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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.