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Sketch: Gordon MacDonald wants more robots

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Gordon MacDonald wants more robots

The SNP’s Gordon Macdonald is concerned about robot density in the UK. Specifically, his complaint is there are too few robots on these shores. Some might suggest that he takes a look at the benches around him.

The MSP and party chief whip at Holyrood, whose actual job description is to get his MSPs to all vote like robots, had brought forward a debate on the national robotarium – yes, we have one; no, it’s not the Scottish Parliament – and he was disappointed to reveal that the UK is 124th on the global league table of robot densities.

“In comparison with other leading G7 economies, the UK was last; both Japan and Germany had nearly four times the UK’s robot density,” he said, aghast. In the chamber, the robot density must have been approaching 100 per cent.

Speaking of which, Rona Mackay was keen to put her enthusiasm for robots on record. “I am not tech-savvy in any way,” she began, ominously, given it was a debate about cutting edge technology. “Nevertheless, I marvel at the advances that we in Scotland have made.” Easy to marvel at something you don’t understand. I quite often find myself marveling at how some of these cyborgs became members of parliament.

They’ve already been replaced by walking Alexas to do those monotonous and repetitive tasks of nodding their heads and thumping the desk

Mackay went on to say these advances were “awesome”, “simply amazing”, “really fantastic”. She is easily impressed. Then she said something about it being a “Brave New World” which is… probably not the awesome, simply amazing or really fantastic comparison the robotarium would want from this bit of publicity.

Though perhaps the SNP party leadership might be interested in using “Soma” to keep order in the ranks. The troops have been restless of late, just ask Ian Blackford.

Back in the chamber, Stephen Kerr was also keen for more robots to take over “some of the most hazardous, monotonous or repetitive tasks that we ask human beings to do”. Perhaps this explains why some of our parliamentarians are robotic – they’ve already been replaced by walking Alexas to do those monotonous and repetitive tasks of nodding their heads and thumping the desk from time to time.

Alexa, can you show us some independent thinking? “Sorry, I’m having trouble understanding right now.”

But Kerr went on to wax lyrical about what robots could do including, surprisingly, cutting chips. The member, who you’ll recall is (not so) secretly a potato with more vitamin C than a lemon, said: “I was privileged to meet a company in Scotland that was behind the development of the technology that is used by frozen food manufacturers to optimise the number of chips that can be cut from a potato.”

He does have a bit of a scary edge to him, but I never thought he’d take enjoyment from watching fellow potatoes be sliced up. Maybe he loves the thrill of danger.

“The wonders of the high-tech tattie were developed here in Scotland,” adds Kerr, himself a classic example of a high-tech tattie in action.

The least robotic participant in the debate was, unusually, Richard Leonard. The trade unionist stepped onto his soapbox to warn about the dangers of the technology if the working classes are excluded, flat cap in one hand and a dog-eared copy of Karl Marx essays in the other. All the classics came out. He warned about leaving things “to the centres of economic power and wealth”. He called for a “serious debate” about “power, accountability, work and leisure”. He spoke about the “power over the means of production”.

Bobbing his head all the while, the man was in his element, gearing up to deliver his final cutting blow. “We can build a truly socialist, utopian and scientific future!” The crowd went wild – or it would have, if only the room wasn’t full of tin cans containing artificial intelligence software.

Kaukab Stewart had the unenviable task of following the former Labour leader, so she went for shock factor. Leonard might be sceptical about power balances, but could she interest him in some “electronic skin that can learn from feeling pain”? Gross.

She also expressed a hope “that my skills as a politician are somewhat greater than my skills as a surgeon”, having recently attempted to use a new medical robot. Patients may hope that their surgeons have even more skill than that, given one major political skill is to think about The Optics. Stewart’s ability to turn her head and check there weren’t any, err, controversial signs behind her at a rally was questioned just days later. Maybe  a squirt of oil in the old robotic neck required.

Rounding up the debate was the always-enterprising enterprise minister Ivan McKee, whose political oratory could do with some work. Robotics is “one of the horizontals that supports so many verticals across our emerging economic sectors,” he said. What does that mean? The minister did not elaborate.

He did accept that the public sector needed to take more risk with tech. And to facilitate this, “it is incumbent on opposition members not to jump forward so quickly when things do not go exactly as we plan,” he said. Hmm. I wonder what other areas of government he would like MSPs to apply this reduced scrutiny to.

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