The Preston sci-fi schoolboy-turned-futuristic tech expert: From Artificial Intelligence to lasers with Lancashire's very own Q
"The signs were in the stars!" says Nick. "The late, great Kenny Baker (aka, R2D2 from Star Wars) lived just across the park from us on Larches Estate, I went to Larches County Primary School on Starrgate Drive, and I grew up with various combat aircraft flying overhead from Warton.
"All those factors created an interesting melting pot and a real love for science fiction," he adds. "I used to build a lot of things and take things apart too, often struggling to put them back together! It all came from an inquisitiveness and a drive to find out how things worked, including things in nature; to this day, I get insight from nature."
Having been with BAE Systems for 31 years, Nick is a lead engineer and principal technologist in AI, autonomy, and disruptors at the company's base in Warton. Having started out as a technical apprentice in 1990 when BAE was still British Aerospace, he's worked largely in research and development on state-of-the-art tech, achieving numerous UK- and world-firsts.
He's also supported both the Ministry of Defence and the European Commission on matters concerning AI and has secured over 70 patents, inventing deflector shields, virtual cockpits, cyber-resilient architectures, holographic systems, novel sensors and algorithms, novel electronic warfare, nuclear tech, and new classes of air vehicles.
When he's not inventing, Nick is usually studying, with his ever-blossoming arsenal of degrees now boasting qualifications in mechanical and production engineering, mechatronics, and applied physics and electronics as well as post-grad qualifications in computing and avionics. Needless to say, his is a serious CV.
But he baulks slightly when I ask if he displayed a natural talent for academia when he was younger.
"I'm not sure, but I had a huge drive and passion and was determined to learn, even though it was hard at times," says Nick, now 49. "At the end of my A Levels, I came to a crossroads: I wanted to continue studying because I found it interesting, but I also wanted hands-on experience in the real world.
"So I took a technical apprenticeship with British Aerospace which allowed me to study part-time - something I've continued to do for at least half the time I've been with the company - whilst also doing practical work, too," he adds. "It was the best of both worlds and I've never looked back. The company really is fantastic in terms of investing in its people.
"In terms of a career, I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do," Nick continues. "Like many kids interested in science and engineering, I went through phases of thinking about being an astronaut or a fighter pilot, but the beauty of the apprenticeship was that it gave me a taste of different things as I moved around various different placements.
"Manufacturing, programming, electronics: for me, it was like educational and vocational tapas," he says. "It allowed me to work out what I enjoyed the most and I discovered that I preferred to be at the front-end of a product's lifecycle, at that formative stage where we're thinking about 'how do we solve this problem?' in interesting and innovative ways."
As a result, Nick swiftly found himself at home at the coalface of research and development, turning his hand to that which he loved the most: problem-solving in the realm of what most of us would regard as science fiction.
"Part of the job is to expose the art of the possible," says Nick, passion evident in his voice. "R&D can be approached from two perspectives: top-down, where you tackle a known issue presented by a customer, and bottom-up, where you use experience and inspiration to create something new. Both require innovation, but bottom-up requires a degree of futurism, too.
"Take one of my inventions: the deflector shield," adds Nick, now fully into his flow. "Had you asked customers if they had a requirement for it, they'd have probably said they didn't because they likely thought it was in the realms of science fiction. And that would've been fair! Approaching that blank sheet of paper with the question 'what can I invent' in mind can be really hard!
"But things come to you subconsciously as a result of everyday life," he continues. "Inspiration for the deflector shield came from nature. You observe, try and put two-and-two together, try it out, then patent it. And when that kind of work comes off, it's about as fulfilling as it gets."
It's at this point that Nick somewhat bashfully addresses the Q in the room.
"It's not a monopoly," he's quick to point out. "I'm really chuffed with the analogy of me being a bit like Q, albeit from a very different background than the Q as depicted in the latest Bond movies!" We need a Q with a Prestonian accent, I say. "Haha, exactly! But I'm not a one-man-band; I work with many other folk who inspire me. It's all about Team Q, really.
"The world is changing so fast as a result of tech that there's a continuous need for us all to be a bit like Q," he adds. "To innovate and embrace a diversity of opinions, because you get the best innovations when people from different backgrounds come together. That outlook is something which the whole enterprise at BAE Systems has."
Having previously worked on a range of BAE Systems' defence projects involving sensors, stealth tech, and experimental aircraft such as a Jetstream aircraft kitted out as a surrogate Unmanned Air Vehicle and the Future Mission Systems programme, which led to the world-leading ‘mixed reality’ Tempest Next Generation fighter virtual cockpit, Nick's describes his current role at BAE as 'broad'.
His main responsibilities revolve around managing tech strategy and the innovation pipeline, consulting on tech such as AI, and the impossibly impressive-sounding concept of futurism in fields such as autonomous vehicles, high-pulse power lasers, and electromagnetic radiation. But what is futurism, I ask.
"Futurism is necessary when formulating your tech strategy; it’s looking ahead to what might be the case by examining trends," he explains. "We think about how tech develops over time, how things like performance, price, hardware, and software capabilities change. From that analysis, you can identify the 'so what?' of the implications.
"It's all well and good future-gazing, but you've got to get to what that might actually mean for tech and strategy," he adds. "We can say with a degree of certainty where things will be in five years' time, but looking 20+ years ahead is harder. To address that, we formulate 'what if' scenarios taking into account various tailwind and headwind factors.
"That gives us a spectrum of scenarios to prepare for but, the further into the future you go along a hypothetical timeline, the more difficult it is because there's more uncertainty," Nick continues. "For example, I've got no doubt that - in the very long-term (not something I'm going to have to worry about in my lifetime) - we'll have artificial super-intelligence.
"But what exactly that means, who knows?"
What would a 12-year-old Nick make of all this?
"When I was a kid, I didn't have an awful lot of confidence, so I'd have been massively surprised," he says. "I'm still an introvert who pretends to be an extrovert now but, just like you see those adverts saying 'formed in the Royal Navy', I was formed at BAE Systems. And I love the work because it's both a job and a real hobby.
"Over the years, I've gained the belief that no problem is impossible," he adds. "Yes, it might be science fiction today, but I'm pretty sure we can make that science fact."