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by Sofia Villegas
20 December 2023
2023: The technology sector in review

2023: The technology sector in review

This year has been another exciting one in the field of technology, with groundbreaking findings, multi-million-pound investments and growing debate over regulation. Technology seems to be advancing at a pace faster than we can manage, leading to political rows, a skills gap and fear over new innovations.

  1. Scotland takes its hands off the wheel… 

Scotland started the year strongly after becoming home to the UK's first autonomous bus. The project, named CavFORTH, connects Edinburgh to Fife in what is a very ordinary journey. One might even say that unless told, you would not know there were no hands on the wheel. With the UK Government announcing that 40 per cent of cars could have autonomous capabilities by 2035, Scotland leads the way into what seems a not-so-distant ‘normal’ on the road. The King's Speech proved these were not just empty promises after he said ministers would “introduce new legal frameworks to support the safe commercial development of emerging industries including self-driving vehicles”. 

  1. …the CodeClan demise… 

Unfortunately, not all developments have been positive, as Scotland’s first digital skills academy, CodeClan, went into liquidation in August. Launched in 2015, the academy aimed to tackle the skills gap for software developers yet was “significantly” impacted by the Covid pandemic. The sudden closure made its almost sixty employees redundant and left multiple students halfway through their courses. Thankfully, by the end of the same month, the UK’s largest technology incubator, Codebase, purchased the assets from CodeClan’s liquidator, Quantuma, allowing the students to finish their courses. However, the gap left by CodeClan has not gone unnoticed, with chief entrepreneurial adviser to the Scottish Government Mark Logan setting the launch of CodeClan 2.0 as “the next priority”. It is expected to happen in early 2024. 

  1. …space continues to excel north of the border… 

And it is not only in autonomous transport where Scotland has taken a leading role, as the space sector goes from strength to strength north of the border. Home to one-fifth of the UK’s space-related jobs and over 130 space-related companies, Scotland has ambitions to become Europe’s space capital. 

The sector ended 2023 on a high note after the Shetland-based spaceport, SaxaVord, became the first in the UK to have a license for vertical rocket launches. With the potential to see up to 30 take-offs a year, German companies Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse look to carry out launches from the spaceport in 2024. In the words of the spaceport owner Frank Strang, it was "a fantastic way to end the year and head into Christmas". 

Across the UK, the conversation has centred on the urge to discover the origins of the universe. And who wouldn’t want to know more about how it all started? Amongst the multiple initiatives pursuing this is the UK Space Agency's recent partnership with the LiteBIRD mission, which will launch a satellite to analyse light from the Big Bang to understand the nature of the universe.   

  1. …a wake-up call for cyber resilience… 

A string of ransomware attacks has set off the alarm for the urgent need for nationwide cyber-security training. During the summer, data belonging to the University of the West of Scotland was put up for auction by a cybercrime gang, which demanded 20 bitcoins – the equivalent of just over £450,000 – for the information. Not long after, the Ministry of Defence had a number of its documents leaked to the dark web after the LockBit ransomware group hacked into fencing manufacturers, Zaun. Also, as of earlier this month, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar (formerly Western Isles Council) was still counting the costs of a recent ransomware attack on its IT system. With the cyber-attack rates far from slowing down, upscaling cyber training has become one of the country’s top technology priorities.  

Cybercrime has also triggered a surge in online scamming, which has left Police Scotland investigating unprecedented levels of fraud. A report by the Scottish Police Authority, reported by 1919 magazine, said just 15 per cent of such crimes are solved. Earlier in the year, Police Scotland set out the steps to handle the fraud emergency after publishing its ‘Policing in a digital world’ paper. The document revealed their strategy to face the imminent cyber crisis, outlining pursuit, prevention and partnership as the three key measures going forward as well as more than £4m of investment in areas like 'cyber training and capabilities' to tackle this issue. Although cases remain high, we are yet to see if the strategy will have a long-term knock-on effect on cases. 

  1. …the year of AI  

Last but not least is this year's hot topic – artificial intelligence (AI). Named Word of the Year by the Collins dictionary, AI’s rapid advances have been in the spotlight for the last 12 months.  

It has also been part of one of the biggest disappointments north of the border this year as, despite Scottish minister for innovation Richard Lochhead calling for the four nations to hold a summit on AI last June, Scotland could not secure an invite to the first AI Safety Summit hosted at Bletchley Park in early November. Lochhead said that was as "deeply" disappointing. The event saw the first-ever international declaration on AI signed by 28 countries.  

Yet perhaps the biggest story to stem from the two-day summit was the “in-conversation” event between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and tech magnate Elon Musk, who used the opportunity to call for a “third-party referee” to oversee companies developing AI and state that we will reach “a point where no job is needed”. The talk received divided feedback with Peter Kyle, UK shadow technology secretary, going as far as saying that the PM had “perhaps” engaged in the meeting “with one eye on his future career.” 

The rush to regulate AI was also later echoed by the announcement that the UK  led the first-ever globally agreed AI cyber-security guidelines, which marked a “key milestone” in the advancement of the technology’s capabilities, according to Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Jen Easterly.  

However, Scotland has still managed to punch above its weight in the sector, with the University of Edinburgh becoming a world leader in the new era of generative AI after launching a new laboratory. The site will develop safe solutions and systems for industry, government and other stakeholders while embedding the technology within techniques in areas such as health and the fight against climate change. The 400-year-old institution also announced it will become the host of a state-of-the-art computing system, which will work to accelerate work on AI among other challenges such as climate science and robotics.  

FinTech Scotland has also launched a lab where they will seek to understand the emerging technologies and their implications for global finance.

And, as we approached another Christmas with the NHS facing a “winter of discontent”, according to newspaper front pages, technology has proved itself as a potential saviour for the overstretched system. The University of Strathclyde developed a technology-powered hub to meet the demand for stroke recovery treatment. Incorporating gamified features such as puzzles, participants from a stroke unit at Wishaw's University Hospital went to a significantly higher rate of treatment sessions. It follows recent estimates showing stroke survivors receive an average of less than 10 per cent of the rehabilitation time that the Royal College of Physicians recommends due to the lack of specialist staff.

A study by the University of Glasgow also revealed AI may reduce waiting times for heart failure diagnosis by over 300 per cent. The discovery is the first outcome of the OPERA research programme – a collaborative project which aims to transform the NHS by testing new digital technologies. In 2023, it seems technology has been the helping hand the sector desperately needs. 

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