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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, National Health Service and Social Care, Green Freeports, Business Motion, Decision Time, National Robotarium


Contents


National Robotarium

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-07286, in the name of Gordon MacDonald, on developing an economy driven by new robotic technology at Heriot-Watt University. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends the ongoing research at the newly opened National Robotarium, based at the Heriot-Watt University campus in Edinburgh and developed in partnership with the University of Edinburgh; understands that the centre is the largest and most advanced applied research facility for robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in the UK; further understands that the National Robotarium is supported through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal; considers that the National Robotarium has unrivalled technology and facilities, central to the development and testing of robotics and AI solutions across the three distinct areas of robotics and autonomous systems, human and robot interaction, and high-precision manufacturing; understands that the centre leverages existing research and industry expertise to address global challenges in areas such as hazardous environments, offshore energy, manufacturing, construction, healthcare, human-robot interaction, assisted living, and agritech; applauds what it sees as the ability of the National Robotarium to move innovative products and services rapidly from laboratory to market, to develop new prototypes, and support early stage product development within an incubator environment that drives productivity; thanks staff and researchers at the centre for promoting what it considers Scotland’s role as a world-leading international hub for robotics, autonomous systems and AI, and notes the view that Scotland will need to develop a manufacturing base and train a qualified workforce in order to embrace new opportunities in a future economy driven by modern robotic technology.

17:51  

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

I thank all the members who supported the motion in order that it could be debated tonight. In addition, I welcome to the gallery, from the National Robotarium, Stewart Miller, the chief executive officer, and staff and researchers; I am sorry that they have had to wait so long.

Last November, I visited the new £22 million National Robotarium, which is located at Heriot-Watt University Research Park in my constituency of Edinburgh Pentlands. It is a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, and it is part of the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal, which is funded by the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments. It is the largest and most advanced applied research facility for robotics and artificial intelligence to be found anywhere in the UK.

The state-of-the-art facility boasts high-specification laboratories with unrivalled technology and facilities. It is the only centre of its kind in the world that features laser labs, an autonomous systems laboratory and a living lab for trialling technology in a realistic home setting. It is dedicated to the development and testing of robotics and artificial intelligence solutions in three distinct areas: robotics and autonomous systems, human and robot interaction, and high-precision manufacturing. This centre of excellence aims, through research and knowledge exchange, to address real-world challenges and industrial needs, with a focus on hazardous environments, offshore energy, manufacturing, construction, healthcare, human-robot interaction, assisted living and agritech.

Why is it necessary? According to data from the 2021 “World Robotics” report, it is estimated that there are in the region of 3 million industrial robots in the world, which is a 10 per cent increase from the preceding year. Oxford Economics estimates that the figure is expected to increase to around 20 million industrial robots by 2030.

To remain competitive and grow our economy, the UK needs to increase productivity. However, that is at a time when the exodus of European Union labour as a result of Brexit has ensured that we have the second-lowest growth in the G20, just ahead of Russia, according to a forecast by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. One way of replacing that lost labour would be to invest in robotics, but an examination of the use of robotics in the manufacturing sector highlights how far the UK has fallen behind in using that technology.

The “World Robotics” report highlights that the world average number of robots in manufacturing per 10,000 employees at that time was 126. The UK had 101, which put it in 24th position in the global league table of robot densities. In comparison with other leading G7 economies, the UK was last; both Japan and Germany had nearly four times the UK’s robot density. The situation was even worse when the UK was compared with the leading countries of Korea and Singapore, as it had only 11 per cent and 17 per cent of their respective densities.

To start to address the shortfall in industrial robotic use, there needs to be a strategic policy that focuses on the ecosystem that is required to build a robotics sector in Scotland. That would highlight the way forward in education and skills; research and testing; a testing certification regime for robotics; and appropriate investment.

Another area that is facing similar challenges in recruiting and maintaining staff is social care. That is at a time when demand for the service is increasing, as people get older and health conditions become more complex. The UK population over the age of 65 is expected to increase from 12 million today to 17 million by 2035. A parliamentary office of science and technology briefing on “Robotics in Social Care” highlighted that robotics in social care

“can provide three types of assistance: physical, social, and cognitive”.

The briefing highlights that that “can take many forms”, including robots that have

“been developed to assist with ... feeding”

and “washing”.

It also mentions robots

“that remind users when to take their medicine and those that detect and prevent falls”,

and

“robots designed to provide companionship and assist with loneliness and social engagement”.

