Chapter Eight: Into the New Millennium

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The arrival of a new Millennium, without the catastrophic systems failures forecast from the so-called Millennium Bug, brought a change in public attitudes to information and communications technologies. The awe and apprehension that characterised the early days of technological innovation had vanished and been replaced with the matter-of-fact assumption that ‘we are the digital generation’. Computing power began to be taken for granted, as were project overruns and operator frustration. Digital power was moving into the commodity space that was occupied by the waning miracle of electrical power a century earlier.

The new developments were in digital media and information systems management. Personal users were looking for functionality through the convergence of technologies. Organisations were looking to leverage their investment in technology by squeezing more value from their information assets. Politicians were talking about joined up government, and expecting the technology to smooth over major organisational cracks.

Innovations at the Real Time Club

One would think that with the de-mystifying of technology, an organisation of young rebels would languish and eventually fizzle out. Instead, the Real Time Club was entering a period of renewed strength at the turn of the Millennium, with cash reserves and energy to spare.

In his Real Time Update at the commencement of the Millennium year, Chairman Charles Hughes noted:

“Y2K is upon us and the Government have just appointed their third IT Minister in 27 months! Digital TV is here, digital cable is close, mobile communications are being transformed. We are told that ‘the UK will be the best place in the world to conduct e-commerce by 2002’. The government are going to let – even encourage – entrepreneurs raise venture capital, and quantum computing is on the verge of generating a completely new wave of computing.

“What a fantastic industry and what a wonderful time to be Club Chairman. We are in robust health … finances are sound, membership is growing and the voice of the Real Time Club is heard in the land.”

During Hughes’ two year watch as Chairman, the Club settled on the National Liberal Club as the permanent home for its regular meetings, streamlined the Club Constitution, took on a professional administrator to help manage Club affairs and began the innovation of formal debate evenings to complement the usual single speaker format.

For the first formal debate, Members heard Harold Thimbleby, Professor of Computing Research at Middlesex University, and Brian Peterson, head of the encryption co-ordination unit at the Home Office, speak for the motion: This house believes that control of the Internet by governments is imperative for the wellbeing of society. Against the motion were Tricia Drakes, chairwoman of the Internet Society of England’s Advisory Board, and Christine Maxwell, vice chair of the Internet Society and creator of the Magellan online directory. Following a period of heated discussion, a vote was taken and the motion was defeated by 45 to 14. A two-page spread in Computer Weekly magazine covered the evening’s proceedings, raising the Club’s profile yet further in the industry.

Also during Hughes’ watch several key initiatives were launched, including the Club’s published Manifestos, the SCALE 21 Programme and the Leading Edge Caucus work on quantum computing.

Foresight and SCALE 21

In May 1993, William Waldegrave, MP, published the Government’s White Paper, Realising our Potential – A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology. The White Paper announced that the Government would launch a Technology Foresight Programme, led by the Chief Scientific Advisor, to ensure closer interaction between scientists, industry and government. The paper initiated a series of consultations to identify future opportunities and threats for Britain’s science, engineering and technology industries.

The first round of Foresight aimed to identify the likely social, economic and market trends in each of fifteen sectors over the next 10-20 years, and the developments in infrastructure required to prepare for future needs. By the second round, the focus was on the opportunities arising from innovation, and implications arising from the first-round panels’ findings on education, skills and training.

This had been Real Time Club territory for over a decade, and when the Club found points of disagreement with the ICT sector study it did not hesitate to fire off a robust – some called it aggressive – riposte. Their concern was with the long-term education implications of the transition from an industrial, mechanical society to the intellectual requirements of the information and cognitive age.

Following on the heels of their position paper, the Club invited Lord May of Oxford, then Chief Scientist and later President of the Royal Society, to address a monthly meeting. In the discussions that followed his speech, the Club formed the idea of running a Foresight Associate Implementation Programme for the DTI, specifically to explore the issue of IT skills for the future.

A special Resolution had to be drafted to enable the Club to run the programme under a Memorandum of Understanding with the DTI. The object of the programme was to “identify the new skills, capabilities, aptitudes, talents and professional competencies needed to develop a highly skilled and adaptive workforce … so that the whole community can realise the full potential of the Information Age”.

The programme, called SCALE 21 (Skills Capabilities Aptitude Learning Environment in the 21st Century), became the most ambitious project the Club had attempted in its 34 year history. As project lead, the Real Time Club facilitated a collaboration with several industry bodies, including eSkills-NTO, IMIS, Calibrand, BCS, IAP, IEE, Oxford University, RBI, the Royal Institution, the London Business School and the Talent Foundation.

