You will not find out much about Dr Michael Taylor if you search the Internet. He’s been working on very sensitive systems for the police and central government, among others. These include pioneering work on speech recognition for direct voice input to enable pilots to command their aircraft by voice. It includes devising a system to join up databases help by the Metropolitan Police of events, people and objects in different police stations. He went on to become the IT champion of the UK’s joint intelligence committee within the cabinet office.
Michael R. Taylor was born in 1947. His father was an aircraft engineer and aeroplanes were an integral part of his early life: Hurricane and Spitfire Perspex canopies protected the family vegetables and he was a frequent visitor to 15 MU, Wroughton, where his father was based from 1952 to 1966. On his mother’s side his ancestors included millers, farmers, gunsmiths and industrialists.
After spending several years at a boy’s school, he moved to a grammar school at the age of 13 where he struggled to adjust to a very different curriculum and culture. Fascinated by electronics, Michael made crystal sets, valve radios and amplifiers and achieved his best success with transistor based electronic designs. Michael’s first successful commercial venture was completing partly-made transistor radios purchased from a London firm undergoing liquidation, he made a good income selling them.
At grammar school Michael rejected suggestions of a career in banking and applied to NASA to become an astronaut while only 14 years of age. While they did not take him on, he still treasures the photographs and general encouragement they gave him. He left school after O levels having found Marlborough grammar to be rather old fashioned and uninspiring. They had some good science teachers, particularly in physics, but for some unknown reason the school was not very interested in encouraging students to follow a career in engineering, which was what he wanted to do.
Michael applied for a student apprenticeship with a US company called SquareD which was part owned by the famous UK company, Plessey. At the time SquareD was reputed to be developing digital control logic, called Norpak. However, after six months he left rather than signing up for another 4 ½ years because he did not find the work to be sufficiently stimulating. He had expected to learn more about digital logic, but SquareD UK was far more interested in electro-mechanical switch gear. In retrospect he feels that he made the right decision and has no doubts that it is better to move on when things aren’t working out rather than remain and stagnate. In general he is very supportive of apprenticeships but has been underwhelmed by government policy in this area. He sees apprenticeships as critical in enabling young people to gain technology skills as well as understanding business processes and the benefits of working as a team.
Michael’s next post was as a trainee at the Radar Research Establishment (RRE) in Malvern, an exceptional opportunity in physics and leading-edge electronic engineering. Although he had applied to work in electronics, he was assigned to a physics group working on low temperature superconductors. In the same building, lasers, thin film displays, LEDs and advanced superconducting magnets were being developed: it was cutting edge technology and an unbelievably exciting environment in which to work. There was the real buzz that comes with working with stimulating people while exploring new scientific territory. The environment also allowed him to make the occasional mistake. His boss at the time, Dr John Hulbert, was a real inspiration, constantly challenging Michael while also mentoring him to achieve his full potential. It was this supportive, collaborative environment that gave Michael the confidence to question accepted wisdom, even at the risk of looking foolish. He wished he had been given this encouragement while at Marlborough grammar. While the British Government may not have been particularly good at commercialising all the ground-breaking scientific developments that came out of RRE, their support and encouragement enabled an astonishing range of new technology, scientists and engineers to emerge.
Military College of Science (RMCS)
Michael’s father was then posted abroad and he and his sister needed to support their mother who was by now suffering ill health. He took up an offer at the Military College of Science (RMCS) at Shrivenham, where he completed his CEng training while working in a research group developing microwave integrated circuits for radar and communications systems. He also had an enjoyable and successful sideline trading army surplus equipment as a hobby and at one time owned his own private armoured scout car, a rusty Daimler Dingo “convertible”. Towards the end of Michael’s training another inspirational leader, Prof Fred Hyde, joined the team, but sadly died following a swimming pool accident on the college campus, just after he had proposed exciting career opportunities for Michael. Although Michael was then advised to seek work in industry, he decided to apply for pilot training with the RAF, and went to Biggin Hill, passed the intelligence tests and three-day selection process, only to learn that his sight was not good enough, so his attempts to become an astronaut and pilot had both failed and destiny seemed to be calling him back to engineering. Later in life while flying in a Westland Wessex helicopter, he discovered that his pilot was wearing glasses. At that point he wondered why he had never thought of becoming a naval or army helicopter pilot, but by then it was far too late, and in any case, he was now enjoying his career in industry.
