How will the Liberal Democrats prepare the UK for emergent technologies?


Let’s take a brief look at the list of things that are on my Letter to Santa:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Quantum computing
  • In-vitro meat and vertical farming
  • Mass-commercialised 3D printing
  • Transparent solar panels
  • Li-Fi and 5G
  • Male contraception
  • Autonomous cars and electric cars
  • And so, so much more…

Yeah, I’m a nightmare to buy presents for.

Some of these are already causing stirs in the legal world.

Just the other week there were reports of telecoms companies promising 5G sooner if the EU crippled net neutrality. That’s a fairly clear statement of their desire that we need to be prepared to stand up to. The Lib Dem stance on that should be obvious: we can wait if it means maintaining net neutrality.

Our stance on male contraception should likewise be fairly obvious. But, what are we actually telling people? That it’s probably going to be a thing? Simple lip service seems weak. Why not tie it into education? But it’s not a thing yet, you say? What I’d say in response is… so what? It’s extremely likely to be a thing in the future, and sex education occurs at a young age. Should we not prepare the youth of today for the ever-changing world of tomorrow?

The other day I was driving home and I spotted a 3D printing shop. It was really cool to see. But we need to be aware that 3D printing isn’t just a novelty: like fusion power it has the potential to make entire sections of the market obsolete. One close to my heart is the production of plastic gaming miniatures, which can already be 3D printed. What will happen once we can start 3D printing stationery, cutlery, electronics, or the elephant in the room: guns? How do we plan to stimulate the economy and job market if high streets brands start going out of business?

At some point in recent months you’ve probably read the thought experiments about a car sacrificing its occupants to save a crowd of people, which, probability of occurrence aside, is something that legal experts have been scratching their heads over. They’re doing that, but what are we doing? What’s our stance? Why does that matter, you ask? Well, if autonomous cars prove safer than human-driven cars (hint: they very probably will), then everybody’s cars are really dangerous and, in virtue of that danger, obsolete. All the while the electric car will also have been contributing to that obsolescence.

So what do we do with our dangerous, air-polluting antiques? Repeat of the scrappage scheme? Overtax fossil cars and petrol to discourage ownership? Do we run one for electric cars and then another for automated cars? Do we turn around to car manufacturers and ask them to find a way to upgrade existing electric cars with autonomy? What about road tax and car insurance, how will we ensure changes to those are handled fairly for the people we represent? How will we prepare people culturally for autonomous cars?

The electric car was mentioned once in the 2015 manifesto. Over the next few years, we may need to seriously consider whether we’ll need more than that for the manifesto that will take us from 2020 to 2025.

* James Betts joined the Lib Dems in 2015

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  • Peter Bancroft 25th Jul '16 - 12:54pm

    I do think all political parties in the UK suffer from having a rear-view mirror facing view of the world. The politics of today is primarily reactionary which means that any reference to future trends is a rarity. If you combine that with a modern world which systematically under-appreciates the impact of new technologies, then you end up with a major gap between future realities and the policies advocated to manage them.

    There is an interesting potential role for the Lib Dems as an intermediary between people bringing about technological change and the body politic, indeed watch this space for some thinking about the shared economy. With the exception of the SNP, no other party has the luxury of defining itself by the future and not the past.

    The pace of change is such that any 10+ year vision for the UK by necessity must reflect the realities of what will be a drastically different world. The Lib Dems could make some steps to recapturing the technology enthusiast vote we used to own, but have been losing over the last 8 years.

  • Phil Craxford 25th Jul '16 - 1:44pm

    @James Betts & @Peter Bancroft. Very much in agreement. Attending recent debates it seems that most arguments assume an economic and societal model that is based on those of the beginning of the 20th century as opposed to looking forward to those of the middle of the 21st.

    Many of these technologies offer truly transformative benefits to society but also demand answers to big questions. Such as, as manufacturing follows the same path as farming I.e. with increased mechanisation and automation requiring fewer people but with more specialised skills; how do we define what is useful work through which people can lead worthwhile lives and earn their living?

    If there is already a discussion group I’d love to join it. I know this is slightly longer view stuff but we should have an idea how these things may pan out.

  • Robert Chalmers 25th Jul '16 - 2:05pm

    Couldn’t agree more, with the original blog post, and the two comments above thus.
    I’ve been very frustrated by the inability of people to look forward. I even started a closed group to look at ways to improve the manifesto at the upcoming conference or the one after, but the response has been very thin so far. I’m not worried. Early days.
    But I am worried about that 2015 Manifesto. That could equally be the charter for the local scout group.
    How are we to galvanise people in this post-industrial age, when policy makers are still worried about where to buy typewriter ribbons.
    Being worried about the 2015 Manifesto means I’m worried about the future of the LibDems.
    Don’t people realise that 4 years from now the whole world will be a very different place.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Jul '16 - 2:12pm

    I’d take a look at how legal and policing systems have responded to technology in the past. Courts and judges were clueless about computing when first asked to consider “hacking” (unauthorised access) of computer services. Consequently, they were unable to apply existing legal principles to new “crime”; they didn’t have the knowledge to determine whether an action was trespass or had malicious intent.

