Alison Kennedy, Director of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Hartree Centre, discusses the priorities organisations must address to enable UK industry to thrive and prepare for future advances in computing
It is widely recognised that advances in high-performance computing and its associated digital technologies have delivered huge economic benefits for UK businesses. Just looking at our own project portfolio at the Hartree Centre, we can offer numerous examples of industry benefitting from the competitive advantage and new insights generated by adopting advanced computing and data-driven technologies, from faster shampoo formulation and low-cost virtual wind tunnel testing to more accurate pest-risk prediction and efficient healthcare chatbots.
But to date this is the tip of the iceberg – work with early adopters that has enabled us to prove the concept. Widespread adoption is not yet the norm. In some fields, such as traditional manufacturing, public sector healthcare or food and agriculture, there are still barriers to the adoption of data-driven technologies to futureproof operations and improve product and service quality.
Maximising data potential: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
So how can companies yet to fully embrace data-driven working practices prepare themselves? To begin with, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for companies to consider their digital transformation strategy. The first steps are to take a good look at how they collect and store data, and take steps to improve its accuracy and infrastructure. Data quality matters. The quantity of data which companies hold can be extensive, but according to our experience in collaborative big data projects, the reliability and quality of the data is often disappointing. There is often little correlation between the data which could be usefully analysed to deliver business benefits.
Clean, accurate data can provide unprecedented insights, but companies need to invest in their data collection, handling and quality control processes to gain the maximum value from it.
Securing digital skills are the key to success
There is also work to be done in preparing and upskilling the current workforce. In recent years we have seen the emphasis on digital skills assume greater importance within the UK Government and this has had a trickle-down effect on school curricula and higher education offerings. Coding is becoming one of the skills seen as essential for future generations, no matter their career aspirations.
At the Hartree Centre, we do our best to support and accelerate this digital upskilling process, providing high quality, experience-based training and skills opportunities in key areas of advancement and interest, from our recent “Introduction to Chatbots” workshop for beginners to more in-depth Deep Learning training for PhD-level researchers.
We are also supporting several Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) in collaboration with UK universities, focussed on key areas, such as distributed algorithms and data, risk and environmental analytical methods. We can, however, only support these activities where capacity and funding allows and appropriate opportunities present themselves. Training opportunities will only be taken up by organisations willing to invest in their staff and embrace change with a positive can-do attitude – but by the same token, governmental and public sector investment is also key to supporting businesses on this journey.
Another question is how to address the “missed generation” – those too old to have been taught programming skills during their school days, but too young to be leaving the workforce any time soon. Companies are missing a trick if they do not retrain and equip mid-career employees with the new skills needed to succeed in an ever-more digital climate.
What does the future hold?
Computing is a field which accelerates and advances at an unprecedented pace. Current research is focussed on Exascale computing, to overcome the many technology challenges needed to deliver supercomputers one thousand times more powerful than the ones that we have today. Such unprecedented computing power will allow us to work on previously intractable problems using a combination of simulation and modelling, high-performance data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. This will enable advances in precision medicine, green energy, autonomous vehicle design and a whole host of other areas. This research is being fuelled by the exponential growth of data being generated and processed.
One of the most exciting new technologies that we are working on is quantum computing. At this early stage, no one knows what the future of quantum computing will truly look like – but at the Hartree Centre, we have taken steps, in partnership with Atos, to provide a quantum learning environment to help UK businesses de-risk proof of concept work and innovation in this area. By working with organisations like us, to develop their algorithms in a safe environment, and to understand where quantum computing could potentially deliver disruptive change to business models, meaning they can secure products and services for the future.
The Hartree Centre is a department within the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which is part of UK Research and Innovation. We help UK companies to generate economic impact and improve the productivity of people and processes through advanced digital technologies such as high-performance computing (HPC), big data analytics and AI.
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Hartree Centre
Tel: +44 (0)1925 603 444
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