The nation that spawned the industrial age hopes to catch up with world leaders in computer chips, software, and telecommunications. A $525 million British project in the works aims to boost innovation in information technology - including design of a ''common sense'' computer that would use human thought patterns and everyday language.
Officials here are concerned that the nation's economy could fall behind unless the United Kingdom gains a larger share of the world market in these growth industries, now dominated by the United States and Japan.
''Unless there is action to implement the advanced information-technology program (IT) . . . the prospects of the U.K. competing successfully in the world IT market will be sharply reduced,'' says a committee of industrialists and electronics experts appointed by the government last October.
The signs are that the program, for which the government would pick up two-thirds of the tab, will go ahead. Three key government agencies - the Ministry of Defense, the Department of Industry, and the Department of Education and Science - broadly approve it. The final decision rests with the Treasury, which is expected to decide this month whether to sanction it.
In addition to Britain possibly losing potential export markets, the committee also warned that the spread of advanced IT applications in the U.K. will also be constrained: ''Both of these would be extremely damaging to employment prospects, to our industrial efficiency as a nation, and to our general economic position.''
The committee, which was chaired by John Alvey, technology director of British Telecom, identified four key technical areas in which, it said, Britain should concentrate its research effort.These include: new forms of software to drive the next generation of computers; very large-scale integration; the technology of putting more circuit elements into electronic chips; and more efficient ways of permitting people to gain access to computers, for instance, through mechanisms that accept spoken instructions.
The final area is what the committee calls ''intelligent knowledge-based systems.''
The committee's study was sparked, above all, by plans in Japan to produce a ''fifth generation'' computer by the 1990s. Such a computer would process instructions using ''thought patterns'' similar to those used by humans.
Another factor is the widespread feeling in the U.K. that the it does not make the most of its undoubted talent in computer engineering, particularly software. Although many university researchers are advancing in this area, they have virtually no contact with industry. Thus some useful ideas in computer engineering are never developed to the point of becoming commercially valuable.
The committee recommended that the program should be coordinated by a small team in the Department of Industry. This would pull together the best efforts in both industry and academia.
Some observers say that a useful model would be the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency in the US.
But before Britain's computer plan can go ahead, it must win the favor of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who is not a fan of large-scale public-spending projects. In this case, observers say, she may be impressed by the need to put more drive behind the country's computer research effort. They expect the project to receive her personal sanction.