We need focused tax breaks from the UK Government to encourage investment in robotics, and in home-grown manufacturing in particular, so that such technology can help to address labour shortages.

In other countries, a rise in the adoption of robotic vacuum cleaners was observed during Covid-19. The need for disinfection and thorough cleaning at the same time as cleaning staff were off sick or in lockdown gave rise to the increased use of such vacuum cleaners. That technology proved so ideal that it is now estimated that there are 40 million robotic vacuum cleaners in the world, and the market is expected to increase by 23 per cent by 2030.

Scotland, unlike many areas of the UK, still has a manufacturing base, and the National Robotarium is in a position to move innovative products and services rapidly from laboratory to market, and to develop new prototypes and support early-stage product development within an incubator environment that drives productivity. The National Robotarium has already been instrumental in developing affordable solutions in health and social care. Researchers at the centre devised an artificial intelligence companion for people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia that aims to aid memory recollection, boost confidence and combat depression.

Recently, a project that was supported by the National Robotarium was launched to improve robotic cancer surgery, with a probe being built to take mechanical measures of tumours and surrounding tissue, linked to software with intelligent algorithms for data collection. However, it is not just in healthcare that the National Robotarium is innovating groundbreaking solutions. Researchers are also involved in what is considered to be the world’s first autonomous wind farm inspection. Last summer, they supported EDF Renewables UK to deploy a remotely operated vehicle to carry out an inspection of its Blyth offshore wind farm off Northumberland, as part of a project between EDF and ORCA—Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets—Hub.

We need to support our manufacturing sector to work alongside researchers from the National Robotarium to ensure that we can tap into the growing robotics sector as manufacturers, and not assemblers, of robots. Otherwise, we will not be part of the industrial revolution that is bringing good-quality high-tech employment opportunities to those countries that are already at the forefront of robotics development.

17:59  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my friend and colleague Gordon MacDonald on bringing it to the chamber.

I start with a confession: I am not tech-savvy in any way. Nevertheless, I marvel at the advances that we in Scotland have made in so many different fields, which will benefit us and future generations to come. The new partnership of the National Robotarium and the University of Edinburgh, based at Heriot-Watt University campus, is a fantastic example of innovation and entrepreneurship coming together. We should be shouting from the rooftops about that. The centre is the largest and most advanced applied research facility for robotics and artificial intelligence in the UK—that is awesome.

As Gordon MacDonald’s motion says, the project focuses on

“robotics and AI solutions across the three distinct areas of robotics and autonomous systems, human and robot interaction, and high-precision manufacturing”.

The motion notes that the centre complements

“existing research and industry expertise to address global challenges in areas such as hazardous environments, offshore energy, manufacturing, construction, healthcare, human-robot interaction, assisted living, and agritech.”

That is just for starters. Planning for future innovation that can be used in so many aspects of our lives never stops with that partnership, which has many more ideas in the pipeline.

The impact of such innovation as we go forward cannot be overstated. It means that technology is being used to benefit future generations, and it will improve and save lives and scale up the future challenges of growth and manufacturing. In short, it will transform lives for the better and pave the way into the next century.

The centre, which was launched just last September, is supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government as part of the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal.

I have great optimism for the future when I hear of advances in medical research in every area. It reassures me that my children and grandchildren may be spared from suffering from some of our most serious diseases and conditions. For example, the centre is pioneering a new robot-assisted surgery technique to help to decide how much of a patient’s tissue is affected by cancer and should be removed. An AI companion—as Gordon MacDonald said—will aid memory recollection, boost confidence and combat depression in people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Incredibly, the centre is also developing advanced machine-learning algorithms that will significantly improve the detection, intervention and prevention of online gender-based abuse. That is simply amazing.

With the help of that state-of-the-art technology, the dream of a better future for our children is so much closer. However, as the helpful briefing from the National Robotarium states,

“Robots are nothing without people”.

People need the right knowledge and skills to work with robotics technology, and those skills must be prioritised by Government agencies and funders through to colleges and universities.

In Scotland, we have a bright new generation of young people who can meet those skills needs. I believe that the planning for that should start at school, with courses and opportunities designed to prepare them to be part of our brave new world. Of course, the National Robotarium is on the case with that, too: it has launched a schools and outreach programme that is designed to drive engagement and broaden access to robotics and AI technologies.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Would the member like to congratulate Braidhurst high school in my constituency? It has a long-standing robotics club that has won a number of national awards, and it is an exemplar of the work that is currently happening in our schools.

