.  Which was nothing.

– Greg

7 Responses
  1. January 30, 2015

    Good post. I will add more to your last paragraph of this post.

    Many people have developed fear of technology and science since it is moving very fast. People are getting left behind as middle class has not seen a wage increase in a decade and has resulted in inequality. So when fear sets in, people want to slow down the progress and, some, even want to stop it. Politicians who play to that fear get elected and pass laws to slow down progress or make it difficult. This is what we are seeing happening in US and the world. I am not sure this situation is going to get better since people simply can’t learn as fast as the rate at which the technology is changing.

    Greg Reply:

    Good points. Although I think it’s more than just technology. There seems to be a lot of resistance to ideas in general. It used to be that graduating from Harvard was an honor, now it’s an epithet in some circles.

    – Greg

  2. Josh permalink
    February 3, 2015

    Greg, first, thanks so much for this blog, I find your insights really valuable. I’m fresh out of university, working in a tech startup, where I’m responsible for marketing and managing the software development. I studied Engineering so am now trying to take on as much knowledge and wisdom about business generally and marketing in particular. Would you be able to recommend blogs and books that I would find profitable to read in educating myself? I am especially challenged to build a business which is genuinely and consistently innovative. I have been reading Larry Keeley’s 10 Types of Innovation recently, what do you think of it as a template for innovation? It has certainly helped me to think more holistically about innovation across the whole business.

    Finally, I sadly agree with what you have written above about Britain’s tech sector deficit but must add that the future here in the UK is very bright with a huge crop of young tech firms and talent which promise to do great things.


    Greg Reply:

    Hi Josh,

    I don’t know what you’re interested in specifically, but you can certainly check out Singularity University’s blog, Kurzweil AI news and MIT Technology Review for engineering focused business topics. Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist blog is worth a look too.

    I hope that’s helpful.

    – Greg

  3. February 4, 2015

    The role of military investment needs to be considered.

  4. Eugene permalink
    February 8, 2015

    “art galleries, cafes and a thriving social scenes”

    Few of which can be found in Silicon Valley. San Francisco and Oakland, yes, and some of the smaller cities like Palo Alto or Berkeley. But mainly Silicon Valley is car-oriented: and zoned for office parks and single-family residences, providing little of the communal space necessary for thriving social scenes.

    Greg Reply:

    Are you suggesting that cities have suburbs?

Comments are closed.