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"AI is far from the only emerging technology": The disruptive innovations on Parliament's agenda

DNA (Illustration: Tracy Worrall)

10 min read

The AI revolution and many other advances are upon us, but are we ready for the consequences? James O’Malley takes a look at the disruptive and potentially transformative new technologies heading for Parliament’s in-tray. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

It’s said that the Vatican thinks in centuries and similarly a week can be a very long time in British politics. But in the tech industry, sometimes you can blink and miss everything changing.

We’re currently living through a revolution in artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, with seemingly every day throwing up amazing new technologies that appear to work almost like magic. This includes the emergence of ChatGPT which, since its launch in November last year, reached 100 million users in its first two months – and is now a fixture on the bookmarks bar of every speech-writer, researcher and wannabe poet.

It feels like AI could be about to change everything – and will keep politicians busy with a need for new laws, new rules and new regulators. Perhaps as a sign of just how seriously it is already being taken, AI even made it onto the G7 agenda in Japan last month where it was discussed alongside China and the war in Ukraine.

However AI is far from the only emerging technology. Here are some other bleeding edge innovations that might just as urgently find themselves in parliamentary in-trays over the next few years.

Emerging Tech

5G standalone and net neutrality

Earlier this year the government committed to roll out a new version of 5G – known as “standalone” – to “all populated areas” by 2030. This new version of the technology fulfils many of the promises that our existing 5G network, which is essentially just a speedier version of existing 4G, cannot.

One of the big innovations is “network slicing” – the idea that phone networks will be able to take a virtual “slice” of mobile bandwidth and separate it out for different purposes. For example, it will be possible for factories to have their own dedicated “slice” which will work reliably enough to control industrial machinery. Or, as ITN demonstrated at the coronation, broadcasters will be able to take a “slice” of 5G for transmitting video from cameras on the ground back to the control room – even during extremely crowded events.

Law-makers and regulators will have to grapple with how to get the benefits from standalone 5G, while protecting consumers from the buffering wheel

What makes network slicing controversial though is because of the way it enables network management behind the scenes. It raises serious questions about the rules around net neutrality – the idea that internet providers cannot, for example, shape your connection so that Netflix loads faster than Amazon Prime Video or BBC iPlayer.

In a world of network slicing, where the internet is no longer just a dumb pipe and where bandwidth can be chopped and changed at the whims of the network, it’s conceivable that it could be technologically possible to discriminate between different services. As the standalone examples above illustrate – that sort of discrimination could, in fact, be useful.
It may also mean that browsing the web could become expensive. In fact, one network I spoke to suggested it could be a future source of revenue.

So law-makers and regulators will have to grapple with exactly where the balance lies – and how to get the benefits from standalone, while protecting consumers from the buffering wheel.

EV transition

A huge technological success story over the last few years has been the continued transition to electric vehicles (EVs). Last year EVs made up 17 per cent of new car sales – more than diesel – with no signs of growth slowing down. But what might be great news for the planet is not such great news for the Exchequer.

Why? It’s not the technology itself – but a consequence of it. As things currently stand, EVs currently pay the lowest rate of road tax and obviously they do not need petrol. So as we approach the EV tipping point, and the planned end of new petrol and diesel car sales in 2030, politicians are going to be forced to make some difficult choices about how to refuel the state’s coffers.

“This is something that’s going to have to be dealt with,” says Max Sugarman, CEO of the Intelligent Transport Systems industry association. “Road tax is vital for road upkeep and that pays for a lot of other things. And, you know, and ultimately, we’ve got to work out what we do, when that road tax disappears.”

If you thought the debate over Heathrow’s third runway was difficult…just wait until Parliament starts debating building the Thames Estuary spaceport

His organisation’s preferred solution is to move to a system of road pricing, where we pay to play on a per mile basis. Although the idea is hardly new to Parliament – the Transport Committee launched an inquiry into this in 2020 – implementations of such a scheme will no doubt require some political bravery.

“The technology is there,” says Sugarman, “The issue is not the technology, it’s getting the public acceptance for something like a national scheme and getting it implemented in the right way. That’s the key thing here.”

Point to point space travel

If the return of supersonic travel isn’t fast enough for you, then worry not – if Elon Musk is to be believed.

Earlier this year, Musk launched an explosive first orbital test of his new SpaceX Starship rocket – which once in service will be, in theory, capable of taking humans to the Moon and onwards to Mars. And perhaps, to other destinations on Earth too.

