Conditions for disruptive and ethical innovation

10 October 2022


Conditions for disruptive and ethical innovation

Reported by Meg Groom, CSaP Policy Intern

“There is a window of opportunity for the UK to take scientific leadership,” asserts Robert Miller, Director of the Whittle Laboratory and University of Cambridge Professor, opening the afternoon of talks between researchers and CSaP’s Dowling Policy Fellows on 30 September 2022 at Peterhouse College. The Dowling Policy Fellowship aims to engage with academics to advance policy which supports science, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The discussions covered several frontiers of innovation: quantum technology, aerospace, bioelectronic medicine and artificial intelligence (AI), and how both industry and the public perceive the rapid progress of these technologies.

Policy for rapid ethical innovation

According to Professor Miller, the UK is currently ill-prepared to provide “rapidly developed disruptive aerospace technology” to decarbonise the sector. He insisted that the key is to form a culture of rapid feedback between emerging science and technology innovation, via small and flexible teams.
Professor Miller and participants identified key problems holding back innovation in the UK: the UK aviation industry is not structured to rapidly innovate. A key problem was identified as the current funding mechanisms which constrict disruptive innovation. Peer review and value-for-money assessments are risk averse processes that make incremental change more favourable. The high degree of siloing in the aerospace sector (highly specialist university and government labs and industrial departments) means that it currently takes around 10 years to take a scientific idea to a point where it can be applied in a product. Professor Miller argued that previous examples of ‘disruptive innovation laboratories’ (e.g. Bell Lab) which were designed to target the critical early stages in the lifecycles of disruptive technologies could cut the feedback time between science and its application by a factor of 100.

Another factor that was thought to affect the pace of innovation was the misapplication of flight safety regulations and culture early in the innovation process. While the highest level of safety regulation was required in aircraft projects, it was important that this culture did not seep into the early stage of technology development, slowing down innovation. Regulation of the ethical impact of disruptive technology was discussed throughout the day. Dr Kanta Dihal (Senior Research Fellow, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence) and Dr Kerry Mackereth (Research Associate, Centre for Gender Studies) co-delivered a discussion on our perception of artificial intelligence, and how it impacts innovation and ethics.
Dr Mackereth discussed her investigations into how science fiction shapes the view of AI, held by the public and practitioners. She found representation of AI scientists as women in science-fiction films were non-existent before 1997, with only eight appearances since then. Looking beyond fictional narratives, she found that media and journalism are saturated with hyperbolic references to science-fiction when discussing AI technology. She posed: could the science-fiction western centric ‘hype’ of AI be interfering with ethical deployment of this technology?

Further scrutinising the western centric Hollywood narratives identified in Dr Mackereth’s work, Dr Dihal investigates global narratives of AI and how this influences research itself. She questioned whether the western over-dramatization of the potential ethical threats of AI affects policy making? Dr Dihal sign-posted to China perspectives of AI, where differing histories and philosophies have resulted in less anxious narratives about AI. She explained that looking critically at what traditions inform us allows us to see that narratives on AI are not limited to ‘Terminator’. Again, emphasising the interlinks between fictional film, written fiction, journalism, and policy writing.

The frontiers of quantum technology and bioelectronic medicine

Examples of disruptive technologies were presented throughout the afternoon. Speakers highlighted that the public attention on state-of-the-art is often misdirected, leaning towards the AI science-fiction of Dr Dihal and Dr Mackereth’s work rather than the real innovation.

Ben Woodington (PhD candidate, Department of Engineering) and Elise Jenkins (PhD candidate, Department of Engineering) are using implantable microscale bioelectrical devices to dramatically improve understanding and treatment of conditions such as spinal injury, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and brain cancer. They explained that current treatments rely on either high-risk invasive surgery or pharmaceutical intervention. Considering drugs alone, the early-career researchers explained that despite decades of investment into drug therapy for epilepsy, around 30% of patients are still non-responders. Participants and speakers discussed public perception of these treatments, and the ease of navigating the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) criteria. Jenkins explained the importance of being in discussions with clinicians from the early stage of device development. Woodington proposed that, “the public massively overestimate technological advances and are simultaneously unaware of what is happening currently,” referring to perceptions of AI capabilities versus current bioelectronic devices treating spinal injury.

The UK annual investment in quantum technology research is projected to be over £100 million by 2024. Dr Helena Knowles (Assistant Professor, Department of Physics) explained that although the theory of quantum mechanics is over 100 years old, we are only just developing engineering capable of studying its most bizarre characteristics. These are the source of the famous Schrödinger’s cat and led an unsettled Albert Einstein to coin the term ‘spooky action at a distance.’ Dr Knowles introduced the state-of-the-art in quantum computing, quantum communication and quantum sensing. In her own work, Dr Knowles uses nano-scale quantum sensors inside living cells; it is even possible to detect actin filament transport within a cell. Her analysis is that public perception overestimates progress in quantum computing – a recurring theme throughout the day, whilst quantum sensing is the closest to delivering on its promises.

Meg Groom

Department of Physics, University of Cambridge