Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 5th December 2017

I’M confused by all this talk about driverless cars. In fact, the very thought of this wonderful new technology scares me.

Can anyone explain how it works? Will we simply sit at home watching Bargain Hunt and Dickinson’s Real Deal in the afternoon having sent our car into town with a shopping list, or do we actually have to be esconsed somewhere in the vehicle while it does its own thing?

The Government plans to provide funding to put driverless cars on the roads by 2021. The Chancellor claims the world is “on the brink of a technological revolution” and we face a choice: either we embrace the future and seize the opportunities it promises or we reject change and turn inwards to the failed dogmas of the past.

There has already been talk of robots being utilised in old people’s homes to provide company for the lonely elderly residents, and sports stars of the future being associated more with pounding a keyboard than training on a track. Welcome to the futuristic world of e-sports, where Olympic gold medals are won not by marathon runners, but by gamers.

Even my world of journalism isn’t exempt. Robots will be deployed to write 30,000 local news stories a month for a news agency as part of a Google-led initiative. They will work alongside five human reporters as part of a data news service, scouring government, NHS and local council databases for information and creating detailed templates for stories.

One-third of jobs will be affected by automation within the next 15 years, according to predictions from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Press Association’s editor in chief, Peter Clifton, says Reporters Data and Robots (Radar) will harness artificial intelligence to scale up the volume of local stories that would be impossible to provide manually.

So watch out, you parish councillors, when you discuss your bus shelters, your grass cutting and your local planning matters. Big brother, in the shape of Radar the robot, may soon be watching your every move.

Could it already have started? I do freelance football reporting for that self-same Press Association and on Saturday, at Carlisle United’s home game, there sitting in my seat was the very realistic model of an owl.

I could, of course, accept the explanation that the stand at Brunton Park has recently been plagued by feral pigeons nesting in the roof and the owl is the most humane way of persuading the birds to sling their hook and stop creating mess. However, it was distracting, as Carlisle struggled to beat their lowly opponents, to see those big amber eyes staring at me.

IN ELECTRIC DREAMS

BUT back to cars and the Government’s faith in electric vehicles. These are in line for a £540 million funding boost in a bid to persuade more drivers to ditch diesel and petrol cars. Before you rush out and buy electric, just remember it wasn’t so long ago we were all being urged to buy diesel.

The Government is to contribute £200 million to a £400 million fund to invest in the electric vehicle charging network and a further £40 million will be set aside to invest in new technology along with committing another £100 million to maintain the subsidy for those who buy electric cars until 2020.

There are 115,000 electric cars in the UK and 13,000 charging points. Have you ever seen a charging point in these parts? There probably are some, but I’ve never spotted any. I did see a charging point in the car park at Scotch Corner services. Not much good if you don’t have the time at your disposal to wait half an hour to be fully charged, or if someone got to the charging mechanism first. I wouldn’t want to be running low on juice near the top of Kirkstone Pass in winter, either.

I see one other problem with electric. What do these cars run on? Why, electricity, of course. They will not make much of a contribution to the environment if they are using electricity generated by fossil fuels and we don’t exactly seem to know what our future fuel policy is.

There are still too many unanswered questions about the rush to electric-powered transport. Do you actually know what the trade-in value of your electric motor is going to be two or three years hence? Will we all want one, or will the technology have already proved a busted flush the same way diesel was? Twenty years ago they were telling us all that diesel was the saviour of the planet, now it’s the big bad wolf of the motor trade.

Such is the Government’s rush to electric cars any warning signs are quickly drowned out. Against electric? Then you must be an enemy of the environment.

I read an interesting letter to a newspaper from a scientist questioning just how much carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere by these electric models compared to petrol. He may be right, he may be totally wrong. But, as someone wisely said, if we exercised more foresight, we’d not need hindsight.

SPYING’S NOT WHAT IT WAS

I SPENT a whole evening recently watching fascinating profiles on TV about the Cambridge spies, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, whose real-life story beats anything in the movies or novels of that genre.

They were part of the old boy network recruited by Soviet intelligence. They had all been to Cambridge University in the 1930s and their spy ring, active in the early 1950s, betrayed their country’s secrets and sent many of its agents to certain death. It was Tinker, Tailor in all its grim reality.

But what really struck me was that, these days, there is no requirement for a Burgess and a Maclean type. Their type of spy is redundant. It’s all done in cyber space. You don’t need safe houses and secret assignations with Russian agents when you can make mischief and spread fake news from thousands of miles away just by a few taps on a computer keyboard.

Seeing global events you sometimes have to stop and remind yourself this is really happening, not a TV show. It seems certain that Vladimir Putin, formerly of the KGB, interfered in the US election. But did the Russians also meddle in our Brexit referendum given Putin’s avowed contempt for the European Union and Nato?

The ballot weakened Britain and Europe, and Putin, seeing the divisions in our nation, will be congratulating his cyber spooks on the spread of disinformation and the exploitation by social media of the soft underbelly of democracy.

Russian propaganda, it now appears, was behind the Twitter account that wrongly accused a Muslim woman of casually walking past a Westminster terror attack victim. The misleading picture and message, aimed at sparking a racial backlash, was traced to a Kremlin-backed account which has posted other anti-immigration and pro-Brexit messages.

False messages and fake news via the Internet. These are the tools of the trade of the modern spy. And while Philby and his posh friends traded their tawdry secrets, social media can hack us in our own homes and reach millions in a moment with its dark divisions and stirring of hatred.

How do we know what’s true and what is fake? That thought, as I look daily at the news content on my computer screen, scares me a hell of a lot more than any Cambridge spy network would ever have done.

AN UNHAPPY ENCOUNTER

DID Celia Johnson, who starred alongside Trevor Howard in the classic 1945 British film Brief Encounter, know something when she wrote to friends deploring “the revoltingness of all the people who have anything to do with films”.

No Harvey Weinstein in those days, but it’s clear from letters that have come to light not only did she hate filming and the people behind the camera, she wasn’t keen on going “up north” to shoot scenes on Carnforth station.

“We have to go up north for four weeks’ location on some horrible railway station,” she wrote a year before filming began. “A film always takes weeks longer than they say it will.” Makes you wonder what she’s have said if they had chosen even further up north Penrith or Carlisle as the location.

Johnson and her co-star used to sip brandy between scenes to ameliorate the misery of being stuck up north and what she dramatically described as “the abandoning of all that I hold dear”. Actors do tend towards dramatic effect. But a none-too-brief and somewhat unhappy encounter, it seems.