Q&A: The Science and Technology cross party group
Holyrood asked members of the Science and Technology cross party group a range of questions on their specialist subjects – some serious, some less so.
Have you used any emerging technologies like ChatGPT in your role as an MSP and if so, what do you use it for?
Murdo Fraser: I have not personally used technology such as ChatGPT in my MSP role, although I know there are colleagues who have done so. I can see why this would be a very useful resource when tackling an issue where I did not have much background knowledge, but my preference is always to speak from personal knowledge and research rather than outsource this to AI.
Clare Adamson: I’ve had a play with it, and I’ll look at it. I used ChatGPT for one speech to demonstrate how it works. I asked it five questions to explain the Scots Independent newspaper. I got five reasonable answers of what it was, but it didn’t really talk about what it stands for, or go into the detail of the Scots language in it, or the support for Gaelic.
I question whether it will ever replace people like journalists and the issues they investigate. I have come to the conclusion that it won’t.
Brian Whittle: I sometimes use Otter.ai to transcribe some thoughts and ideas when I’m out and about rather than scribbling in a notebook. For example, if I have a thought around potential policy ideas or thoughts on a press article, I will make a verbal note.
Stuart McMillan: We have not used ChatGPT in my office although I know some of my staff have used it in their spare time. I appreciate it does have its uses but I’m not confident that AI is able to replace, or make easier, the job of my staff when it comes to putting together responses to constituents or press releases, for example.
Finlay Carson: I haven’t. I should look at how it would help me, particularly given that I am not very good at starting from a blank piece of paper or creating a good framework for a speech.
Ivan McKee: No, I have resisted the temptation so far. But I think it would be interesting to write something and then set ChatGPT the challenge to see what it comes up with and how it compares.
I do think these technologies will supplement what people do rather than replace them.
How concerning is the loss of CodeClan to Scotland and its technology community?
IMcK: It’s very concerning. If we are serious about tackling the skills gap in tech – which is the biggest challenge we have – then we should be dramatically expanding this kind of provision to get more skills into the sector, and the kind of short retraining courses that CodeClan delivered are essential.
FC: It is very concerning that a well-respected organisation like CodeClan put its failure down to a lack of revenue from business placements. Scotland has a reputation for being at the forefront of technological development, we need to look to see why the demand for coding graduates is not what it should be: is our public sector too risk-averse to new technology? Or do we need CodeClan-type training at the heart of our local college sector, producing coders for local companies to push their boundaries and expand their horizons?
CA: It was a fantastic model of training. I know people who have gone through courses and they now work for a major worldwide company that was born in Edinburgh.
It is something that I thought, if things went pear-shaped in my job, CodeClan would have helped me get up to speed again quickly.
I’m not aware of the reason why it went into liquidation, but it was fantastic that CodeBase stood up and took the assets and allowed everyone to finish their course.
MF: CodeClan provided a significant opportunity for those who wish to change careers and fast-track into the tech industry and it is incredibly disappointing that it has failed. If we are to keep Scotland’s tech industry thriving and competitive, we do need to find a replacement as quickly as possible.
SMcM: I was disappointed to hear of CodeClan going into liquidation. In fact, the situation facing the wider tech industry is far from ideal. The downturn in tech that has followed the pandemic has been exacerbated in the UK by problems surrounding the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill, which Apple, Meta and others have warned about (with at least one company stating they would consider leaving the UK if amendments were not made), as well as wider concerns that the UK is no longer as attractive a place to invest for tech start-ups since Brexit.
I was however pleased to hear that 80 CodeClan students’ studies have since been saved by the UK’s largest technology incubator Codebase, following the sale of the digital skills academy’s assets.
BW: I think the loss is extremely unfortunate, given it was a conduit for the development of emerging technology. It is an area we must excel in and have done in the past. There is currently no replacement for this loss.
What areas of science and technology interest you the most?
CA: At the moment it is around encouraging people into the industry.
I think that getting women into tech has gone backwards. I graduated in 1989 and in my time, I would say there were more women going into IT projects. We need to encourage more diversity in the industry and explain to people what it is and does.
I think there is a big knowledge gap, and it has that ‘geek’ thing attached to it. But actually, the one thing that I found helped my career was communication skills.
MF: I believe in science and evidence-based policymaking, and it must be a matter of regret that too many policy decisions from the Scottish Government seem to be based on prejudice and ideology, rather than science. Two excellent examples of this are nuclear energy and GM food technology, both of which have significant and demonstrable benefits, but both of which are opposed by the SNP-Green coalition. If we relied on science and evidence we could be taking forward policy initiatives that would deliver real benefits to people across Scotland.
