Budget: tech & skills investment welcome, why no mention of cyber-security?
Budget: tech & skills investment welcome, why no mention of cyber-security?

The UK Chancellor Philip Hammond, announced his autumn budget today, and while it was a pro-tech budget, he had nothing to say specifically about cyber-security, hence the industry has had a lot to say about his plans. That he wants the country to go digital is encouraging, recognising that this new industrial revolution is well underway and we need to be fully on board. That there is a skills gap and we need to do something about it is also helpful, but whether the new measures are enough or even the right ones is another issue - and the uncertainties of Brexit continue to loom in the backbround.

“While the Chancellor has identified the right priorities, the overall economic forecast and tight spending constraints means that the amount of funding available is small relative to the growth potential of the sector,” commented Antony Walker, deputy CEO techUK.

Below are some of the comments sent to SC Media UK as a sample of industry reaction

On skills and education:

Walker notes that techUK was particularly pleased to see the Chancellor's package of £100 million to expand teaching of computing in schools as it has been flagging the urgent need for additional funding since 2014. He also said, “The Chancellor is right to acknowledge the need for flexibility in the Apprenticeship Levy.  Enabling companies to increase the scope of training available via Levy funds will allow training to meet the needs of new tech innovation."

Dr Jamie Graves, CEO and founder of ZoneFox commented: “...it's great news that the government is endeavouring to address the UK's digital skills gap with a two-pronged approach: at one end, tripling computer science teachers to 12,000 to educate a generation of young people; on the other, implementing a national retraining scheme to equip those already in work with new digital skills.”

However, Graves also lamented that, “ there were no initiatives announced that might help older people understand online threats. This is a particularly pertinent issue when recalling Theresa May's recent comments on Russian hackers threatening our democracy -- most alarming considering that the older generation comprise such a substantial chunk of the UK's voting base."

Lawrence Jones, CEO of UKFast also praised the new investment into training a further 8,000 computer science teachers, “to nurture home-grown talent and help plug the digital skills shortage in the UK. Tech is the future. I know there are the naysayers that believe AI is going to take our jobs, but look at the many ways tech has changed our lives for the better." 

Ian Bancroft, vice president & general manager EMEA at Secureworks said that through this investment in education and training, “ the Government is putting action to words proposed in the Cyber Security Strategy, to help unlock £630 billion for the UK economy, and for the UK to become world-leaders in technology."

Chris Rosebert, head of data science & AI at Networkers, a technology recruitment firm, commented, “The multimillion planned investment in AI digital skills courses shows great promise from the government to future proof the UK economy with the technology skills it needs to remain innovative and competitive. There is strong competition in Europe for people with AI skills, so this investment will help the UK establish a pipeline of talent for the future and help retain the talent that is already emerging in this country.”

Doron Youngerwood, product manager, Big Data & Artificial Intelligence at Amdocs however warned that it's not all about technologists in the front line: “The £500m technology investment needs to be spent wisely if it's going to have any real impact on the UK economy. The Government plans to address the digital skills gap, but specific investment is required for the training and education of marketers and sales teams who will be responsible for implementing AI-led initiatives.

“AI is already driving customer service and digital marketing for large retail brands, banks and mobile operators, and while developers and IT managers are familiar with the technology it's their colleagues in sales and marketing that will benefit most from the innovations it is driving. The same can be said of customer service agents, the frontline of any business, who will be expected to interact with AI systems and chat bots as they process customer requests. Investment in these areas will allow UK businesses to effectively manage the vast reams of data they have access to and derive the tremendous value that artificial intelligence has to offer.”

Etienne Greeff, CTO and co-founder, SecureData also asked, “Is the investment in the right place? Could it be better spent educating organisations and the general public on the risks we face online today and providing the knowledge and skills to create a more united cyber front? While Hammond has promised significant funding to secure ‘the UK's position as a world leader in transformational technologies', barely any of this is wholeheartedly reserved for cybersecurity. The more tech innovation we create, the more we need to recognise the fact that security (or lack of) will make or break its success and safety. It's time the UK government acknowledged this with more concerted efforts towards protecting British business and its citizens.”

On research and investment:

Walker agreed that the budget, “sets out a strong package of announcements for tech and innovation. Additional funding for 5G, AI, digital skills, retraining, connectivity on trains, high-value infrastructure and transforming cities sends the right signal about the ambition for the UK economy post-Brexit.”

Graves  noted the background of seemingly incessant data breaches, illustrated today through the colossal Uber hack, and called for equally contemporary solutions saying:”, the £500 million announced to support AI-focused new businesses and the further £2.3 billion for R&D will certainly help.” Jones agreed that, "It's fantastic that the government is investing £500 million directly into tech for AI, 5G and full-fibre broadband;” adding, “ it's needed,”

Jones also took a positive message that “government are listening to the tech sector'”, whereas Graves was among those to see this Budget as a sorely missed opportunity to emphasise the importance of cyber security within the digital skills gap. “Indeed, there was no explicit reference to cyber security at all, which is particularly shocking considering the near-daily headlines.”

