THERE’S this guy, he’s 90 years old, and he keeps coming out with all these ideas about what life is going to be like in 2100. And what he says is that artificial intelligence is going to take us into a new age, when machines are going to be so much more advanced, thinking at 10,000 times faster than we can, and when their relationship with us poor organic humans will be rather like our current attitude towards plants.

Me, I like plants. To the amazement of my young and their friends, I studied botany at university. Since then, we have not distinguished ourselves in the way we treat plants, have we? What with glyphosate, genetic engineering and mechanised farming, not to mention chainsaws and harvesting equipment, the plant kingdom, to give it its more impressive title, has had good reason to complain. “Just you wait,” I can hear a diseased ash say as the saw bites. “Just you wait and this will happen to you, but 10,000 times faster and much, much worse.”

Every now and then, I take a look back, by which I mean I get out my forest management tables, the ones in the blue book, and remind myself of net discounted revenue and all that stuff. Does anyone still use it? It’s hard to think of the circumstances in which it would come in handy nowadays, isn’t it? But then I sat up with a jolt. 

They say nothing is new these days. Presumably, time travel will be well within the ability of these 22nd-century cyborgs, and no doubt some robotic joker thought they would drop in a hint to see if any of us humans was aware of what is really going on. Have you guessed? ‘AI’? Get it? We had ‘mean’ AI and ‘current’ AI way back in my student days. How can it have taken so long for the penny to drop? They have been watching us all these years...

All this futurism has quite distracted me from the task in hand. Mr Gove may well resurface as Minister for the Environment, and we will be able to get a bit more info about his great planting scheme, in which it is planned to raise new planting from 700 to 35,000 ha every year. That’s easy to say. 

Logistically and supply wise, there are several obstacles to overcome. The first, obviously, is land. Farming is in for a toss, that’s for sure, but so far the NFU has adopted a low profile. Its tendrils are not inert, however. On the telly last week, Mr Gove actually spoke of the difficulties of a Shropshire sheep farmer faced with No Deal as justification for new negotiations with the EU. And good old Countryfile yet again interviewed a Sussex hobby farmer who won’t be able, he claims, to flog his expensive beef to the French because of the threat of tariffs. So much for food security. But these pathetic specimens, shorn of fat and unearned subsidies, will have a more immediate problem, namely the price of land. 

If we are really to make such a land use change, there’s inevitably going to be a collapse in the value of farmland. So our first task is to identify which acres are likely to become available, and where all this planting will go. And why. This would at least enable targeting of plantable land, and the fine-tuning of grants and incentives. I might even (perish the thought) need my blue book again. But at least we have Google maps.

Then there’s problem number two: planting stock. What species, what seed sources, which nurseries? Who is going to produce millions of transplants, speculatively, from scratch, in the next, say, five years? Where will seed from Californian redwood, Atlas cedar, and even Douglas fir, on this scale, be found? And where are the nurserymen who will gamble on the huge investment needed?

Problem number three: where is the infrastructure, the manpower, the management skills to actually carry out the work? If we can’t find enough people to pick strawberries in a polytunnel, how can we hope to persuade anyone to brave the weather a thousand feet up the Pennines, with a sack of Sitka?

It seems to me that it’s not artificial intelligence we will need. It’s real intelligence.