Rona Mackay

I thank the member for her intervention—that is fantastic news. I really do congratulate the school, because that is what we need to see happening throughout schools in Scotland.

In collaboration with industry, the National Robotarium’s engagement programme is helping to upskill and reskill the UK workforce in robotic systems, technology and engineering. The National Robotarium is already a world leader in innovative technology, and all its staff who are involved in taking us there should be applauded for everything that they are doing. Scotland always punches above its weight when it comes to innovation, and we should be proud that the National Robotarium is our gold-standard champion.

18:04  

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I congratulate Gordon MacDonald on bringing the debate to the chamber and welcome to the public gallery staff from the National Robotarium. From reading the motion, I see that there is much to be proud of in their work, and I note the vast potential that exists in robotics.

Robots can deal with some of the most hazardous, monotonous or repetitive tasks that we ask human beings to do, so I agree with Gordon MacDonald that the United Kingdom as a whole could do much better in adopting robotic and automative technology.

One of the most remarkable experiences that I have had in the past few years was a visit Fukuoka in southern Japan. I went to—I must be careful how I say this—the Yaskawa Electric Corporation. I should have practised saying that. Since 1915, the company has been in the business of creating machines and it is now at the leading edge of creating robots. I know that we can absolutely do that here in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. That experience in southern Japan spurred my fascination with use of innovative new technologies, particularly in relation to their application to business.

We Scots rightly pride ourselves on how we develop, improve and apply technology. We are undoubtedly living in a world of rapid technological change, which, in turn, brings seismic change to society and the workplace. I said that I was fascinated by technological change, but I would say that it is a national fascination in Scotland, because we are acknowledged throughout the world as great engineers and adapters. The steam engine, the refrigerator, the television, the ATM and the MRI scanner are but a few of the marvels that have made the modern world and were developed and delivered in our country.

A few years ago, I was privileged to meet a company in Scotland that was behind the development of the technology that is used by frozen food manufacturers to optimise the number of chips that can be cut from a potato. Colleagues can expect me to raise the subject of potatoes in any members’ business debate from now on. The wonders of the high-tech tattie were developed here in Scotland.

We are at our best when we are at the forefront of technological innovation, bringing together theoretical work and practical applications to create real value. Scots are innovative, inventive and creative. For example, Glasgow manufactures more satellites than anywhere else in Europe. That should be celebrated and made famous. The University of Stirling is using innovative technologies coupled with a deep understanding of our environment in an unrivalled demonstration project to create the most advanced system of river monitoring in the world.

Sadly, not all of Scotland’s economy, whether in the private sector or the public sector, is at the forefront of the adoption of technological innovation. According to the labour productivity statistics released by the Scottish Government last year,

“In 2021, annual labour productivity as measured by output per hour worked remained flat (0.0% growth) compared to 2020.”

That is an all-too-familiar story. The figures are for one year, but there is a pattern that shows that we have some serious problems. There are sectors of the economy, including energy, the emerging green economy, pharmaceuticals and our chemical sector, that are investing heavily to grow output. However, in other parts of the economy, and particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises, growth is not present, and we risk becoming a technological backwater as a result.

The Scottish Government must be much more proactive in improving our national productivity. That requires investment, and encouraging investment, in automative technology. That is not a future technology: it is for the present—it exists and can be adopted, not least in the public sector, where digital transformation and automation lag behind what happens in many comparable countries and there is a lack of funding to invest in the future of service delivery.

Productivity will increase as we combine technologies such as AI, robotics and automation with a highly skilled and educated workforce. The key to all that, as has been said, is in our schools right now. Where are the computing and technology teachers that we need? Let us agree that we need more of them, because there were 170 fewer computing science teachers in 2021—

Mr Kerr, you are a minute over your time. Please bring your remarks to a close.

I am doing so.

I think I should make that point again, because it was lost.

Mr Kerr, I ask you to bring your remarks to a close. You are well over your time.

Let me make this point, if I might.

Mr Kerr, please just conclude. You are well over your time and other members are seeking to speak.

I am trying to do that. You keep interrupting me. I am concluding.

There were 170—

Mr Kerr, you should respect the chair. I have asked you to conclude. That means conclude, please. Thank you.

