16 April 2019

Transports of Delight

Rural Bus Services

I was extremely pleased that Aberdeenshire Council has agreed to maintain the supported bus service to Gardenstown.on Saturdays.

A significant number of constituents have been in touch with me since the Council mooted withdrawing the service last year, and, following on from my own representations with the Council, these concerns have been taken on board, with funding found to keep the service running.

The success of this campaign is testimony to the strength of feeling in the village, which is, itself, a major tourist attraction in the North-east - at least partially on the basis of its scenic location. The continued Saturday service is not only good for local businesses, who depend on these visitors. It's good for those who don't, or no longer have, access to private transport.

I was discussing the issue with a former constituent last week, who, is now eligible for the free bus pass the Scottish Government provides for all Senior Citizens. I was delighted to learn that she is taking full advantage of the facility, with weekend trips across Scotland, on expeditions which she may not previously have countenanced, whether for cost or logistical reasons.

While the lady in question is a sprightly 63-year old, the real beneficiaries of this facility are those who are not, perhaps, as mobile as they once were, and can find it difficult leaving their village or even their home. This isolation, particularly notable in rural areas, has significant negative health impacts on our older folk - both physical, and mental. Everyone benefits when our Senior Citizens feel able, to travel - whether that's for recreation, shopping, or to see far-flung family members.

It's for that reason that I will continue to defend rural bus routes in the constituency vigorously - not only as economic lifelines for our local businesses, but as literal lifelines for our older folk. It's also why I would urge all my constituents above the age of 60 to apply, and get the use of, for their free bus pass.

Broadband Connectivity

On a broadly similar topic, another of the most frequently raised issues in the constituency remains its broadband provision.

While this is - theoretically - a reserved issue for the UK Government, we all know that if left in those hands, we would be waiting forever for decent broadband connectivity in our rural areas. For that reason, the Scottish Government has committed £579 million of its own money - thus far - to facilitate 100% Superfast broadband coverage across Scotland by 2021. To date, no other part of the UK has made such a commitment.

Much good work has already been done in the constituency since Holyrood made this commitment in 2017, though there remain a number of blackspots which, for geographical reasons, do not have adequate coverage. The coming two years, however, should see some of those blackspots begin to be tackled - with all the tangible benefits that provides to families and businesses in the North east.

21 November 2017

The Future has Arrived

There aren’t many Czech words used in the English language. The only one I know of is “robot” which comes from robota which is their word for “forced labour”.

Although few of us yet meet a robot in our everyday lives, we all depend on robots for things we use each day. From the spot welding on a car assembly line to assembling of electronic circuit boards in our mobile phones, our TVs, our washing machines via the infuriating robots that answer many telephone helplines – they are all around us.

But earlier this month, something new. I was the warm-up act for a robot. Heriot-Watt University was in Parliament to show MSPs and others what they have been up to in their ‘Year of Robotics’. And I was host of the event. Which involved my handing over control to an attractive little robot called Pepper.

And perhaps that is what a lot of us think of when we think of robots. Handing over control.

But rather like the Jacquard loom, which was invented in 1804, today’s robots are feared by many because they can fundamentally change our lives. When Joseph Marie Jacquard’s device was added to a power loom the capability of the loom and the speed at which it could produce complex patterned cloth jumped dramatically.

The nature of work in the factory changed but with output rising the weaving industry grew.

That early automation raised efficiency and capability.

Heriot-Watt are one of the world leaders in modern robot technology. And they have a nearly £100 million finance chest to underpin their work. With this we can own the future.

The large number of MSPs who attended the Parliamentary event saw many different applications of robot technology. Devices that help our offshore oil industry, that understand our spoken words and even do some of the housework.

The bottom line is that the robot is another tool to extend our reach as the human race.

Like at many such events, a Government minister attended to learn, interact and inform.

Shirley-Anne Sommerville is our Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science. Part of her mission is to encourage more of her gender to consider science and engineering as a career. We lose out if we leave it to the boys alone.

But she may not have to look too far for a good example.

She told us how she has been upstaged by her primary school daughter who has successfully programmed a robot to obey her electronic instructions.

That’s just history repeating itself. Charles Babbage designed the “Difference Machine” – a mechanical computer – in Victorian times and relied on the skills of his programmer, the first ever, a woman – Ada Lovelace.

And modern programming still depends on the work of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper who worked for the US Navy on its computers in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

So let’s seize the day and make sure Scotland leads the world in robots. But we won’t make robots of mankind.

Stewart Stevenson
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