Subsidies help Scots bots thrive

Glasgow would rather "pick winners" in new industries than trust the free markets that destroyed its old ones.

Published April 20, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

GLASGOW, Scotland --The television camera adores a robot. Its lens may founder on abstract concepts like artificial intelligence or machine consciousness -- but give it a whirring, clanking automaton and you've got a full-scale media event.

Which is exactly how the organizers of last week's International Robotix Festival here planned it. Robotix '97 was as much a public relations exercise for the city of Glasgow as it was an expo of state-of-the-art research in mechanical beings. This city on the banks of the river Clyde has a glorious technological past. Glasgow's city fathers want to ensure that the future is just as bright.

In practical terms, that means spending a hefty chunk of taxpayer money flying in robot specialists (and robot-friendly journalists like me) from countries as far afield as Japan, putting them up in hotels and wining and dining them. It means busing in thousands of schoolchildren from all over the United Kingdom to gaze at MicroMouse maze-navigating mini-robots, and encouraging the general public to take a gander at bizarre contraptions that reek of low-budget special effects. It means using every photogenic opportunity to drum into the heads of foreign investors the message that Glasgow is the place to spend your high-tech dollar. And, most of all, it means not being afraid of a little judicious government intervention in the economy -- even in the face of nearly 20 years of Thatcherite emphasis on free-market private-sector initiative.

No city knows better than Glasgow the truth of how harsh a mistress the free market can be. Once the proud bearer of the title "The Second City of the British Empire," Glasgow thrived for two centuries as the engineering and heavy-industrial workhorse of the United Kingdom. The finest shipbuilders on earth lined the Clyde at the close of the 19th century. At one point Glasgow manufactured 70 percent of all the railway cars in the world. Huge steel mills belched dark clouds into the sky, and hundreds of thousands of workers flocked to the city from all over Scotland and Ireland.

But the days when a quarter of the world's shipping sailed down the Clyde and into the Irish Sea are long gone -- thanks to the postwar emergence of state-subsidized cheap labor in countries like Taiwan and Korea and the rise of containerized shipping, with its emphasis on gargantuan freighters too large for the Clyde. The old entrepreneurial class, resistant to new technologies and unwilling to change, left Glasgow unprepared for the new era. Mass unemployment ensued, and by the early 1980s, Glasgow had a reputation as one of the harshest cities in Europe, perceived by outsiders as a dark metropolis full of "hard men" crowded together in squalid tenements.

And yet today, Glaswegians proudly declare that their city sits square in the middle of Scotland's "Silicon Glen." Ships have been traded in for chips. Biotech has replaced body work. Before kicking off the Robotix Festival, George Kynoch, the Minister of Industry for Scotland, boasted that Scotland produces 13 percent of the semiconductors in Europe. Glasgow has rebounded, at least in the public eye. The city's magnificent Victorian architecture has been sandblasted clean, and its center is packed with glitzy shopping malls.

Unemployment is still high and housing remains atrocious in many neighborhoods, but there is at least a measure of relative prosperity. Kynoch says Conservative Party policies are responsible for the turnaround. Rubbish, say the locals.

Paul Smith, director of development projects for the Glasgow Development Agency, the government-funded organization that sponsored Robotix '97, says everything Glasgow has achieved in recent years has been "in spite of the Conservatives." He argues that Silicon Glen emerged thanks to long-term efforts by local Labour Party politicians and groups like the Development Agency to lure high-tech companies to Glasgow with incentive and benefits packages. And he scoffs at Kynoch's citation of semiconductor market-share figures.

Semiconductors are old news, says Smith, the low-price commodities of the digital age. If Glasgow wants to keep its edge it has to look ahead, to encourage the kind of strategic investment that will enable Glasgow to leapfrog its competitors and take advantage of its traditional strengths in such fields as engineering. Thus Robotix '97's emphasis on such areas as artificial intelligence, computer graphics and artificial life.

Advocates of an unbridled free market deride such strategizing and targeting -- precisely the kind of policies employed by Asian governments to wipe out Glasgow's shipyards -- as an unworkable "picking winners" policy. But to many of the scientists gathered together at Robotix' 97, picking winners is simply betting smart.

Research scientists, particularly in Britain, believe that their hands have been tied by steadily decreasing levels of funding for pure research in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics. Even representatives of industry agree that funding priorities are a problem. Chris Winter, a research director at British Telecom, bemoans the absence of government support for "blue sky" research that could produce the kind of unexpected breakthroughs unlikely to emerge from corporate research labs fixated on quarterly earnings reports. In the absence of a longer view, he says, there is no room for the kind of experimentation necessary to really push science forward.

Winter shrugs when asked whether he is encouraging the government to pick winners.

"I could sit down right now and give you six main areas of research that are bound to be crucial for technological progress," says Winter. "That isn't picking winners, that's just common scientific sense. We need to target those areas, and then fund the best research in each of those areas."

Like many at the conference, Winter hopes that the widely anticipated change in government after the elections recently called for May 1 might mean new British spending priorities. He's convinced that Tony Blair, the Labour Party prime-minister-in-waiting, has surrounded himself with a younger crowd that better understands the economic importance of technology than do the blue bloods who dominate current government policy.

But Winter isn't holding his breath. It's unclear whether a change in government will result in anything more than a blip in government economic policy. Blair, Britain's answer to Bill Clinton, has moved his party so far to the center as to make any difference with John Major's Conservatives a matter of symbolism at best.

Undoubtedly, however, a Blair victory will strengthen the forces of Labour in Western Scotland, where left-wing economic policy has had a long history. Glasgow, in direct correlation with its heavy engineering history, boasts a tradition of radical Labour politics as rich as any in Europe. The working-class population that burgeoned during Glasgow's manufacturing heyday became a hotbed of labor-union activity and organization -- the much-feared "Red Clyde."

Glasgow's workers learned exactly what it's like to be on the wrong end of the free market. The collapse of the city's shipbuilding industry ushered in decades of suffering poverty, and pain. To the new generation of Glaswegians pulling themselves back up on their feet, attempting to pick winners for the future makes a lot more sense then just lying back and attempting to enjoy whatever happens in the present. And if that means placing a subsidized bet on the risky business of robots, or artificial intelligence, or biotech, so be it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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