I am doing that.

There were 170 fewer computing science teachers in 2021 than in 2008. That just cannot be right.

Thank you, Mr Kerr.

18:10  

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome visitors to the public gallery tonight, and I thank Gordon MacDonald for providing the Parliament with the opportunity to address this important question, which is not just an economic question or a question of research and development—it is a social question and a question of ethics. It reminds us how vital it is that the Parliament does not limit itself solely to the urgent, the immediate and the short term, but attends to the transformative, the strategic and the long term.

We have been grappling with robotic technology and artificial intelligence for all of my adult life—from André Gorz’s “Farewell to the Working Class” to Geoff Mulgan’s recent work on the lagging of the democratic behind the scientific and the social behind the technological, in which he concludes that we need a new kind of state to go with the new kind of economy.

Last year, I was honoured to chair a Scotland’s Futures Forum seminar in the Parliament on artificial intelligence and accountability. It was led by two distinguished professors from the University of Edinburgh—Shannon Vallor and Ram Ramamoorthy. I strongly urge members to review the podcast and to read the papers from that seminar, including a scrutiny toolkit that was released just last week, because it is important that we, as democratically elected representatives of the people, scrutinise the present and decide the kind of future society that we want, rather than leaving it to the centres of economic power and wealth.

It is also important that we, as democratically elected representatives, fully comprehend the extent, scale and dimension of the application of artificial intelligence in areas of public policy that are under the direct control of the Parliament, from policing and the judicial system to health and social care, and from education and welfare to transport and infrastructure.

To be clear, the rapid expansion of AI is not abstract and futuristic science fiction; it is happening right now. Let me also be clear that the application of AI and robotics in place of human labour, for example, is a bad thing only if it does not lead to shorter hours, longer life, more leisure time and better living and working conditions for all. That is why I hope that the motion that we are debating today will be the catalyst for a serious debate in the Parliament about power, accountability, work and leisure—a debate about on whose terms AI and robotics are not just researched and developed but delivered and operated.

That is because technology has big implications for democracy. A world that is governed by big data and algorithms has big implications in a society in which the real division is not based on status or nationality but is between those who create the wealth and those who own the wealth, and there are big implications when the concentration of power over the means of production is getting ever greater. Unless that is challenged instead of courted, unless there is a change in economic relations and therefore in power relations, and unless we recognise that the market is not democratic and that we need to plan our economy and our services—that we simply cannot go on producing according to private profit instead of according to social need—AI and robotisation will do nothing other than perpetuate existing biases.

However, I am not fatalistic. I think that transformative economic, social and environmental change is within our grasp; that—with vision in politics—instead of people working for the economy, we can have an economy that works for the people; that we can stand up for democracy so that we can have science in the service of the people, not in the service of the monopolists and the masters of war; and that we can take the lead in the Parliament not only in pioneering such technology but in pioneering the democratic, ethical and collective rights and the distribution of power that needs to go with it. That has to be our priority. That is how progress will be made. In that way, rooted in the practical present, we can build, a truly socialist, utopian and scientific future.

18:15  

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank my colleague Gordon MacDonald for bringing this subject to Parliament this evening and highlighting the opening of the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University.

I requested to speak in the debate in order to delve deeper into the subject, as members will be aware that I take a keen interest in education and research and development, and I am fortunate to have many world-renowned further and higher education institutions in my Glasgow Kelvin constituency.

In May last year, MSPs were given the opportunity to test our skills in a simulation of robotic surgery with the Da Vinci robot—I hope that my skills as a politician are somewhat greater than my skills as a surgeon, although my hand-eye co-ordination was not that bad. That remarkable technology is already in use in the Scottish national health service. As well as improving the safety, efficiency, and precision of procedures, it enables clinicians to operate remotely from anywhere in the world. Although the skill of the surgeon remains paramount, the technology enables the NHS to deal with more patients more quickly, and with safety assured. It is a great example of technological progress that we are already embracing.

Mechatronics, metrology, cobotics and many other areas of research, study, and practice will probably be as unfamiliar to other members as they are to me, yet the impact of those developing specialisms on how we learn, live and work will only increase as time goes by.

