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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