Hancock’s half hour at Hermes: good, but not good enough
Uneasy lies the head that wears the Holo crown? Matt Hancock visits Hermes. Picture Mark Westley

Hancock’s half hour at Hermes: good, but not good enough

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and (as the BBC satire W1A put it) “for some reason also Sport”, praised delivery company Hermes’ “commitment to innovation” with connected services, during a visit to one its hubs in Newmarket yesterday.

Hermes operates a number of high-tech distribution centres in the UK, such as its £31 million automated facility in Rugby, opened in August 2017.

Hancock, who was formerly in charge of the (now disintegrating) Government Digital Service (GDS) before being promoted/shunted sideways/kicked into touch – delete where applicable – was shown a variety of incoming technologies, including a Starship delivery robot (see picture, below).

Hermes has been trialling the printer-sized bots on city streets in the UK, as have Tesco and a number of other companies. The robots are autonomous and able to map their environments, and include a locked compartment that recipients can open with an app.

Picture: Mark Westley.

The Starship robots carry an LED warning flag and – at present – have to be accompanied by human walkers on the streets for safety reasons.

This is an unfortunate echo of Britain’s so-called ‘Locomotive Acts’ in the late 19th Century, which obliged the first motor cars to be accompanied by a man waving a red flag, warning pedestrians that the machines were coming. At that time, France put no such legal restrictions in place and so was able to leapfrog the UK in the nascent automotive sector.

Connected tech

Hancock was also offered a sneak preview of Hermes’ other connected tech trials, including its planned deployment of HoloLens and facial recognition technologies.

The UK’s digital champion said, “I have been thoroughly impressed by Hermes’ commitment to innovation as a part of improving the delivery experience for online shoppers across the UK. I also look forward to seeing some of the exciting solutions currently in development soon becoming a reality.”

Earlier this month, the Secretary-of-State-for-Everything-the-Government-Doesn’t-Take-Seriously experienced the slings and arrows of outrageous digital fortune when the launch of his own ‘Matt Hancock’ app made him into an unwitting social media star.

“Matt Hancock has experienced an unidentified error and needs to be closed down”, remarked Twitter user @TheDanRobinson; one of the kinder comments of the day. “I actually met my girlfriend on the Matt Hancock app but we tell people we met at a bar” joked another. 

Internet of Business says

It’s heartening to see Hancock out in the field, supporting fresh thinking and connected business, especially when the UK government’s attitude to new technologies is so disconnected and – worse – often appears to be applying 19th Century industrial thinking to 21st Century challenges and technology. Good initiatives such as the G-Cloud, and the GDS itself, have been allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine, as have policy decisions to favour innovative SMEs over what Frances Maude once called the “oligopoly” of consultancies and large systems integrators.

As for robotics and AI, the UK hosts world-leading research, and the government has identified the technologies as being critical to the UK’s economic prosperity. However, its central investment in them is woefully small: up to £300 million by 2020, compared with Japan’s £161 billion in the same timescale. Meanwhile, China is automating faster than any other country, and the US and parts of Europe are also forging ahead of the disconnected UK.

And there’s a problem with Whitehall’s existing investment. According to the government’s own figures – hidden in the small print of the RSA’s Age of Automation report last year – 85 per cent of its central funding for robotics and AI comes directly from the EU. With Brexit looming, the UK urgently needs a strategy to put things right.