The UK general election holds significant potential for change within the UK tech industry. As voters prepare to go to the polls, UK tech leaders tell Verdict what they believe are the most pressing issues facing the country’s technology industry ahead of the election.

CEOs from across the country have called for more focus on cybersecurity, AI safety, startup funding, skill shortages and more.

Frances Sneddon, CTO at Simul8

It is clear that any national budget moving forward will rely heavily upon savings generated by the introduction of more automation and AI across public services, either to eliminate repetitive menial tasks or to improve data-driven decision making. However, it’s important to make sure that this translates into real world applications rather than just provide a convenient vision to generate theoretical savings.

Take the NHS, for example, and the challenge of reducing waiting lists. The smart integration of technology like digital twins and simulation will help to accurately replicate patient demand levels so that units can properly optimise their staffing and equipment to better meet demand. This move alone will get much more out of the resources already available and generate both cost and efficiency savings.

Or public sector contact centres – again, simulation-powered digital twins can optimise services to make sure that enquiries are dealt with in the most efficient way. This is all before additional funding is required to train more staff or buy new equipment. It’s all about finding the right technologies to join the dots between the vision and the results, and the pressure will be on the next government to do this as fast and as smart as possible.

Kit Cox, founder and CTO of Enate

Kit Cox

The lack of candidates with a STEM or technology background is a significant cause of concern. While our politicians often get where they are with great communication and persuasion skills, we need them to make informed decisions on regulating AI and ensuring its safety to ensure we can navigate what’s to come. AI is poised to have a substantial economic impact in the next parliamentary term (barring widespread conflict). During this crucial period, a broader range of expertise, beyond just Philosophy, Politics, and Economics graduates and lawyers, is essential to guide the country effectively.

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Christophe Williams, CEO of Naked Energy

If the next government is serious about reaching our net zero targets, the climate crisis must be central to everything it is doing. Investment and support must be shifted into energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, especially those that tick two boxes: those that are manufactured in the UK and those that are focused on heat decarbonisation.

After all, heat decarbonisation is the biggest roadblock to reaching zero emission, as it accounts for 51% of global energy demand of which 90% are met through the burning of fossil fuels.

In the past, we’ve seen some things done right such as the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme and the Renewable Heat Initiative. However, there’s not enough consistency in policy. Many schemes have been scrapped due to their complexity or impacted by powerful lobbying groups.

The UK must pull out all the stops and take every opportunity to invest in renewable energy. The Inflation Reduction Act in the United States or the European Union’s Green Deal show the level of ambition the country needs.

Wilson Chan, CEO and founder of Permutable AI

There are so many pressing issues and you could look at these from a variety of different angles. Each of them present both challenges and opportunities for the UK tech sector. It’s clear that AI and automation is driving innovation but is also increasingly raising ethical concerns and job displacement risks which must be addressed. Of course, data privacy remains a critical issue, with a need for stringent regulations to protect individual privacy.

We’re also on the brink of leading in green technology, which is crucial for addressing climate change. This momentum must be kept up and be backed by investment. And as things continue to evolve at breakneck speed, it’s vital that we improve digital skills to stay competitive.

What companies need in terms of technical expertise is changing all the time, especially with the advent of Chat GPT which can now do what  most entry level workers in the tech space can do far better and quicker.

There are still significant concerns around the growing power of big tech which demands fair regulation to ensure healthy competition. Last but certainly not least, to secure our place as a global tech leader, we must invest more heavily in innovation and infrastructure, ensuring the UK doesn’t lose its grip in the rapidly evolving tech landscape which is a very real possibility if we are unable to keep up.

Carl Wearn, head of threat intelligence analysis and future ops at Mimecast

From education, health and transport – cybersecurity is an issue touching every public institution and Government department, but we are yet to see either political parties focus on this or truly engage with the issue. From the British Library to the government and the NHS, over the last several months we have seen an increase in public institutions facing cyberattacks with sensitive data being stolen. These cyberattacks have caused disruption to essential services, economic losses for organisations, harm to privacy and security, and reputational damage. A few weeks ago, the world’s first cybercrime index was developed in a partnership between the University of Oxford and University of New South Wales Canberra focused on which countries house the greatest cybercriminal threats and found that the UK currently ranks at number eight.

We can expect cybersecurity to be a recurring theme in the run-up to and post the general election. With the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy expressing concerns about cyber threats, it urged the Government to be “prepared for the possibility of foreign interference during the upcoming General Election”. The emergence of generative AI is making it easier for cyber criminals to perpetrate successful attacks, from spreading deepfakes to misinformation. As it improves and becomes more accessible, it allows criminals to engage in increasingly convincing live conversations with victims, making detection even more challenging. A tool like ChatGPT, for instance, can be used to generate emails to individual employees that appear to come from their boss and reference company events or personal information.  The elections will serve as a key test for digital giants and the public more broadly.

