The foundations of computing

The technology industry tends to view start-ups as the driving force of innovation in the sector, but even famous college drop-outs Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have the university system to thank for their billions. Without the kind of pure, fundamental research that universities foster, world-changing breakthroughs that give rise to entirely new industries would never materialise.

There is no better example of this than the work of Alan Turing at Cambridge University. Turing was investigating the very nature of mathematics when he struck upon the ideas that catalysed the advent of computing. Indeed, when Turing showed his work to economist colleagues, “he was apparently sceptical of its practical value”, biographer Andrew Hodges writes.

As it turned out, Turing’s work helped to bring about a field of technology so practical that most of the Western workforce employs it every day.

“Turing saw how you could use some advanced, theoretical ideas, such as Boolean algebra, to really solve problems,” explains Dr Mike Lynch, founder and recently ejected CEO of Autonomy and Cambridge mathematics alumnus. “And while he didn’t invent the concept of representing problems in digital rather than analogue form, these were ideas that he really got to grips with.”

Speaking to Information Age on the centenary of Turing’s birth, Lynch explained that many of the ideas he grappled with, while arcane and theoretical at the time, are now everyday realities for software engineers. “Our systems have got so complex that you can’t predict what they are going to do in every context,” he says. “Turing’s work on the halting problem [figuring out whether a computer program will resolve or continue forever] is fundamental to our understanding of the reliability and testability of code, which is a day-to-day issue for our modern world.”

According to Lynch, UK universities excel at the kind of fundamental research that may, just may, lay the foundations of the technological breakthroughs of tomorrow.

“At the university level, there’s no doubt that we’re still right up there,” he says. “The mathematics output of the top UK universities is second to none.” Of more concern to Lynch is the level of mathematical attainment in UK schools. “We still have a good mathematical base, but it’s falling pretty rapidly.”

This, he believes, is due in part to the absence of programming from the school curriculum. “Writing programs is a fun way to learn maths. When ICT lessons started to move away from programming and towards learning how to use Microsoft Excel, for example, that took some of the fun out of learning maths.”

He takes encouragement from government plans to reintroduce programming to the curriculum, and from projects such as the Raspberry Pi, a cheap, simple computer designed to help children learn to code. “Whether it’s Raspberry Pi,or just encouraging people to write iPhone apps, we could certainly do with a big push on programming, because it would help to improve maths as well.”

Many Turing enthusiasts took the occasion of his centenary to call for symbolic recognition, including a campaign to put his face on the £10 note. Lynch says a more long-lasting legacy might be to use the attention focused on Turing this year as a platform for encouraging more programming in schools. “It would be great if we could use all the excitement around this to get kids in school finding out the joy and the curiosity of writing programs again.”

Earlier this year, a campaign called for Turing to be posthumously pardoned for his conviction of ‘gross indecency’ for being a practising homosexual. The call was declined, with one member of the House of Lords explaining the government’s position that Turing “would have known his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted”.

Lynch says this was a mistake. “Turing changed the course of history twice, and it is our loss that he didn’t go on to do whatever he would have done next,” he says. The two milestones that Lynch refers to are Turing’s pioneering theoretical work and his contributions to codebreaking at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. “A pardon would have highlighted the price that we paid for the intolerance of that age.”

Back in the UK

Since his departure from Autonomy following its acquisition by HP, Lynch has returned to the UK and has turned his attention to the country’s technology industry. “When I first started, I didn’t know what I was doing, no-one would talk to me and no-one would give me any money,” he says. “Those three are fixed now, so if I can retain the enthusiasm of youth that I had back then, hopefully we can see a real impact in the UK.”

He notes that the UK has become much better in recent years at promoting and fostering its technology start-ups. But he adds (a little ironically) that it has also lost many of its big-name IT companies. “From the London Stock Exchange, we’ve lost Logica, Misys and Autonomy. We’ve only got Sage left, and that’s a big problem.

“The difficulty is that once these companies are taken over, R&D and marketing leave the UK, which means you are not training up the next generation, who can then go and start their own businesses,” he says. “And from an investor point of view, if we have a strong technology listing on the stock market, analysts and bankers understand the sector and will invest in it because they can see that they will get their money back. This is something to be concerned about.”

Commenting on the government’s Tech City initiative to promote technology startups in East London, Lynch draws a distinction between the kind of digital media companies typically associated with Tech City and the ‘fundamental technology’ output of the Cambridge cluster, pointing to the likes of chipmaker ARM Holdings and Autonomy. But the best ideas, technologies and businesses may well spring from the collaboration between these clusters, he adds.

“Two of the most interesting ‘know-how’ industries in the UK are technology, because of the university output, and creative industries, frankly due to the legacy of the BBC, so we ought to do well at the crossover point,” he says.

In fact, Lynch is attempting to encourage this collaboration in a surprisingly pragmatic fashion. “One of the things I’m doing now is trying to get train timetables changed so that trains from Cambridge stop in East London, so it’s easy to get to Tech City and back again,” he says.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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