Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 01/84 item 02 - scanned

BRITAIN MUST MAKE A CHOICE (column)

We are reaching a critical moment in our national development. Right now we are highly dependent on international trade and, in particular, for a very high level of imports to sustain our computing activities. Sir Clive Sinclair warned a recent meeting of the British Computer Society that "the era of free trade between nations in technology is ending, and soon all research will be conducted behind a wall of secrecy". To put these remarks in context, he was emphasising the importance of self sufficiency in VLSI chip-making.

Britain is uniquely placed to take advantage of a trade in knowledge which could become the biggest source of income for those nations able to compete. We may not have massive material resources but we do have a long history of breeding very inventive and creative people. Our brains are the mines of the future, together with our national treasuries of information. Fortunately for us, most of it is written in English, the language which is globally used as the first or second language of business.

Unfortunately, we won't be able to compete at all without the enabling technologies, many of which are imported at the moment. If Sir Clive's view of the future is an accurate one, then we could be left out in the cold when the technology barriers go up.

Another perspective is offered by Dr Michiyuki Uenohara, vice president of the NEC electronics giant, who has been quoted as saying, "The realisation of an international community, where all mankind can exchange information freely and utilise information in any form as needed at any time, with any languages and in any place is our stated aim".

What a wonderful world this would lead to. But it does mean that there couldn't be any trade in information on its own, only in the hardware, firmware and communications necessary to access and process it. As an avid digester of information, this idea appeals to me greatly, but it looks lousy from a business point of view and is somewhat biased in favour of the Japanese and their hardware orientation.

Quite where software will fit into this new scheme of things, I'm not sure. To stay within the spirit of the exercise, I suppose software should be treated the same as knowledge and be available for nothing, providing you pay for access to it. It doesn't really hang together does it? Perhaps the view that information itself is a marketable entity is best. This means the world will have to go through some agonising loops on copyright in order to deter commercially gainful theft of material. The arguments on piracy of music, films and software will appear puny if the legislature ever gets hold of copyright on knowledge and information.

I love the idea of free information and software but, since many of the products of such access will themselves be in the form of knowledge and information, it would be commercially naive to develop any such products unless you also happened to be in the access business. The universities and research departments of companies producing material goods would be most likely to benefit from this approach. But, once knowledge or information has made its way to a purchaser, the supplier's control is lost in the same way that it would be if you were to tape record your latest Madness LP for a hard-up chum. The dream of knowledge itself as a saleable commodity is crumbling as we examine the implications.

We know the problems today because they exist with currently pirateable products. If we find a way to prevent or punish all piracy, then we'll be able to charge for information and knowledge and Britain will do rather well from both knowledge-intensive products and from knowledge itself. If we can't protect our information then we still have a future but one based upon knowledge-intensive products. Whichever direction we take, it would seem that Sir Clive has the right idea: we must have our own technology.

There is one other possibility, and this requires a substantial change of heart by so many people and countries that to depend on it happening would be foolish. It is something we could all work towards though. If we could treat the world as a single unit with greater co-operation between countries and a concern for values other than trade, we could save masses of money by not having defence budgets and by avoiding duplication of effort. I think that if the world is to survive and improve the quality of life for its inhabitants then, in the long term, this approach is inevitable. And it has got to start sometime.

We are about to embark on a global revolution in knowledge. We are at a pivotal point in history. Britain, America and Japan are clearly the best placed to make decisions about the future. Do we have our own technology so that we can compete with Japan or America or do we team up with one or more of the opposition? At the moment Britain seems to be doing both. We have Inmos while ICL is tucked up in bed with Fujitsu. The answer depends on our national objectives. Do we want to be instrumental in carving out a new world order which is for the good of mankind as a whole or do we want Britain to make a few bob from knowledge industries? It is easier and, in the short term, more attractive to go f or the latter option. We will become the world's first, second or third 'knowledge power' a nice position to be in for the 55 million or so people who live here. I can't help wondering whether, in the judgement of history, we shall be seen to have made the wrong choice.