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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.