Universities and colleges in my constituency of Glasgow Kelvin are at the forefront of teaching and research and development across those new technologies. One example is the University of Glasgow, which has a world-leading reputation in research and teaching in that area that has been further enhanced by the opening last year of the state-of-the-art Mazumdar-Shaw advanced research centre, which I have had the pleasure of visiting, as I would encourage anyone to do. There, I was able to see specific areas of active research and collaboration, including remote robotics, space robotics and electronic skin that can learn from feeling pain, which could help to create a new generation of smart robots with human-like sensitivity.

The University of Strathclyde, which is also in my constituency, is home to the sensor enabled automation and robotics control hub, which is a £24 million research innovation and technology transfer laboratory, and to the centre for ultrasonic engineering. It is the anchor university of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland group, which will soon open its digital factory in Renfrewshire. The factory will showcase the state-of-the-art applications of robotics, cobotics and automation.

The University of Strathclyde also helps academics and students to exploit new innovations around robotics commercially through university spin-out companies and entrepreneurial support. It has become a cliché to say that we need to educate young people for jobs that do not exist yet, but that does not make it any less true.

There is also huge manufacturing potential for Scotland in this area, on which we must capitalise. Let us grasp that opportunity, while ensuring that all demographics benefit from the community wealth-building possibilities that these incredible developing technologies present.

18:19  

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to contribute to today’s debate, and I thank Gordon MacDonald for lodging a motion that recognises the important research that is being done at the National Robotarium.

As I have said before, innovative technology and the great minds that are behind it are the powerful driving force behind society’s development. Our country is at a pivotal moment in the economy and labour market, and we face an important choice. We can choose either to capitalise on the tools that are at our disposal or to miss out on the technological evolution and the benefits that it can bring society.

Scotland’s universities are worth £5 billion a year to the Scottish economy, but the socioeconomic benefits go much further than that and, thanks to significant investment from across the United Kingdom, the National Robotarium is leading the charge. Some of the most pressing issues that face Scotland are the struggling health and social care system, the stagnating economy and the transition to net zero. However, projects that are under way at the robotarium have the groundbreaking potential to address some of those issues. For example, the centre is developing an artificial intelligence companion that will aid memory recollection, boost confidence and combat depression in people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and a new robot-assisted surgery technique will help to identify how much of a patient’s tissue is affected by cancer and needs to be removed. The centre’s work could also address growing societal issues, such as the detection, intervention and prevention of online gender-based abuse. In addition, it goes without saying that developments at the National Robotarium will also build on Scotland’s ability to transition to renewables.

However, innovation of that nature, and on such a large scale, requires people with skills and, as the National Robotarium says, robots are nothing without humans. Technological progress of that kind requires careful planning and consideration, particularly in relation to developing a workforce that can support those changes. The centre places a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship, job creation and building digital skills capacity in the workforce, and it harnesses both academic and industry collaboration. Industry partnerships will connect the know-how and talent from organisations of all sizes and will therefore join up all areas of the economy.

However, the centre alone is not enough to grow talent. As members of this Parliament, we also have a duty to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning appealing and accessible. Although 38 per cent of higher education students perceive a career in AI to be dull and not for people like them, 51 per cent would consider studying AI after learning more about it. The onus is now on the Scottish National Party Government to nurture that.

The time to capitalise on Scotland’s technological capabilities is now. The individuals and organisations that are behind the National Robotarium are holding up their end of the bargain, and it is time for the SNP Government to do the same. The SNP Government must devise new ways of making STEM learning an attractive and accessible option because, for a healthy workforce, there must be a revolving door of new talent. In light of the SNP slashing the research excellence grant by 31 per cent in real terms since 2014, we need to see increased investment that matches the high-quality research that is being undertaken at institutions across Scotland. Such investment is vital to disrupting the stagnation and decline that plague our public and private sectors.

18:23  

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Gordon MacDonald for bringing the debate to the chamber. It has been a very useful exploration of a wide range of issues that have been provoked by the advent of the National Robotarium.

I thank Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh for the discussions in recent days, and I offer particular thanks to Louise Jack for the insights that she has provided to me around the work of the centre. We can commend the advent of the centre to the Parliament, and its funding—£1.4 million from the Scottish Government and £21 million from the UK Government—is a real sign of co-operation between the Scottish and UK Governments.

The robotarium is a good example of how our Governments should be working together on a regular basis to make sure that we advance the causes of science, technology, innovation and our economy. I say to the minister that the Parliament needs a health check on the city and region deals that have been signed in recent years, as some of them are well behind in their delivery, partly as a result of high levels of construction inflation across the economy. However, it would be welcome for the Government to give an update at some point on how those deals are being delivered.