With both major parties in the UK pitching heavily to be the “party for business”, cybersecurity should be at the top of this agenda as the unknown potential cost of a cyberattack can cripple businesses bottom line. There is a thin line between having a carefully structured cybersecurity strategy to facing millions of pounds in cost to even start recovering from a critical cyber-attack.  As the NCSC ramps up support for parliamentary candidates and election officials to protect those at high risk of cyberattacks ahead of election, post-election we should see the same effort being brought forward for businesses. 

Dr. Srinivas Mukkamala, AI Leader and CPO at Ivanti 

Just as D-Ream became a key talking point of the election announcement, AI has the power to tower over this summer’s election debates and campaigns, while posing an interference risk.

We’ve seen immense interest in AI as it transforms the way the world works, does business and uses data. In this climate, and particularly during election season, we, as a global society, need to be aware of and carefully consider potential shortcomings of AI.

Challenges such as unintended bias, erroneous baseline data, ethical considerations and disinformation. New research from Ivanti shows that 54% of office workers are not aware that advanced AI can impersonate anyone’s voice. This is a concerning figure as these same office workers will soon be heading to the polls and contributing to a critical decision on the future of the UK potentially making decisions based on disinformation.

As such, the IT sector has a critical task at hand. The industry has a moral duty to support governments on the rising risk of disinformation and educate employees on how to spot AI disinformation, which can be applied both at work and in their personal lives. The challenge and opportunity of AI is something that this election will have to grapple with. By turning to the tech sector for support and educating society on AI disinformation, things can only get better.

James McLaughin, UK VP at social impact firm, WithYouWithMe

With an election looming comes the opportunity to reflect on the direction of policy development. Regardless of the outcome, the next UK government must prioritise delivering on digital skills. However, with so much uncertainty moving forward, businesses must take the initiative on upskilling their workforces to prepare ahead of the election.

With demand for tech talent outstripping supply, the UK is suffering from a digital skills gap. As the world becomes increasingly reliant on technology, those lacking digital literacy are being left behind. This carries major implications for individuals and businesses, which encounter problems with attracting talent, driving innovation, and remaining competitive.

For companies seeking to future-proof their workforces, investing in digital upskilling initiatives is imperative. By leveraging AI and machine learning to conduct skills-mapping, businesses can analyse current capabilities and identify gaps requiring development. This will ensure upskilling programmes are targeted to meet future needs. Digital competencies likely to be covered include coding, data analytics, and cybersecurity awareness. Opportunities should be widely accessible, with an emphasis on inclusion for underrepresented groups such as neurodivergent individuals and veterans.

Adapting our increasingly digital world has become non-negotiable. By acting now, companies can avoid falling irreparably behind more proactive competitors.

Ian Thomas, CEO, Sapphire

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is facing a critical challenge. While they’re doing commendable work, we consistently see its potential being constantly held back due to a lack of robust support from central government.  

The UK has rightly gained international recognition as a leading voice on emerging technologies and cybersecurity, but there is a real risk that our dominance in this area starts to slip. The NCSC, which should be the institution we look to for spearheading significant change, is not receiving the necessary backing from UK government, who risk prioritising private business goals over the protection of our society in stark contrast to the efforts and achievements of other nations today. 

The NCSC needs more than just hollow words of support and must be given a broader mandate and further funding to drive cybersecurity regulations and practical assistance. Initiatives like the Cyber Essentials programme have made a real difference but need to keep pace with the constantly evolving threat from organised crime and nation state attacks. Initiatives like Protected DNS services are too limited in their reach and only benefit public sector entities. We need to extend these types of initiative to all sectors, alongside driving new initiatives around supply chain assurance and operational technologies to support our manufacturing and the wider UK plc. 

Our nation prides itself on being a country of small business, therefore we need to ensure continued support to the NCSC’s Active Cyber Defence initiatives that benefit UK plc as a whole. It needs to be made clear that although stricter regulations can cause added spending, the financial implications of a cyberattack will be much larger than the pressures of compliance.  

All too often, we see ransomware and data exfiltration negatively impacting our companies, our competitiveness, and our citizens, with millions being lost to criminal organisations every year.  

We cannot wait until after the impending general election to boost support for the NCSC. The UK must realise that cybersecurity is an issue that affects both private and public sectors and transcends political divides. Every individual and business in the UK deserves to be protected, and we should utilise the NCSC, giving them more funding and a broader mandate, as the means to delivering this end goal