    The first twocking offences (Taking Without Owners Consent) were imaginatively addressed by charging the criminals with theft of petrol. It was a clever solution before the introduction of a specific offence but we still haven’t fixed the problem. And I’m uncomfortable about imaginative solutions.

    I favour increasing the knowledge and interpretative skills of court participants. With their consent, of course. Parliamentary processes may not keep up with technology, so in the mean time judges and court staff need to apply principles to new problems.

    How many of the legal and ethical problems of new tech cross party political lines? Very few, I suspect, but the few will be the ones that we read about in the news.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Jul '16 - 3:00pm

    @Robert Chalmers:
    “How are we to galvanise people in this post-industrial age, when policy makers are still worried about where to buy typewriter ribbons.”

    Given that we aren’t in a post-industrial age, your polemic about typewriter ribbons carries little substance.

    “Don’t people realise that 4 years from now the whole world will be a very different place.”

    *Expletives deleted* For most people of the world, life will be as lousy and lovely as in 2016 or 1916. And for us in the west, it’ll be very familiar. We’ll go to work on crowded public transport etc and citizens will complain about the same old things. “I waited at home for two hours until the Amazon drone delivered my meal pack.” “The butcher’s boy was late yesterday.”

    Think hard. There are people living today who are old enough to have spoken with Benjamin Disraeli. As youngsters, they’d have mentioned similar problems to their 21st century contemporaries.

  • Autonomous cars will almost certainly be safer than those with a human driver in control, but the interesting question is liability in the event of an accident.

    If I cause an accident and kill or maim someone, you can claim against my insurance. You could sue me but you will get more from the insurance company than you will from me. And I might get fined, banned or sent to jail if I was driving recklessly.

    But if a computer is in charge then I can’t be reckless any more. The “driver” is the computer programme provided by the car company. The car company has very deep pockets and lots of insurance, so expect some law suits claiming huge payouts in the event of an accident involving an autonomous car. Also, if there were errors in the computer code, can the car company be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter, and the Directors sent to jail?

    I have also predicted before that kids will play “chicken” with autonomous cars by daring each other to jump out in front of them at the last second and causing them to emergency brake/swerve. If the car does that, misses the kid but hits a bollard or tree, who’s fault is that and who pays for the car repairs?

    Autonomous cars are a challenge for the insurance industry, rather than an ethical challenge for political parties.

  • I’m a bit confused how:
    Transparent solar panels
    Male contraception
    electric cars

    Are going to cause legal issues?

    Why do we need to have a position on these, trying to be ahead of the curve on cultural issues has proved rather funny in the past. Just look at how people in the 60’s were predicting we would live even in the 90s let alone now. Is it the purpose of the government to “prepare people culturally for autonomous cars” and if so how would they do that?

    I’m all for parties looking forward to identify the new challenges ahead and sometimes taking action to shape technological development but this feels a bit like over-reach.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Jul '16 - 4:45pm

    Nick Baird: “Autonomous cars will almost certainly be safer than those with a human driver in control, but the interesting question is liability in the event of an accident.”

    Let us ignore the second argument. How immediately in the future will autonomous cars be safer to drive from Paris to Peking?

    Most of the land area of Russia is unmapped. Most of Africa is unmapped. There is no way that a robot has crossed the territory on its own. But we are assumed to swallow arguments that it is a trivial problem.

    Autonomous cars work on mapped territory. They don’t work in other places — and the current ones are designed to work where Google and Tesla employees live. Happy middle class villages where kids do not play football or cricket in the street.

  • James Betts 25th Jul '16 - 5:07pm

    Nick Baird: Yes, they are a challenge for insurance companies. I didn’t actually mean that the Lib Dems should have a role in developing the new financial models for how individual insurance works (my insurance company, AXA, already have a section on autonomous cars, so the industry is definitely preparing for it), but there may be considerations for legislation to ensure that there is a code of conduct that insurers must adhere to.

    Maybe there won’t be, but my point wasn’t that there is- it was merely that we need to make sure we appreciate the nuance of emergent technologies so that not only can we propose fair policies, but also that we know where policy may actually be required. For instance, the Road Traffic Act of 1988 will need to be looked at. We cannot simply stick with what we wrote in 1988 in blind ignorance of a paradigm shift in our transport economy.


    Psi: I never said they were all causing legal issues, I said some. Nor did I intend for a 500~ piece to cover off a comprehensive vision of everything mentioned. 🙂 I was merely intending to start a discussion on how I think the Lib Dems are in a good position to set themselves out among the parties as *the* forward-looking party, and that an integral part of that is preparing for new technologies rather than simply being reactive upon their arrival.