Done properly, excellence in our research should be amplified. I commend Heriot-Watt University for its research excellence framework results last year in physics, maths, engineering and more. Fundamental research is being done and applied in those sorts of areas, which could not be more important. Richard Leonard spoke eloquently about realising the benefits of robotics and artificial intelligence for our economy and for our society, because, after all, our economy is here to serve society.

The robotic revolution is on-going and it is happening now: it is the present, as well as the future. Recently, I met SP Automation & Robotics in Dundee, which was established as far back as 1984. The company’s representatives talked to me about the challenge of explaining the benefits of robotics to businesses, including the benefits that it can have for the workforce, and of overcoming some of the prejudices that are associated with it—for example, that robotics may displace people and push them out of their jobs. Robotics can benefit people’s health, wellbeing and productivity.

As other members have said, we know that productivity is important in our current economic malaise. We really need to address the low levels of business enterprise, research and development in Scotland. That has been a long-term problem not just under the current Government but since before the advent of devolution.

Paul Krugman said:

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.”

Robotics and the application of artificial intelligence will be part of addressing that problem.

Process innovation is critical in that respect and it is vastly undervalued in comparison with issues of discovery. We need to make sure that the application of robotics can help us to enhance that; it can enhance workers’ experience in that regard.

The robotarium’s call for a strategic policy for the robotics sector that should be applied across all sectors is sound and reasonable. I also back its calls to encourage dialogue, imagination and discussion across society. Richard Leonard’s calls for an opportunity for the Parliament to discuss that more widely would be very welcome, and perhaps the minister will reflect on that in closing. There are challenges to do with the governance of data and the application of black block box algorithms in areas such as justice; we need to make sure that people have ownership and that there is transparency in the application of these technologies so that they serve the public, rather than just create profit for businesses.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology has made the case for the application of artificial intelligence to deal with the challenges and opportunities of ageing. We have heard about the confluence of a series of strategic challenges for Scotland to do with automation, artificial intelligence, ageing and a huge range of areas, and the robotorium will play a significant role in Scotland being able to address those problems. I offer my best wishes to the staff, PhD students and partners. I look forward to visiting the centre and congratulate the team on its opening.

18:28  

The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise (Ivan McKee)

I thank Gordon MacDonald for securing the debate on a hugely important topic, and I thank members who have contributed to the debate.

As is signalled in our national strategy for economic transformation, and will be in our forthcoming innovation strategy, we are very clear that we want Scotland to be a nation of entrepreneurs and innovators, with resilient supply chains and competitive strengths in new industries, driven by technological change and scientific advances. Robotics and autonomous systems have huge potential to transform the economy and to enhance everyday life, and are identified in the forthcoming innovation strategy as one of the horizontals that supports so many verticals across our emerging economic sectors.

Over the coming years those technologies will become ubiquitous and will play an ever-increasing role at work, at home, in leisure and healthcare settings and right across society. I believe that Scotland is well positioned to be at the forefront of that revolution in advanced research and technology development, and that it can promote adoption and optimisation of the interaction between robots and people, through understanding that interface alongside the societal and ethical issues that come with it, as was identified and highlighted by Richard Leonard, Michael Marra and others.

In relation to AI, much to do with it is already articulated in our digital strategy. However, members should rest assured that the Scottish Government not only takes seriously the wider impacts of those technologies but believes that Scotland can be at the forefront of showing the way on how best to use them for societal benefit.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

The public sector is not widely regarded as a risk taker, early adopter or innovator, but there are within our health sector fantastic opportunities to use artificial intelligence to push the boundaries in improving health. What can the Scottish Government do to take away some of the risk that the public sector might try to avoid? There is a saying that nobody ever got sacked for buying IBM. What can the Scottish Government do to ensure that the public sector starts to adopt earlier and innovate?

Ivan McKee

I am delighted to take that intervention. I thank Finlay Carson for that point, which is hugely important. I am keen that Government and the wider public sector press the reset button on the risk appetite. I take that forward through a plethora of work that I am doing on digital activity more broadly in the health sector—which Finlay Carson identified in relation to the adoption of AI—and through the corporate transformation programme that we are implementing in the core Scottish Government. However, it is a two-way street: when we take more risks, we do not always succeed and it is incumbent on Opposition members not to jump forward so quickly when things do not go exactly as we plan, in that environment.

