The UK needs to embrace lifelong online learning and revamp the teaching of computing in schools if it wants to secure its future prosperity, warned Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
He delivered his verdict at Google’s Big Tent conference in Watford and, later, in a speech at the Science Museum on “Why Science Matters”. This was billed as the “sequel” to his 2011 MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where he criticised the UK for failing to nurture IT talent effectively.
Schmidt said the UK faces a stark choice: “Britain can become a farming island or it can become a knowledge island for the whole world. I believe the latter is infinitely more interesting.”
He noted that the rapid evolution of technology and connectivity were set to bring a claimed five billion more people online across the world in the next five to 10 years (largely due to the increasing ubiquity and falling cost of smartphones), as well as many billions of web-connected sensors in everything from cars and goods to buildings and roads.
This will result in big increases in automation, collaboration, innovation and global competition, he said. “If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that if you connect people with information they will change the world. In this century the spread of mobile phones and new forms of connectivity will push things further than any of us can understand today,” he said.
“Countries are facing growing skills shortages in computing at a time when the world needs more computer scientists than ever. Put simply, technological breakthroughs cannot happen without the scientists and engineers who make them.”
If the UK is to respond to the challenges effectively, there must be a huge cultural shift in attitudes to skills development and training among workers and employers, he said. “If you were told the best model was to learn all you needed to know in college and then stop, you were misinformed. You can’t forestall the effects of globalisation. Creative capitalism does displace workers and the best best way to retrain is through self-education.”