17 November 2016

S5M-02511 Innovation

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-02511, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on how Scotland’s innovation centre programme is driving innovation in Scotland.

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The Deputy Presiding Officer: I call Stewart Stevenson. We still have a little time in hand.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I will try to squeeze it in under half an hour, Presiding Officer.

I am doing the usual innovative thing in relation to my speech. I have random things written on bits of paper here. It is quite illustrative to think of how public key cryptography, which I referred to last week in debate, came into being.

One of the original authors of public key cryptography was a guy called Ron Rivest. He was the mathematician on the team. He had a very restless night when he did not really sleep very much, turning over in his bed, because they were trying to find a one-way mathematical algorithm that worked forwards but not backwards. Do not bother to understand: just take it from me.

He was walking downstairs to make his breakfast in the morning. He got down to the bottom and thought, “I had the answer.” So he had to go back upstairs and walk back down again. Then he remembered what the idea was, which was a matrix transformation, if you really want to know.

He sat down at the breakfast table and he wrote the answer down. He wrote the paper, and it took him 30 minutes to come up with the answer to the problem that he had been wrestling with for a year.

It is illustrative of the innovation process because, although it took 30 minutes to write the answer down from it springing into his mind to his completing the paper, it took a lifetime of preparation for all the intellectual detritus that was floating around in his brain to coalesce in a way that actually produced something new, innovative and required.

We probably all have favourite books. Edward Mountain’s would probably be Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, in which Sun Tzu postulates nine territories for military engagement; number 3 is contentious ground, and the first of the battalions to occupy it is the one that will command the outcome. In innovation, that is exactly the ground that we are debating. Sun Tzu dates a very long way back. My favourite inspirational book, Fred P Brooks’s “The Mythical Man-month”, is much more modern, as it was published in 1974.

It is worth thinking about the character of innovators. The best innovation is disruptive and very often unwelcome because it challenges and changes the status quo. Innovators are, by nature, anarchists. Of course, innovation does not always go the way that the innovator thought it would. When Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone in 1876, politicians got involved, because communication was the purview of the Royal Mail. The postmaster general of the time, in reaction to the invention of the telephone, said that there was no need for it because of a superfluity of telegram boys. It was considered that communication worked well enough.

The other side of it was that Alexander Graham Bell did not think that he had invented the telephone. He thought that he was inventing a broadcast device. That is often the way with innovation. In modern times, we all have mobile phones with facilities for texting. It is worth remembering that the text facility that is part of the Groupe Spécial Mobile system that underpinned the first digital telephones was put in there to allow the communications company to send messages to telephone users about conditions in the network.

Jamie Greene: Would Mr Stevenson agree that much of the innovation and changes in technology that we see today has been driven by military research? A lot of what we use in our daily lives originated in military use but was converted into everyday use. What are his views on that?

Stewart Stevenson: The member is almost certainly right. For example, when, in 1963, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration put out a contract for various bits of what would become the moon lander programme, NASA could provide only 1.4 W of electricity for the computer for navigating the moon lander. That was a quasi-military requirement that could be met only by Rockwell—the successful bidder—producing the first integrated chip, although there had been integrated circuits in the 1940s. That is why we have computers in the sense that we have them today. The member is absolutely correct, but I do not think we should discount the fact that civilians can come up with some pretty good ideas.

Ivan McKee: Would the member agree that military spending is an extremely expensive way of publicly funding innovation programmes?

Stewart Stevenson: The member is absolutely correct. However, I refer to my previous response. We have to acknowledge that innovation in war is very important.

I want to talk about another innovation that came from war. A gentleman called Tommy Flowers, who was a General Post Office engineer at the Dollis Hill research laboratory in northern London, got posted to what is now the Government Communications Headquarters, which was then the base that was trying to break the Enigma codes that the Germans used for their military communications.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP): Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I will develop it a wee bit, if I may, Presiding Officer, depending on how much time you choose to give me.

An even more horrendously difficult machine was the Lorenz machine, which was used only by Adolf Hitler and the navy and was far more difficult than the Enigma machine. Alan Turing came up with thoughts of how that could be dealt with but Tommy Flowers, who was a relatively small cog in the big machine, said that he had used thermionic valves to build circuits that would do switching and that he could build a computer.

Up to that point, they had been using things called bombes, which were mechanical devices for breaking Enigma that the Poles had developed in the run up to the war. Tommy Flowers said that he could do it but he was forbidden. However, he was a natural anarchist and he went away and, at his own expense, got 1,500 electronic valves—finding them was a terrific thing to do during wartime—and built Colossus Mark 1, which was the first real electronic computer. It was quite good, but he built another one—Colossus Mark 2—and he delivered it on 1 June 1944. They broke the first Lorenz messages in the 24 hours after getting that first machine made by an anarchist innovator. The message that was given to Eisenhower on 4 June said that the Germans were not moving troops into Normandy so it was safe to land there, but there was a concentration of troops in one place, so the Allies moved one of the landing points. If Tommy Flowers had not done that, it is thought that the Normandy landings would not have been successful because they would have encountered severe resistance.

We knew nothing about Tommy Flowers until many decades later, because he was covered by the Official Secrets Act. The story goes on, however. Although he had paid for the development of the computer himself, the Government refused to refund him. Eventually, it gave him £1,000, by which time it no longer mattered and he shared it with the rest of the team.

I will say 10 words. The important thing about innovation is that innovators have time to think, space to think and, more importantly, people of different minds, not the same mind, with whom they can think collaboratively. If innovation centres do anything, they must do all those things.


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