James Blake: ‘Our Future Scotland’ is optimistic about what’s ahead

James Blake is the Director of the Centre for Media and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University and a co-chair of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland
James Blake is the Director of the Centre for Media and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University and a co-chair of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland
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In his recent science fiction novel, Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre imagines a future society where minds can be manipulated and memories can’t be trusted. Yet, despite the clear dystopian undertones, in the real world Brookmyre insists that “digital memory enhancement is within our grasp” and could be a technology which would “allow us to understand each other better”.

Chris Brookmyre is one of more than 20 writers, scientists, politicians and technology entrepreneurs who have taken part in a new future-gazing film project called Our Future Scotland. The short film is narrated by Ken Macintosh MSP, Presiding Officer at the Scottish Parliament, and showcases different visions for Scotland over the next ten and 20 years.

Our Future Scotland contributors

Our Future Scotland contributors

In making the film, we have travelled across the country to speak to people about their ideas: from Aberdeen to Dundee, Aviemore and the Hebrides. It has been an exercise in blue sky thinking on a grand scale involving all the political leaders in Scotland and a star cast including Jackie Kay, Chris van der Kuyl, Brian Cox, Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, David Baillie, Gillian Docherty and Philip Long to name but a few. They all provide a diverse and unique insight into what the future might hold for technology, energy supply, the environment, wellbeing and education.

This year, for the first time, TVs are being advertised with “AI features”. In general, this means they are embedded with predictive analytics formed around our viewing habits. But how close are we to real Artificial Intelligence? And what about medical breakthroughs? Our Future Scotland shows that, in the hidden depths of science laboratories and behind the doors of technology industries, research is being done which may revolutionise how we live our lives.

We are close to major developments in antibiotic resistance, nano-technology and virtual reality. One Edinburgh University team, for example, is developing dog-like machines to work on oil rigs and humanoid robots to create an unmanned base on Mars as part of the NASA Valkyrie project. Another software company is developing a human interface for digital avatars with facial expressions and emotions. Could this be the future of the ‘Alexa’ voice – as a personal assistant hologram perhaps?

And medical scientists tell us that some Star Trek technology is not far away either. Remember Dr Bones McCoy and his diagnostic scanning device? Researchers are now examining how “no touch technology” can determine illnesses by using “facial recognition technology” – according to Professor Lis Neubeck from Edinburgh Napier University.

Science fiction often presents us with a dark and bleak future. However, this short film is unapologetically optimistic. The central question for the interviewees moved beyond “what do you think Scotland will be like by 2030?” Instead they were asked, “how can we change the country for the better in 10 or 20 years?” Other questions were kept brief and to the point: “If you could see one thing invented – what would it be?”

This prompted some unexpected responses. Can you guess which political leader would like a “teleportation device”? And who would have “potholes that could fill themselves”? In answer to the same question one industry chief executive wanted to see energy transfer by laser and one novelist imaged some politicians would benefit from “an empathy device which would make people see things from someone else’s point of view”.

The film doesn’t just focus on technology either. Many wanted to talk about new ‘cultural spaces’ and ‘societal values’ too. Looking ahead to a world where automation may make a large number of jobs redundant, several interviewees called for a system of universal basic income to protect people in Scotland.

Hollywood actor Brian Cox voices a need for an “egalitarian nation which is fundamental to the Scottish character” where people “don’t have to apologise for being Scottish”.

The Our Future Scotland film was made in collaboration between the Scotland’s Futures Forum, the RSE Young Academy of Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University. However, it is not the end of the project but the beginning of a wider debate across the country.

Visit https://ourfuturescotland.com/ for details. We hope that others will now share their ideas and their vision for Our Future Scotland.

James Blake is the Director of the Centre for Media and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University and a co-chair of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland. He produced and directed Our Future Scotland.