Michael stayed at RMCS for about five years in order to satisfy the demanding IEE regulations to become a Chartered Engineer, but he still needed 18 months post qualification experience in a position of responsibility. He also had new personal responsibilities, having just got married. He was offered an opportunity to study for a PhD at Bristol University but felt driven to complete his professional calling, so he moved into the private sector and accepted a design role with the Bristol based industrial printing and packaging company, Robinsons Wax Paper, a company within the Dickinson Robinson Group (DRG).
The ethical side of engineering really matters to Michael. While training to become a CEng the IEE had an initiative called the Engineer in Society, a training module that at the time was quite revolutionary. Basically, it challenged and encouraged engineers to think and act responsibly and to contribute to the general good of society. Today he feels that many people who consider themselves engineers, particularly in digital technology, have not adequately demonstrated a sense of social responsibility. It is all very well to write code but testing it and making the systems it enables secure, while also understanding and interpreting end user requirements, are key elements of being a professional engineer. He gets particularly annoyed when unqualified government officials make uninformed engineering decisions: in Whitehall during the first decade of the new millennium he detected a growing distrust of professional people, including chartered engineers, despite the fact that infrastructure and equipment relied on the professionalism and competence of those very people. His drive to take a disciplined approach to technical and security issues and to identify errors (even deliberate ones) has led him into difficult and challenging situations more than once.
Into the Private Sector
At Robinsons Wax Paper he worked with huge and highly complex printing machinery where his job was to modernise specific key processes with electronic and digital equipment. He solved vital production problems such as printing filamented polypropylene, a material that was thermally unstable. He was working with discrete logic at a time before the first microprocessors became available. Working in the UK printing industry in the 1970s provided an insight into working practices where many health and safety issues were ignored by both management and staff. As a result, the health of many shop floor workers was regularly compromised by short term financial gain. Unfortunately, the printing industry in the 1970s could be characterised by the dysfunctional working relationships between printing management and the shop floor workers. Progress and modernisation was not helped by the closed club nature of the printing fraternity itself. Michael’s last assignment with RWP was to source a manufacturer for one of his digital instruments; A Bristol electronics contracting company, Brensal Electronics, was chosen and it was not long before they offered him a product development role, which he gladly took.
Brensal Electronics were also subcontractors to the aerospace industry, specifically BAC Filton and SUD Aviation Toulouse who were jointly building the Concorde supersonic transport. Michael’s career then moved more swiftly than he expected from designing digital instruments he quickly became their Chief Engineer. On the way he learned invaluable lessons about the pricing of products and the running of a financially successful business. On reflection he feels that he probably became a better people manager than an engineer: he learned to engage, encourage, persuade, and how and when to nudge fellow engineers to achieve extraordinary results.
Michael’s next move was into his first wife’s family business, a boatbuilding and marine engineering business in Dartmouth where he had an engineering role developing new marine electronics and hydraulics systems. Having come from a high-pressure role in aerospace engineering he was surprised to find how risky, demanding and competitive the marine industry was to work in. Despite struggling with the 3-day working week and competing business priorities, he stayed in the business full time for three years and as a director for another seven. He feels that working in a family business teaches you a lot about yourself and other people, while it can give you enormous rewards, it can easily destroy family relationships. It is not something that should be entered into lightly and on balance he believes it is best avoided.
A Change of Direction
After three years Michael, still only 28, felt it was time for a sabbatical: he bought and adapted a Dutch VW postal van and went off on a ‘Grand Tour’ for nine months of travelling across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. This exposure to different, people, cultures and values gave him an opportunity to reflect on what he wanted to achieve and contribute to society. When he returned, after considering various options, including working in national security, he ended up at the City of London Polytechnic working with the Animal Acoustics Research Group. His role was to apply acoustics and electronic engineering to control the behaviour of cereal crop pests in France and Africa. The team consisted of world class entomologists, a taxonomist, a neurophysiologist and a behaviourist. Although this was perhaps his most wayward career role, he made good use of his time to develop new relationships and get closer to realising his ambition; making a difference, while also achieving a PhD degree.