Three working parties were set up to explore three key issues:

–    What are the actual training and qualifications available in the IT world

–    What are the intellectual skills and competencies needed by the IT industry

–    What are the attributes and support requirements of successful entrepreneurs

Over 2,000 people participated in the research, making it the largest and most comprehensive study of the subject ever attempted. The leading industry periodical, Computer Weekly, offered its support by promoting the work in a series of feature articles. One article on the study results noted:

“A survey by the Real Time Club, a group of 150 IT entrepreneurs, has found that the industry lacks strong leaders and people who can deliver results. British IT professionals scored lower on skills than their United States counterparts and were particularly poor at arithmetic and logic, a skill taught in the US but not in the United Kingdom”.

The results of the research were presented at the ‘Building Britain’s Brainpower Conference’ hosted by the DTI in February 2001. They showed in part that there is no correlation between actual computing ability and the traditional measures of academic aptitude used by educational institutions and employers. The main recommendation was for a major research project to explore how the education system might better serve the needs of this new industry.

Sadly, the DTI was in the midst of another major re-organisation at the time these results were delivered and the momentum behind the programme launch seemed to have been lost.

The Brash Upstart

In the years 2000 and 2002, with the publication of its Manifesto for the Age of Information Technology, the Real Time Club tried to ignite some more political energy in an industry it felt was becoming too complacent. Apart from the Club’s policy recommendations in the 1970’s, the only other attempt to get IT on the political agenda had been launched by the CSSA (Computer Software and Services Association), with its own Manifesto in 1997.

Part of the Club’s objective in issuing these Manifestos had been to stimulate wider debate among fellow institutions, but there was little response from that quarter. Certainly, one of the great strengths of the Real Time Club has always been that it has remained sufficiently small, unfettered by rules and passionate about the industry to be able to rush headlong where others dared not go. As a result, the Club has often acted alone or taken the lead on significant projects in the industry.

This had been the case in the mid-1980’s when word began to emerge from the scientific community of a new technology that would revolutionise the revolution of information technology. David Deutsch presented a paper to the Royal Society entitled Quantum theory, the Church-Turing principle and the universal quantum computer. In it he suggested that a quantum of light or energy could be used to store and process information.

Because these quantum particles behave in ways that are totally different from the visible world – existing, for example, in several different places at the same time – the ability to use them for computing would spell the end of linear logic-bound systems.

The implications for the speed and power of computer processing, not to mention the possibilities for secure data transmission, were electrifying for a small band of visionary entrepreneurs, many of whom were active in the Real Time Club. The British Computer Society had also seen the potential, and formed a Specialist Group through which many members of both organisations kept a watching brief on developments in this nascent technology.

By the mid-1990’s, the European Commission had taken note of quantum work in the laboratory. Over pre-dinner drinks at an RTC dinner one evening, Brian Oakley, former head of the government’s Research Councils, mentioned this to Charles Ross, and the two decided to travel to Brussels. There they met with Simon Bensasson, Director of the EC’s Long Term Research Unit, to discuss how Quantum Information Processing (QIP) might be included in the Vth Framework Research Programme.

What they felt was needed was a taxonomy of the subject to outline the parameters on which to base a call for research proposals. In order to be acceptable to the research community, the taxonomy would have to be peer reviewed at an international conference, but by the time Bensasson had worked out his timetable for the work to be included in the Vth Framework it became apparent that the initial project proposal would have to be completed and approved in under a week!

With Ross and Oakley driving the project, the Real Time Club was ready to move, but the EC could only contract with legal entities. One obvious solution was to have the BCS take the lead, but that organisation’s bureaucracy weighed heavily against quick decisions. In the event, some BCS officers were also RTC members, and willing to join in with RTC plans. With their support, a proposal was submitted to the EC within the week and a contract signed with the BCS to launch the Quantum Computing in Europe Pathfinder Project. Eighteen countries participated in the project, with Brian Oakley as chairman and Charles Ross as secretary, and their work culminated in an international peer reviewing conference in Helsinki.

Despite the fact that the project was a huge coup for the organisation, the BCS hierarchy were not pleased to find that their authority structure had been bypassed. Their opposition put the project at risk, so the RTC set up the European Institute of Quantum Computing as a limited company to take over the contract if needed.

The project was a resounding success. The group’s findings formed the foundation of the Vth Framework € 34m annual Research Programme launched in Berlin in 1999, and the formation by the Electronics and Physical Sciences Research Council of the Quantum Information Processing Interdisciplinary Research Coordination in Oxford. Today there is a strong centre of research in the UK contributing, along with over a hundred institutions worldwide, to the building of quantum processors and databases. The Real Time Club’s Leading Edge Caucus continues to publish periodic newsletters drawing attention to the various developments in QIP.

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