No, we probably won't have talking cars driven by reincarnated mammoths

Science "news" stories to avoid.

There are two types of stories about exciting technology. They can look very similar to the unwary optimist, since both generally start with a phrase along the lines of "it seems like the stuff of science fiction, but…"

Nevertheless, the difference between them is crucial.

The first type, and the most familiar, is the "scientists say" piece, usually accompanied by an engaging proof-of-concept video and hooking a society-changing event on the result of research by an academic somewhere.

You will know these: a good example are stories featuring Kevin Warwick, the Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, whose research into interfaces between computers and the human nervous system has mind-blowing implications.

But without seeking to discredit Warwick in any way, these implications tend to remain just implications. There’s no doubt the work conducted in his field provides constant incremental benefits to medical science – particularly in the field of prosthetics. Nevertheless it does not, and could not, immediately lead to the sort of dramatic, Robocop-style stuff conjured by the headlines and standfirsts that journalists usually dress it with.

Probably the most prolifically repeated "science fiction to become reality" narrative is the "scientists say they can bring back mammoths" story that comes floating out of Russia every couple of years. It has spawned documentaries, broadsheet features and endless daydreams from anyone who had a bag of plastic dinosaurs as a kid, but it never bloody well leads anywhere. It has reached "boy who cried hairy elephant" status, and as such receives serious diminishing returns in terms of public interest.

The very worst of these stories, however, are the ones concerning flying cars. The machines themselves are now eminently possible, but the practical issues around their use are so many that they seem doomed to remain forever trapped at proof-of-concept stage.

We have gotten to the point where “where’s my flying car?” has become the battlecry of those who find themselves perpetually disappointed by the lack of dramatic futurism in their everyday life. Of course, the fact that most of the people issuing this complaint have, within the last five years, come to own a handheld box providing access to a near-infinite repository of human knowledge, is an irony that’s generally lost.

But there you go – no matter how astonishing and accessible information technology becomes, it’s flying cars that people really want.

And talking of IT and cars, here’s the second type of "science fiction" story – the type where company names get mentioned. Here’s a story the BBC ran today, about the onrushing development of cars that "talk" to other vehicles and the world around them. Note the first line of the piece.

The extremely important thing to note when reading this story is that not only is it a business, rather than an academic, driving the development (Frankfurt-based Safe Intelligent Mobility Testfield, or Sim TD), it is backed by the corporate muscle of Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen Group, Ford and Opel.

What’s more, Sim TD goes so far as to state, clearly and without ambiguity in the sixth paragraph of the story, that we will see talking cars in our everyday lives starting from 2015. Whether they will have a more dramatic takeup than electric cars is in the hands of those who will be selling them – the important thing is, we are being given a clear date for their arrival.

So, while cars that fly may be stuck forever in the purgatory of the cloned mammoths, at least soon they will be able to talk.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle