by Dan Iron
There are two separate strands in development which are coming to fruition at the same time. Scotland has a part to play but we must grasp this opportunity with both hands.
Firstly Scotland is blessed with humongous amounts of renewable energy. We have hydro, wind, wave and tidal energy. There is always a point where new technologies move away from being leading edge technology to commonplace, when the cost of implementing these technologies begins to get radically cheaper. We are now at this point - onshore wind power is now one of the cheapest ways of generating power.
Just recently, we have had the world’s first large-scale tidal energy farm in Scotland, in the Pentland Firth. It will eventually have 269 turbines, collectively providing enough energy to power 175,000 homes.
We already have large scale hydroelectric schemes including two incorporating pumped storage, which pump water back up to the reservoir using cheap off-peak electricity. There is a limited potential of new schemes of the same scale but other smaller scale projects are possible, either by a diversion weir and canal to run parallel to the river and thence to a turbine, or by a “run-of river" development.
There are also developments in solar power technology where, instead of using crystalline silicon, cheaper amorphous silicon is used. This is less efficient than the traditional solar panels using crystalline silicon but more environmentally friendly. It’s possible to create thin-film solar cells which can be bonded to other surfaces, such as roof tiles. Other thin-film technologies such as cadmium telluride (CdTe) photovoltaics are also available.
As Energy is reserved to Westminster there is a limitation to the measures that we in Scotland can take. At the end of 2015 many subsidies to renewable energy were reduced and the proposed Carbon Capture Scheme in Peterhead was cancelled. The UK was also the only G7 country to actually increase subsidies to fossil fuels. Scotland needs to be independent to take full advantage of renewable energy. We cannot rely on Westminster to take the right long-term decisions.
On a separate track has been the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) using advanced computing power. One component of AI is Machine Learning (ML) where neural networks are used to teach computers to recognise people, animals, objects etc. For example for computers to recognise pictures of cats, a large dataset of cat pictures and pictures not contain cats and labelled accordingly is provided to a neural net which can then, with a high degree of accuracy, distinguish between them.
The idea of neural nets has been around for some time but it is only recently that computing power has advanced to such a level that they have found real practical uses.
I mention ML because there is significant crossover between ML and another field where Scotland does particularly well - computer games. Increasingly in ML a graphics processing unit (GPU) is being used - the same ones that are used to drive computer games using high-definition 4k monitors. These GPUs operate at the speed of several trillion floating point operations per second (teraflops). For the cost of about £2,000 you can build your own ML computer. Alternatively, you can use cloud services such as Google’s.
The best way to advance economically is usually leveraging knowledge gained in one field into another closely related field. We can do this from computer games into ML. We can then do this from ML into another field in which Scotland does well - food production.
As I mentioned before, a particularly important aspect of ML is image recognition. Using these techniques it will be possible to revolutionize farming. Increasingly, fields of crops would be monitored by teams of solar-powered drones looking for and identifying any undesirable weeds and pests. Instead of mass spraying of chemical herbicides and pesticides, individual problems can be dealt with accordingly. Farming can then transition to, if not a completely organic system, one which is much more environmentally friendly.
Similar techniques can be used to harvest one of Scotland’s other resources - the seabed. To take one recent example, instead of dredging the seabed for scallops, individual underwater robots can be trained using ML to recognise scallops and collect individual scallops, and allowing them to harvest an environmentally sustainable quantity.
We will, in the next few years, see an increasing use in these technologies. Our opportunity in Scotland is going to be on the software, rather than the hardware side. We will increasingly see the creation of large scale robot-driven factories based closer to the products’ end destination. The big bucks will be in design and development of new products rather than their production.
The fundamental technology underpinning all these new developments is fast broadband. Many ML techniques can make use of the “cloud" - where, rather than purchasing your own expensive hardware, you make use of online storage and processing power. Of course, to use the “cloud" involves the transfer of large amounts of data in either direction. This brings us to the main limiting factor in the UK - the lack of symmetric high-speed broadband. This is one area where the UK is lagging behind - if not compared to the rest of Europe then certainly compared to the Far East. You might think you’re doing well if you have a 36 Megabits per second (Mbps) connection, but this was the standard internet offering in Tokyo at least ten years ago. In Singapore, for example, you can now get a 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) connection. This is almost 300 times faster than 36Mbps. The standard internet speed should be 1Gbps - this is the same speed as a local network would be using.
However, current broadband speeds are too low. Any speed above 30Mbps is classed as “superfast" broadband for example. It’s simply not fast enough. Even some of the commercially available broadband connections go up to 300Mbps for download but only 20Mbps for upload. This is fine if you’re streaming videos or films but insufficient when you are working in the “cloud". For this you need a symmetric connection with similar download and upload speeds. This entails fibre connections all the way to the home or business, Fibre To The Premises (FTTP).
Telecommunications is reserved to Westminster and commercial rollout of fibre broadband is being done in Scotland by BT and Virgin. (There is a separate programme being carried out by the Scottish government called Digital Scotland in more remote parts of the country where the commercial products will not be available.) As this is a commercial rollout, BT and Virgin will need to make a profit, so FTTP connections will only be done where there is sufficient demand. What we need in Scotland is a 1Gbps network in the entire country. We need to take full control of telecommunications and for this Scotland needs independence. We cannot look to Westminster to help Scotland advance - we have to do it ourselves.
We now come to the crux of the title of this article - why now? Firstly climate change is getting pretty serious. Last Tuesday 18th April the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded a CO2 reading of 410.28 parts per million (ppm). This was the very first time that any measurement above 410 ppm was recorded. For comparison, when the observatory first began recording CO2 levels in 1958, it was 280 ppm. It is believed we now have the highest CO2 levels in millions of years. We really have to go full speed ahead for renewables.
Secondly, we are going to see major changes in the next few years with the introduction of robots and AI. I know that this has been talked about for a long time, but it’s only recently that the hardware has caught up with the science. I believe that we are going to be surprised by the speed of change. And it’s coming in the next few years. A lot of jobs will disappear and, although new jobs will arise, the overall job situation will not look good. One consequence of this will be the necessity of introducing Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is the chance, for once, to get ahead of the game. A medium-sized independent country with its own currency can be in a very good position to prosper from the changes to come.
We need independence and now IS the time.
Please note, nowhere in this article have I mentioned the commodity comprising three letters beginning with “o".