Robot buses lead way to turn science fiction into reality …

The Times, 29 December 2015, Elizabeth Rigby and Nic Fildes

Robot buses in rural communities, satellite navigation systems to help shoppers find available parking spaces and virtual reality sets to beam Nobel prize winners into classrooms could become reality, according to Whitehall.

The ideas are being drawn up as part of a five-year digital strategy to ensure that the government is not left behind in the digital revolution.

Ministers from every department will be asked to come up with policies for education, transport and healthcare, as David Cameron establishes new digital ambitions for the remainder of this parliament. “This is cross-government,” one Whitehall official said. “It is about how we push the boundaries and make sure every bit of government is digital and policy is more digital.”

The strategy reinforces the government’s efforts to boost the digital economy, which began in 2010 when Mr Cameron launched the “Tech City” initiative to promote the cluster of high-tech businesses around Shoreditch in east London.

Latest official figures show that the digital sector accounted for 7.5 per cent of the economy, or £113 billion, in 2013, putting Britain marginally ahead of Germany.

The digital economy is also outpacing other sectors, growing seven times faster than the wider economy between 2008 and 2013. “From driverless cars to deliveries by drone — the future imagined by far-fetched science fiction films from only a few years ago is rapidly coming true,” Ed Vaizey, the digital minister, told The Times.

“New technologies are changing every aspect of our lives. We need to make sure that wherever government is involved — as the service provider, regulator or a major buyer — we are making the most of it.”

Mr Vaizey said that the government intended to develop more open online courses in schools so that leading educators could be beamed into classrooms.

The NHS will also be asked to develop and use technology to predict illnesses and to take pre-emptive action. “A patient might have a wearable monitor — a FitBit [activity tracker] for example — which monitors their vitals; real-time data might pick up a risk of diabetes, and preventative action is taken,” one official explained.

Ministers will also try to realise the promise of a smartphone state by making it easier for people to fill in tax returns and renew driving licences. “Government services need to be as good as the best consumer services,” Mr Vaizey said. “Renewing your passport should be as easy as buying a book online.”

The government’s plans for a fully fledged digital economy have been hampered by the debate about the quality of broadband and mobile networks.

People in rural areas have become frustrated that the services envisaged by the government will not be available to them, given the lack of improvement in broadband speeds.

The government has set out an ambition to connect all citizens to a minimum speed of 10Mbps by 2020, but telecoms companies say that promises to speed up improvements to the networks, by reforming the rules governing mast installation, have not come to fruition.

Mr Vaizey said that the government remained on track to provide superfast broadband to 95 per cent of the country by the end of 2017, adding that it was crucial that Whitehall embraced the next phase of the digital revolution.

The deadline for submissions for the government strategy paper is January 19, with the document set to be published by the spring.

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