    Male contraception could be a piece unto itself, centred around education and gender politics. Transparent solar panels make me think of government-backed incentive schemes like what we had a few years ago with regular solar panels. The introduction of electric cars will cause substantial disruption in the oil economy as we move into an electric economy, and widespread adoption of things like transparent solar panels to maximise country-wide energy-yield will help to reduce the cost of importing electricity.

  • Phil Craxford 25th Jul '16 - 5:27pm

    Sorry guys but I do think there are ethical challenges here and there are historical precedents for this such as the Luddites.

    There are challenges – technologies such as 3D printing enable you to go from raw material to finished article. That’s different skills sets and different opportunities to those we have today.

    There are benefits – There is also a growing trend of not for profit companies using land set-aside from agriculture to produce low cost solar energy. Transparent panels means many more areas can be used. This would decrease (not do away with though) energy reliance on natural gas much of which is sourced from Russia.

    I’m not suggesting we make the mistake of coming up with some wild vision of the future but I think it is worth discussion.

  • I like this article and its willingness to delve into areas of technological innovation which will challenge us in ways we can’t always immediately see. But don’t feel that you’re starting this debate from scratch.
    About four weeks ago a chap called Alvin Toffler died, aged 87. For those not aware,..Alvin Toffler was the futurist writer of books,…Future Shock, and,.. The Third Wave, back in the 70’s and 80’s.
    These very popular books were not just futurist predictions, or provocative polemics intended to jolt society, to see a future they were not always ready for. Alvin Toffler also engaged the reader into a debate on how we as a society might accommodate, adapt, and maintain our humanity, in the face of abrupt technological challenges to our industries, society, politics, human rights, and our moral compass.
    One of his much vaunted concepts was the ‘prosumer’, where the lines blurred between producer and consumer. Much of today’s social media would fit in with prosumer, as would 3D printing.
    Alvin Toffler is still well worth a read today. If you do read his work,… don’t obsess with what predictions he got right and got wrong. Technology predictions are ten-a-penny, all the way from Leanardo da Vinci to Ray Kurzweil. The real value in Toffler writings, is in the debate he kick started, on how rapid tech change might invoke transformations within civilization and our societal interactions.
    This is probably one of the most exciting, difficult, and,.. slightly scary debates that need to be had. Change inevitably creates winners and losers, but how we attempt to manage that change fairly, is indicative of our humanity.

  • @J Dunn – Thanks, I had missed the passing of Alvin Toffler. I would agree his books are still worth reading, for many of the reasons you give.

    I think in the context of this article, my thoughts are that the debate kicked off by the article has been and will be more about individual technologies, their relative merits and their deployment rather than providing an environment for the development and exploration of new technologies; both in technical terms and in their social implications.

  • Antonio Rocha-Ferreira 26th Jul '16 - 10:23am

    Hi James and thanks for the article, yes indeed technology needs to be discussed on its own and its critical we all see the various sides of it, not just the tech by itself but legal, comercial etc. For instance the fact that a car might have to make a decision about a human life to protect a number of others and how it just does that, its just one of the areas that highlight how complex the debate is. Most people tend to feel the “machine” makes a decision. Thats just not true. Like an actor, a machine uses a rulebook and makes a final decision yes, but it was the novelist how wrote the play. Its humans who make those decisions. Thats why its very important to discuss it also in a tech way. What do I mean? “We” scientists and people involved in making this “stuff” often have various different solutions we can take and some of them are not just black/white choices. One thing is the tech “core” ie the principle behind the stuff. Other, the way that principle is translated into a full product. For that to happen with less errors and in a more inclusive way, we need public discussion. The benefits are clear? The public knows more about tech and who is in charge and we know how to improve it and be open to different ideas. I’ve recently joined the party and Aldes also (Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists, ) and I believe we could be helpful with this 🙂

  • Jenny Barnes 26th Jul '16 - 10:40am

    I have a VW with an automatic handbrake. It occasionally doesn’t work. Also it sometimes tells me I need to brake when there is a metal signpost by the side of the road. If they can’t get the simple stuff like that right, what chance of letting a “self driving” car out in the real world? They might work on motorways, but nowhere else much.
    As for electric cars – if you want to cut congestion, pollution, etc. what you need is better cycle infrastructure, not a pretence that burning your fossil fuel somewhere else makes much real difference. Sometimes, for sure, a car is the best solution, but we need to set up the infrastructure so that other options are also good.

  • Phil Beasley. Benjamin Disraeli died on 19th April 1881. So only someone aged 140 or over could even theoretically have spoken to him. Not sure there is anyone of that age…

  • Phil Beesley 26th Jul '16 - 1:06pm

    I should have stuck to David Lloyd George (d. 26 March 1945)…

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