BW: I am really interested in the ability of AI in space exploration. It seems to me that it is most likely AI that will allow that kind of exploration in the first place, given the harsh environment of space. We already know that asteroids can be extremely rich in resources and we will probably have to consider how we can mine those resources in the future. AI seems the safest and most likely way. And in any case, I’m a bit of a bit of a nerd when it comes to cosmology.
I am also very interested in the potential of the green hydrogen market because if we can make it viable, we will have access to an almost limitless resource.
FC: How data is used, stored and accessed is an area which I believe is not fully optimised, particularly in health and public sector, particularly now when AI and raw processing power could bring so many benefits in a far shorter timescale.
IMcK: I’m an engineer by background so have a broad appreciation of all kinds of technologies and a relentless curiosity about how things work. What’s happening in the energy sector just now, with a wide range of renewable technologies all jockeying for position, is very interesting, helped by the fact that the technologies are mostly quite well established and quite easy to get your head around.
What is the most important technological advance from your childhood?
IMcK: It’s been a long time, so there’s a lot to choose from. Mobile telecoms are probably the biggest advance. But the most remarkable thing for me is how we managed to function – often very effectively – in previous decades without mobile phones, laptops or even IT systems in the workplace. Which I think shows that at the end of the day, it’s not the technology that’s the most important, but how people organise to run their lives and businesses. Technology only makes things easier, or harder if we misapply it.
FC: When I was in the IT business, every Christmas customers would say they wanted the next big thing. And normally there was a ‘big thing’. Things like the development of colour monitors or ink or bubble jet printers, changing from monochrome to colour, flatbed scanners for digitising people’s photos and slides, and digital projectors. And then of course the internet. But the technology crammed into the original iPhone was the biggest technological advance that, in my opinion, nothing has really trumped even to this day.
BW: I think access to information through smart technology. We all have such a resource at our fingertips with smartphones and wearable tech.
CA: It’s probably the mobile phone. When I started coding we didn’t even have hard drives and PCs, it was the old mainframe that we used.
The most profound experience at that time for me was going to CERN. They have a museum there and you can see the PC that Tim Berners-Lee launched the internet with. That was altruistic and from academic research and being able to share information across the world.
It has had the biggest impact on our lives; however, we have failed to monitor and regulate it and we see that while there are great things that happen on it, the downside is the dark web and misinformation.
MF: The most significant technological advance in my lifetime has been the development of the smartphone, which effectively allows everyone in the world to communicate with each other instantaneously and have access within seconds to the entire store of human knowledge. Even 20 years ago, such an initiative would have been unthinkable. With this tremendous resource at our fingertips, it is a little ironic that it seems to be mostly used for sharing humorous cat videos.
What technology could you not live without and why?
MF: I could not live without a smartphone.
IMcK: I’m wedded to my laptop and carry it everywhere. There are not many problems that can’t be fixed by firing up a quick spreadsheet.
FC: Mobile connectivity and my smartphone. I would be totally lost without being connected to the outside world. It’s a sad reflection on the pace of today’s life but everyone wants an answer or response almost by return.
BW: My Garmin has become such a part of my life these days. Who doesn’t want to monitor their VO2 max, heart rate, blood pressure, and daily exercise?
CA: Probably my car, it gives you real freedom. It’s hugely liberating, though it’s maybe not very PC to say that. But obviously mobile phones, I’m on mine constantly and to be honest I would like to live without it. I was away on break recently and didn’t have any Wi-Fi and I found that pretty liberating.
Is there a technological advance that you wish hadn’t been made? If so, why?
IMcK: Yes, nuclear weapons and Twitter. Both are destructive in their own ways.
CA: As I have said about the internet, there are good and bad things. There is altruism behind some things, there are real differences made in people’s lives. But there is always a downside. I think we need to look to the good sides and make use of that to make people’s lives better.
FC: Search engines are a wonderful thing but I wish that regulation of some sort had been brought in to ensure awareness when developing search engine algorithms of how they can impact our lives, our communities, and even our democracy, particularly now given the role algorithms have, not only in search engines but in so many other apps.
Algorithms can, in the words of a search engine, create vicious cycles by showing users more content related to their issues. Social media users should keep in mind that these platforms present a distorted view of reality that rarely matches people’s actual day-to-day existence. Algorithms can also have unintended consequences, like creating filter bubbles, perpetuating bias, and undermining our creativity, choices, and opportunities.
BW: I think there are parts of social media I could do without. As a species, we seem to be able to utilise great technological advances and flip them in a destructive way. Take the splitting of the atom - the greatest threat to us is ourselves.
SMcM: The nuclear bomb. It’s an expensive waste of money which I don’t feel has made the world a more peaceful or safer place.
MF: It can’t be un-invented now, but it always makes me smile to think that email was invented as a time-saving innovation. While it has its benefits, the daily deluge of email, much of it irrelevant and arriving at all times of day and night, can be frustrating. The sheer volume of communication can make it harder to sift what is important from the dross.