As part of the pitch when Musk first unveiled the rocket in 2019, he explained how he also envisaged the rocket being used for “point to point” travel between two destinations on Earth. The idea being that by travelling via low Earth orbit, journey times can be cut considerably – taking a trip from London to New York down to just 29 minutes, or London to Hong Kong in 34 minutes.

Space (Illustration: Tracy Worrall)
Space (Illustration: Tracy Worrall)

Of course, the proposal is a long way from being conceivably possible, let alone commercially viable. But it still might be worth younger legislators keeping in the backs of their mind for the future. Why? Because if you thought the debate over Heathrow’s third runway was difficult and contentious, just wait until Parliament starts debating building the Thames Estuary spaceport.

Gene editing

Genetic modification has long been the subject of controversy, but it is over the last few years that scientists have really mastered the art of gene editing. Thanks to a tool called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), it is now possible to identify a gene you want to change and essentially perform the genetic equivalent of a “find and replace” search to do it with relative ease.

Today, CRISPR-edited food is already on sale – in Japan, it’s possible to buy fish that have been modified to have a more voracious appetite, so they grow much larger. And in the United Kingdom, earlier this year, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act passed through Parliament, setting out a new regulatory regime for food produced using gene editing techniques. But this is only the beginning of CRISPR’s potential.

Human gene editing trials are already taking place around the world and scientists have already had some promising results treating the terrible blood disorder sickle-cell anaemia. As the technology continues to improve, it will likely transform countless undergraduate philosophy seminars into live political and ethical questions.

For example, though the genes that control things like sex and other physical characteristics are much more complicated than just single genes, it’s conceivable that “designer babies” and choosing what characteristics your children have could become a much more realistic prospect.


Even though they’re already ubiquitous on the streets of our towns and cities, privately-owned e-scooters remain technically illegal to ride on Britain’s roads and pavements.

Essentially, the legal problem is that because they have an electric motor, they are not allowed on pavements – but because they cannot be taxed or insured, they are not legal on roads either. So e-scooters remain in legal limbo outside of around 20 Boris Bike-style rental trials across a number of cities and towns.

E-scooters (Illustration: Tracy Worrall)
E-scooters (Illustration: Tracy Worrall)

However, all could be set to change in the not too distant future as the Department of Transport is working on establishing a new category of vehicle to cover e-scooters and other future innovations. This means that eventually politicians are going to have to intervene and weigh the potential benefits of new modes of transport and improved urban mobility against the inevitable opprobrium from their constituents.

Autonomous vehicles

After decades of false-dawns, we could be on the cusp of autonomous – or self-driving – cars becoming a real, viable mode of transport. Trials of different implementations of the technology have been taking place on Britain’s roads for several years now, and back in May, the first commercial autonomous bus service began trial operations in Edinburgh.

However the Edinburgh trial is limited in that buses are still required to have a safety driver, sat poised by the steering wheel to take control should the autonomous features get into any difficulty.

Assuming the technology continues to improve, it will quickly require political action as there’s currently no provision in law for true autonomous vehicles without the need for a human ready to take over. Similarly there are currently no rules on the statute book about “remote” driving – where a human is in control but they are not sat in the driving seat, potentially on the other side of the world, piloting the vehicle remotely.

That’s why last year the Law Commission published recommendations for reform, including codifying the test for self-driving vehicles to prove they are worthy, a regulatory process for approving new types of vehicle, and defining who is actually legally responsible when an autonomous vehicle has an accident.

Supersonic flight

Two decades on from Concorde’s last flight and supersonic passenger jets may be on the cusp of taking off again. A number of start-ups are dabbling in the area, but the most high profile entrant is Colorado-based Boom Aviation. Having raised funds to the tune of over $150m, the company is currently working on building a 65-88 passenger supersonic jet, which the company claims will be capable of travelling at Mach 1.7 (1,304mph) – putting New York just a three and a half hour flight away from London.

If the return of supersonic travel isn’t fast enough for you, then worry not - if Elon Musk is to be believed

Although the jet has not yet lifted off, it is already attracting serious interest, with a number of airlines expressing interest – Richard Branson has already reserved 10.

Where this gets interesting from a regulatory perspective is in terms of the underlying technology. Since the days of Concorde, supersonic travel has been banned over land because of the glass-shattering noise the plane made as it smashed through the sound barrier. Boom claims that thanks to its use of modern materials and design its jet won’t have the same problem, so if true it may require the rulebook on supersonic travel to be rewritten – not to mention weighed against the inevitable environmental concerns.

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