Bancroft  agreed, also noing that, “One aspect not really addressed was cybersecurity. The acceptability that as technologies such as AI transition from concept to reality, comes new opportunities for sabotage, exploitation, data misuse, and other nefarious activities. Cybercriminals are becoming more knowledgeable, harder to trace, and better resourced, so the Government must pour resources into also properly educating those leveraging AI on how to stay safe, and use AI to their advantage. The spotlight was also on electric and driverless cars. Again, cyber-security must be prioritised to ensure that hackers do not obtain access to connected in-vehicle technology, which could allow hackers to unlock car doors, gain vehicle location history, honk horns, and perform an array of other actions.

He also adds a word of warning saying: “The UK, as Hammond states, is in a commanding position as a leader in technologies such as AI and driverless cars, however, in order to do continue to be, we must get cybersecurity right, or risk being the Guinea Pig that got it wrong.”

In contrast Jones suggested the government should be commended “for announcing an Action Plan to unlock over £20 billion of new investment in UK scale-up businesses. This is colossal for UK employment and productivity. In Manchester, UKFast is backing Tech Manchester, a mentoring project designed to aid the success of startups by connecting them to digital entrepreneurs. So obviously it's great to see the government moving along the same lines. Businesses in Silicon Valley did that ten years ago and are reaping the rewards, it's about time we caught up."

Walker told SC: “techUK welcomes the significant package of investment into the technologies of the future, including £500 million to support AI, broadband and 5G; £30 million for better connectivity on trains; £1.7 billion for the Transforming Cities Fund; and £1 billion to support high value infrastructure. The additional boost in R&D spending of £2.3 billion to set the UK on the path the to 2.4 per cent of GDP spend on research by 2027 echoes techUK's call for a powerful signal of intent to build an innovation economy.”

He also welcomed the commitment to increasing patient capital, with £2.5 billion for a new National Investment Fund and described increases in the Enterprise Investment Scheme investment limits as positive steps to support tech businesses grow and scale.

Investors generally welcomed the moves with Patrick Reeve, managing partner, Albion Capital, saying:“The Treasury's intention to focus the industry on innovation and growth is welcome. We are highly supportive of innovation and committed to finding and backing more ambitious businesses in areas where we see excellent growth potential, such as digital healthcare, automation, cyber security and data analytics.”

GDPR/Brexit uncertainty:

Graves pointed out that, “Other vital details omitted include the upcoming GDPR legislation - funding boosts to new tech companies will be no good if these businesses fail to comply to GDPR standards, thanks to a lack of education and preparation.”

However Walker saw regulation being supported and welcomed the announcement of the new Centre for data ethics and innovation (£9 million) and the Regulators' Pioneer Fund (£10 million) “which builds on the sandbox approach by the FCA to support fleet of foot effective regulation. This will benefit consumers and businesses alike.”

But Walker too mentioned Brexit uncertainty saying “The reality for many UK tech businesses is that the Budget measures announced today will not make up for the uncertainty created by Brexit.  To really be ‘fit for the future', tech businesses need to know what that future holds.”

David Galsworthy, CEO and Co-Founder of Techspace, adds, “After the Brexit vote there's been a lot of uncertainty around what would replace the European Investment Fund. With the promise of a new £2.5 billion investment fund, the government is seeking to help the UK's scale up companies bridge the funding gap and help them grow into the next technology unicorns. This is welcome news in a post-Brexit UK tech economy.”

Walker continued, “Putting money aside for a hard Brexit is pragmatic, but does not deflect from the urgent need for progress in the Brexit negotiations, including securing a transition deal on which businesses can make future investment decisions.  This may not be in the Chancellor's hands, but will determine whether the UK thrives or falters in the global, tech-led future, on the horizon.”

This uncertainty was echoed in the words of Poppy Gustafsson, CEO EMEA at Darktrace who first described the UK science base as second to none and noted that it  is reassuring to see that the autumn budget includes a significant investment in R&D and AI, but went on to add, “we must also recognise that this financial injection will only be effective if the UK is able to remain an appealing place for world-class scientists to work and live in. The government already recognises that AI is a driver of future economic growth. Indeed, we have already created some of the world-leading AI companies in cyber-security and legal tech, for example, where computers are aiding humans to solve complex problems.

“But as competition for the brightest minds in these fields intensifies, the UK must remain open and welcoming to scientists from Europe and beyond.” 

Data:

Walker also described Open Data as food for innovation saying, “steps to further the Government's Open Data agenda will benefit industry and citizens alike. As data becomes openly available it is important that we also protect its quality and integrity. We therefore support a new Geospatial Data Commission, with funding of £80 million, to look at these issues in the round.”

Driverless cars:

Stephen Morrow, principal security consultant at SQS wrote in specifically in response to Hammond's plans for Driverless Cars, saying, “To ensure consumer safety, but also garner the consumer trust required for recognising a healthy future for the UK as a driverless hub, manufacturers must evolve to also become IT engineers and provide assurances that the quality of the software that driverless cars depend on is prioritised to prevent software glitches and cyber-intrusion before models come off the production line and are available to the public.”