Michael moved from designing systems using discrete logic circuits to microprocessors and he entered the first (and only) British Microprocessor Competition in 1979 with a pulse height analyser that measured the spectrum from radioactive sources. He then joined a microprocessor course at Bradford University which really motivated him to get involved in the application of the emerging microprocessors from Motorola and Intel. This then led him to a role in the PCL Microcomputing Unit, a joint venture supported by the UK’s National Computing Center (NCC), between the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL) and the US company, Integrated Computer Systems (ICS) now known as Learning Tree International. The Microcomputer Unit ran courses in design, programming and the maintenance of microcomputers which were very successful, thanks to the professionalism of everyone involved, and the specifically designed training environment with supplies of excellent coffee! One unusual aspect of Michael’s involvement was his ability to identify and support disengaged candidates before they upset other attendees and derailed the whole course. Lord Ken Baker was an inspiration at the time, leading the IT82 initiative and championing microcomputers. It was an exciting period to be involved in computing.
At this time, he started his research degree on computer speech recognition but struggled to balance the demands of work, living in London and academia, until Professor Gerry Cain invited him to join his research group full time and essentially underwrote his academic work. Michael was also supported by Prof Adrian Fourcin from UCL, who encouraged him to explore human speech production in hostile aerospace environments. However, Michael still needed to fund his research so he wrote dozens of letters asking for financial support not just from the obvious sources but from unlikely people, including Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales, both of whom helped fund his work. He has kept all the letters and to this day is surprised and very grateful for the academic encouragement and financial support he received.
Smiths Industries, GCHQ, NPL and, at last, a PhD
At this time strong government agendas were driving huge change in industrial policy and privatisations like that of BT, rendered well established companies like Ferranti and ICL vulnerable. However, he received an exciting offer from Smiths Industries Aerospace and Defence Systems (SIADS) in Cheltenham, to develop computer speech control systems for aircraft: despite being a long established and somewhat conservative company, they saw the potential in technologies like flat panel displays, fibre optics, AI and speech recognition. It was the perfect role for Michael, but it meant working away from London and putting off his PhD yet again. In the event he was treated exceptionally well by SIADS and once again he was working with a team of young enthusiastic engineers and scientists. He travelled all over the world and within 18 month his team were demonstrating prototyping products at international airshows. They were working on Direct Voice Input (DVI) (computer speech recognition) that allowed pilots, particularly of supersonic agile fighter aircraft, to control cockpit systems through speech, in high stress and often noisy environments.
As a result of SIADS decision to embrace emerging technology, Michael also worked with GCHQ’s Joint Speech Research Unit (JSRU) and Logica. While running experiments at NASA and elsewhere in the US and UK, he continued to work on his PhD, but again the combined demands of work and academia were hard to meet. However, an inspiring leader, Dr Michael Delaney, recognised the value of what he was doing and together with Dr Keith Shotton, Director of Radiation Science and Acoustics at the UK National Physical Laboratory (NPL) they offered him a role as an Industrial Research Associate within the prestigious NPL. This enabled him to continue his DVI research into the adverse effects of physical and emotional stress on fighter pilots. It was a wonderful opportunity for both Michael and SIADS, although he was very sorry to leave his SIADS colleagues in Cheltenham. The SIADS DVI solution became a world beater and was eventually chosen for the US Marines AV8/B and Eurofighter Typhoon.
After gaining his PhD, Michael moved to Ferranti International’s Business Strategy Unit (BSU) in Manchester, to work on signal processing technology. Among many other things they were developing was a CT2 mobile phone, called the Zonephone. However, although Ferranti’s Zonephone production strategy was badly flawed, Ferranti’s eventual collapse was due to a catastrophic merger with the US company International Signal and Control Group (ISC). Ferranti’s decision to merge with ISC was driven by desperation and the appalling lack of due diligence by Ferranti’s Board, coupled with the fraudulence of ISC, meant the end of a great British engineering company. The collapse was total and left many long-term employees without jobs or pensions. Michael was particularly saddened by what happened to the staff and the Ferranti museum in Moston, where valuable historic contents (early Ferranti computers and aircraft instruments) were dispersed, pillaged, or scrapped. Michael’s next three years were spent at Domain Dynamics Ltd which proved a sensible vehicle to exploit some of the patents he held.
