I want to start on a positive note. The number of Scottish tech companies turning over upwards of £1 million is up significantly on last year, from 19 per cent to 31 per cent in 2023. That’s good news.
However, start-ups still make up a very significant percentage of the country’s software sector, with 42 per cent of companies surveyed recently reporting a turnover of below a quarter of a million.
Scotland’s incredible aptitude in germinating and researching ground-breaking technologies will be a missed opportunity if we are not able to transform more of them into revenue-generating, job-creating, home-grown businesses. Companies will leave, taking their talent with them, and we can’t let that become the norm.
There can’t be anyone out there who’s in any doubt that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are a key part of all our futures. We’ll use increasingly complex and autonomous systems in our daily lives, helping us to do everything from cleaning the house to walking the dog. Of course, they have almost limitless potential applications in industry, health care, construction, education and just about any facet of life you can think of.
The global robotics industry is expected to be worth around $283 billion by the end of 2032 and here in the UK we need to ensure we’re sitting at the top table. We have a choice – do we want to be an active player in, or a passive consumer of, robotics? Surely, it’s the former but to do that, we need joined-up thinking.
The Department for Business, Energy, and Industry Strategy (BEIS) (now known as the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology – DSIT) recently claimed that UK businesses need to spend more on robotics and autonomous systems, based on estimates that further investments could generate £6.4bn for the UK economy by 2035 and part-solve the productivity puzzle. It’s not just about investing in the tech though, we need first to develop a workforce capable of building, operating, and maintaining that tech.
I want to see the success of the National Robotarium replicated across the UK. Giving manufacturers and start-ups access to the best talent our most esteemed universities can offer, as we do at the National Robotarium, will ensure we’re developing the next generation of robotics engineers. A quick search online will give you an indication of the pressing need for this. There are more than 25,000 robotics jobs listed on LinkedIn, from field service engineers to automation engineers and designers.
We are working constructively with the Scottish Government to expand the nation’s capabilities in manufacturing infrastructure, greater capacity to house and incubate robotics start-ups, improved education which upskills the workforce and a convening space for discussion and debate. Critically, we need to help start-ups to scale, and we can only do that if the pathway is clear and well supported.
The UK has a thriving AI ecosystem, featuring world-class universities and research institutions and London, in particular, has a growing AI start-up scene. Indeed, London remains the number-one tech city outside of the US, based on analysis by Dealroom using a combination of factors including funding, patents and billion-dollar-plus exits. Encouragingly, Scotland remains one of the UK’s biggest tech hubs outside of London and the South East.
Both the UK and Scottish Governments are keen to support the development of AI, and the recent Safety Summit at Bletchley Park shows willingness to take the lead on this emerging technology.
However, when it comes to robotics, we are in danger of being left behind. The US, China, Japan, and even Israel are all ahead of us in research and development and we need to ensure we take positive steps over the next few years to keep ourselves in the game.
Just being more willing to embrace robotics would be a good start. The International Federation of Robotics measures robot density – the number of robots per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry. On this scale, the UK currently ranks 24th with a robot density of 111 which is below the world average.
A mind shift is required. I understand people’s fears over robots and how Hollywood’s depiction of their role in future society has shaped those fears, but I am convinced society will only benefit from the speedier adoption of robotic systems.
One significant step in the right direction would be to replicate the success of The National Robotariums’ first year of operations by establishing more Robotariums around the UK. In this way we could multiply the positive impacts already being felt from The National Robotarium in industry adoption of robotics, support to start up robotic companies, increased research funding and activity and very importantly development of skills to meet the robotic sectors demands now and in the future.
Research facilities like the National Robotarium are a vital resource for Scotland, the UK, and beyond to spark new ideas and build partnerships between industry, academia, and science. However, more needs to be done and at a greater pace if we are to develop a supply chain for an advanced tech economy and ensure a seat at that top table.