The launch last September of the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University’s Riccarton campus highlights the partnership between the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University. The two universities have forged genuinely world-leading capabilities in robotics and AI. I acknowledge the roles that are played by Professor David Lane of Heriot-Watt University and Professor Sethu Vijayakumar of the University of Edinburgh in making it happen and creating a platform for the new National Robotarium. I remember David Lane highlighting the concept when I met him a number of years ago. It is great to see it come to fruition. The robotarium also highlights the collaboration between the Scottish Government and UK Government, as part of the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal.

I had the pleasure of visiting the robotarium twice last year—in September and December. I congratulate Stewart Miller, its CEO—who is in the gallery—and the many researchers and staff on their achievements to date and many more to come.

Robotic and autonomous systems technology has a critical role to play in addressing many of society’s long-term challenges around raising productivity. Stephen Kerr raised that point and will be delighted to know that we have largely closed the productivity gap with the rest of the UK and continue to make great progress through our national strategy for economic transformation, and through other activity. There are also huge opportunities to build a manufacturing base for robotics in Scotland alongside the development and application of those technologies.

Partnership is hugely important in that regard, so I am delighted that it is hardwired into the ethos and design of the robotarium, which already supports a range of businesses. I know that the campus will become the hub for a thriving community of Scottish robotics manufacturers of various scales. I was delighted to visit a space technology business adjacent to the campus this morning.

The robotarium is only part of a larger network of support for manufacturing activity that the Scottish Government has put in place across the country. The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland has been mentioned. Kaukab Stewart highlighted Strathclyde University. The smart hub Lanarkshire was established through the Scottish Government’s advancing manufacturing challenge fund to support local small and medium-sized enterprises in manufacturing to modernise and boost their productivity. I again highlight the importance of manufacturing, to which Gordon MacDonald drew attention, and the Government’s commitment in that regard. As someone who previously worked in manufacturing, I am very keen to ensure that it is a huge part of what we take forward.

Those advances in industrial automation are mirrored in our public services, notably in the health and care sectors. I welcome the National Robotarium’s mission to address a range of the challenges in those sectors. For example, that includes working with international robotic technology company Fourier Intelligence to support research into how robotics can be used for assisted living. The year before last, the Scottish Government invested £20 million in 10 surgical robots to help to treat cancer patients. That is already having an impact and saving lives across our health services.

Robotics also has a huge role to play in helping us to support our ambitious climate targets. The National Robotarium leads the ORCA Hub, which is the largest academic centre in the world for robotics research in offshore energy infrastructure. Through our net zero technology transition programme, we are investing £16.5 million for the Net Zero Technology Centre to fund a range of projects that are focused on supporting energy transition.

Drone technology is similarly making great progress in the use of robotics. I have also already mentioned the space sector. It was great to hear Stephen Kerr mention that sector in a speech that managed to combine both types of chips: semiconductors and tatties. Well done to him for managing that. It is interesting to reflect that one of his Conservative predecessors in the previous session of the Parliament took to social media to ridicule Scotland’s ambitions in the space sector as being far-fetched and unattainable. We have come some way in the past few short years and Scotland now leads in many aspects of the global space sector. Conservative members now recognise it, as a consequence.

Michael Marra made some valid points about Scotland’s position with regard to business enterprise research and development spending. He will be delighted to know that we are making great progress and expect to far exceed our target to double BERD spending over the current period. We continue to do work to ensure that that investment continues to grow strongly in Scotland. We have almost closed the gap with the rest of the UK and we hope to overtake it in that regard in the not-too-distant future. I also hear his points on city region deals and am happy to engage on that matter more deeply.

On the point that he and Richard Leonard made, I would be delighted to bring as many debates back to the chamber as possible to talk about Scotland’s strong position in emerging technology sectors. If Mr Marra can work with his colleagues on the Parliamentary Bureau, I am sure that we can try to get as many debates as possible, including one on our forthcoming innovation strategy, which will be out in the next few weeks.

I am delighted that the debate has taken place and has provided an opportunity to talk about the progress that we are making through working in partnership with others. I commit to continuing to work with Stewart Miller and the team at the robotarium, and with the wider sector, to develop strategies to ensure that Scotland’s place at the forefront of development, manufacture and deployment of robotics technologies continues apace. I look forward to coming back to update members about that in the future.

Meeting closed at 18:37.