Public Sector: Metropolitan Police Service
Michael’s next move was into the public sector: A Director’s role within the Metropolitan Police Service. His job was to use his industrial experience to ensure the department of technology met policing requirements and delivered transformational IT services to the end user. As a part of this role he set up the Centre for Applied Research in Technology (CARAT), a special unit (skunk works) of twelve exceptionally talented staff recruited by open competition. He led the work to securely share intelligence information drawn from multiple yet disparate London operations, which previously had been very parochial. In the first day of demonstrating the prototype system using live data, three important suspects were identified, simply as a result of joining the dots from different information sources. In spite of this success there remained enormous barriers to delivering this seemingly simple outcome: not least of which was engaging those involved and persuading them to cede control of what they saw as ‘their information’. The next stage was to implement an overarching information strategy for the Met. Funding was achieved for this but the events leading up to 9/11 saw Michael move to the Cabinet Office and the majority of funding allocated to the emerging information strategy spent on police overtime. During his time with the Met, Michael was very lucky to have senior level support from officers such as the Commissioner Sir Paul Condon, ACSO David Veness and the talented and charismatic detective, Commander John Grieve. During his period with the Met, much of Michael’s work in applying state of the art technology remains classified, but he believes the part he played in helping make London a safer place to live, is what has made his career in IT so meaningful and rewarding.
Public Sector: Cabinet Office
After eight years with the police, Michael was appointed IT Champion to the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee based in the Cabinet Office. His role was to find solutions that would allow highly classified information to be shared between people authorised to access it, whilst ensuring the information remained inaccessible to all others. While information sharing is critical to the effective operation of sensitive parts of government, information sharing can also increase vulnerability to unauthorised access. Careful risk analysis and unambiguous audit trails are vital components of such sensitive systems. However, once again, while the technical challenges were not insignificant, it was human behaviour and internal rivalries that were the hardest to overcome. Michael firmly believes that information security should be an integral part of system design, but too often it is seen as an afterthought. Unfortunately, security breaches will always occur, either deliberately by enemies of the state, rogue authorised users or even by irresponsible software suppliers failing to update vulnerabilities in their code.
Since leaving his full-time employment in the Cabinet Office, Michael has used his passion for digital technology to improve the quality of life for disabled people. He has been a Trustee/Chairman of several IT charities and was the Chairman of AbilityNet (2009-2017), the leading global authority on the use of digital technology to help disabled people from 2009-2017. In 2014 he completed the design and build of a digitally controlled e-Trike for the rehabilitation of injured and disabled people. The e-Trike was demonstrated at the 6th International Work-Conference on Ambient Assisted Living and Daily Activities, Belfast in December 2014. Going forward, Michael believes there is scope for more consolidation in the 3rd sector.
The Role of Technology
When asked about the role of technology, Michael is philosophical: technology has enabled many obvious benefits to society, particularly for the disabled, yet some technology developments are gratuitous and are pushed onto the market without consideration of their potential negative impact. He is worried that some information system suppliers appear unconcerned about what happens to the data loaded onto their platforms. He believes that more emphasis should be placed on the role of technology in society, not just by professional engineers but by a broader more inclusive group of professionals such as financial, business, marketing and sales people. It will take time and is unlikely to be welcomed by all, but he thinks there could be benefits in doing this before the application of digital technology gets out of control. As far as information access is concerned, there will always have be some sort of trade-off in the interests of national security. However, undue control of information, whether by governments or by monolithic companies, is as dangerous as no control at all and leads to situations where information can no longer be taken at face value and decisions are made on misinformation rather than evidence and factual accuracy.
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 20th August 2018 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Nicholls
Abstracted by: Emma Fryer