30 October 2018

S5M-14509 Digital Inclusion

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh):
Our next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14509, in the name of Kate Forbes, on a digital society for all: working together to maximise the benefits of digital inclusion.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I declare that I am a member of the Association for Computing Machinery, a member at the Institution of Engineering and Technology and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, all of which have interests in digital inclusion.

The history of the subject goes back a very long way. The Romans communicated digitally across their empire nearly 2,000 years ago, via a system of hilltop signalling. We are now in the electronic world, but some of the things that we are interested in today go back a lot further than we might think. I go back beyond the birth dates of two of the participants in the debate so far, to 1964, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology artificial intelligence laboratory. People think that artificial intelligence is modern, but 54 years ago Joseph Weizenbaum produced a programme called Eliza that was designed to answer questions in such a way that the user could not tell whether it was a human or a computer that was answering them, and very successfully he did that, too.

From that point onwards, we have always said that it will be five years before artificial intelligence takes over from us, and it is still five years away today. In computing, things can take a good deal longer than we would sometimes imagine or like.

Picking up on what Donald Cameron said, I have gone to the Audit Scotland report and the exact words are not as he suggested. Audit Scotland says:

“The Scottish Government achieved its initial target to provide fibre ... access to 95 per cent of premises. Its more recent ‘Reaching 100 per cent’ ambition will be more difficult to realise.”

I acknowledge that that is certainly going to be true.

Audit Scotland also says that it might cost more than £600 million, but of course we will see how it turns out.

Mike Rumbles is not wholly wrong when he talks about some of the difficulties in Aberdeenshire. There and in Dumfriesshire, we have a huge number of exchange-only lines, which, with the current programme of technology, means that they cannot readily be attached to fibre.

Nearly 40 years ago, I said that the triumph of computers will be achieved when we no longer realise that we are using them—in other words, when we speak to them and they just do what we ask them. We will reach that point probably in my lifetime, and at that point digital exclusion will become a different animal. Many people cannot work keyboards and many people find the complexities of particular interactions with computers difficult to achieve. Right across Scotland, we absolutely need people to help them to achieve the access to the internet that matters to them, particularly those who are over 75, as 70 per cent of them do not use the internet, which is triple the Scottish average.

It matters economically, because it is estimated that when people use modern systems for their daily lives they save nearly £600 a year. Communication with friends and relatives in other villages, other parts of the island that we live on and other places around the world is now very electronic, too, and if people are denied that opportunity it is a huge loss in their lives.

For people with particular disadvantages, be they physical, mental or whatever, the computer can be a way out of those difficulties. I and two pals, Alasdair Macpherson and Robert Davidson, built the first home computer in Scotland in 1975, and a couple of years later we were able to adapt an Apple II computer for a quadriplegic ex-soldier who had had an accident in the tank that he commanded and was left totally crippled. All that he could move was his head. We were able to rig up a bit of kit, change the way the keyboard worked and develop something that he could hold in his mouth to tap at the keyboard. Within two months, he was writing programs that he was selling. I felt terrific about that. Unfortunately, his health problems eventually overwhelmed him.

Today, we have much more powerful computers that can do so much more for us, so the exclusion can become wider than it was when there were only little computers. Those who master the new technology can stride off over the horizon and are much further away from those who have not been able to do so. We should recognise that the phones and computers that we use are vital to our world.

A couple of years ago, the computer firm Unisys said that it takes people an average of 26 hours to report a lost wallet, but only 68 minutes to report a lost cellphone. That tells us something about how important technology now is in our lives.

I think that Jamie Greene referred to 20 per cent of adults; it is 20 per cent of adults in the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of areas in Scotland who do not use the internet. For a host of reasons, those people are deprived of many things that the rest of us take for granted. We need to have people in libraries and other public spaces who can help others to access publicly available computers. I hope that, when the Government looks at the comments in the debate and at the opportunities from digital roll-out, it will consider such an approach for the future.


Stewart Stevenson
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