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by Liam Kirkaldy
26 February 2016
Radical Independence Conference: Beware of The Robots

Radical Independence Conference: Beware of The Robots

Starbucks seemed to shrink down into its very foundations. George Street’s banks tried to lean into the shadows. The capitalists, at least the ones brazen enough to walk the streets of Edinburgh’s New Town, walked a little faster as they passed the Assembly Rooms. This was not a day for capitalists. This was the Radical Independence Campaign conference.

Outside, people distributed left-wing newspapers and anti-racism leaflets. Inside, two young Greens questioned the choice of setting. “That’s a big chandelier,” said one. It was a big chandelier. Was it appropriate?

Actually, there were at least ten chandeliers in the hall.

It was a wonder they had not been smashed, like the system. Maybe that would come after lunch.

Jim Sillars, former SNP deputy leader and current independence activist, started things off with a call for the Yes campaign to re-unite after the election. For too long, he said, the SNP neglected independence because they were soft. “Independence requires a hard choice. Soft people do not make hard choices,” he told the crowd.

“If you don’t campaign on independence, you don’t build an independence vote, and you don’t get independence,” he added.

This was what the crowd had come for – classic Sillars. But then he started talking about ‘The Robots’.

It was quite surprising. Near the end, he said: “The final comment I’ve got is something that’s been talked about all over the airwaves and in some newspapers in recent months. That is the challenge that’s coming to human society from the advancement of artificial intelligence.”

It did seem an odd turn for an opening speech.

Sillars, seemingly concerned his meaning was unclear, put it more bluntly: “The Robots are coming.”

“I’m a socialist, and with this challenge, socialism becomes more relevant than ever before. Who owns The Robots? Who controls The Robots? Who controls the wealth created by this new generation of artificial intelligence?”

Panel members looked up, surprised. And it would have been easy to laugh the point off, if this were not a growing trend. It was only a couple of months ago that John Woodcock called the SNP ‘robots’ during a debate on Trident. People laughed then too.

Shortly after that, David Mundell called for a “reboot” of UK and Scottish Government relations. At the time, it just sounded like he’d been given a ‘Computing for Dummies’ book for Christmas, but what if it’s more than that? ‘Holyrood 2.0’? How could we have been so blind? That’s robot talk.

So maybe Sillars had a point. Who does own The Robots? How deep does this go? And what do they look like? They could be anyone. A cold shudder ran through the crowd. A robot could be sitting right next to you. It was a horrible thought.

But there was no time to attack your neighbour, desperately attempting to peel back their skin to see if they were bionic. That could come later. No, best play it cool.

Everyone tried to pretend nothing had happened. RISE candidate Cat Boyd took to the stage next. She looked human enough, even if she did have silver, robot-coloured hair. Was it metallic?

She started off telling the audience about her experience of starting Radical Independence four years before. “We got a lot of stick,” she said. “Some people called us an MI5 front. Some called us a Labour Party front.” It wasn’t clear which was worse.

They had come a long way. “We crushed Labour and the old unionism out of parliamentary power, and it was pretty lovely, I’m not going to lie.”

“Labour’s problem,” she said, “was that they served the rich and parts of the middle class and forgot about the poor majority. That problem has not gone away.”

Promising not to do the same, Boyd railed against health inequality in modern Scotland. “You can call it injustice. I call it theft,” she said.

This was dangerous stuff. If Boyd wasn’t a robot, she was surely putting herself at risk of incurring their mechanical wrath. That was probably what Sillars had been warning her about.

In fact, by this stage the conclusion was clear: Jim Sillars is himself a robot, sent from the future, to stop Cat Boyd being assassinated by a more advanced robot – possibly Robin McAlpine – and starting the revolution.

You learn a lot at these things. But still, we were no closer to independence. It was left to McAlpine, appearing like a kind of hipster, media-savvy Karl Marx, to pave the way. 

“We need to get a prospectus for Scottish independence on the table by, for my money, 2019. Then we can have a Yes campaign... If we can get a solid document answering questions on currency, the fiscal situation, pensions, all these other questions, we can launch a two-year campaign and shift opinion.”

Leave it later than 2021 and things like financial crises, austerity and structural problems with the world economy could distract from independence, he said, adding, “Never mind the advent of The Robots.”

Along the podium, Jim Sillars scowled. That’s just what a robot would say.

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