Archive for October, 2016

Jimmy Dore on the Real Reason for the Civil War and Western Military Attacks on Syria

October 29, 2016

This is an extremely important piece from Jimmy Dore, the American comedian, who sometimes appears as a guest on the left-wing internet news show, The Young Turks. Dore is a consistent critic of American imperialism and its long history of overthrowing and destabilising the governments of poor nations around the globe, when they don’t bow down and surrender to American and Western political and corporate interests.

In this video, he comments on a piece published by John F. Kennedy jnr in EcoWatch and Politics magazines. This article provides damning, point for point proof that the reason for the civil war and calls in the West for military intervention in Syria has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns. John Kerry, one of the main movers in this, isn’t interested or concerned by how many children have been killed or hospitals bombed by Assad. The real reason is what you might expect it to be, given the similar circumstances that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

It’s all about the petrochemical industry. And in this case, it’s a natural gas pipeline, proposed in 2000 by Qatar. This would cost $10 billion and run for 1,500 km from Qatar, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Another gas pipeline has also been proposed, which would run from Iran, through Iraq to Syria. These are both opposed by Russia. But they are most opposed to the Qatar to Turkey pipeline. Russia sells 70 per cent of its oil exports to Europe. Putin therefore regards this pipeline as an ‘existential threat’, a NATO plot to change the existing political and economic situation, deprive Russia of its only foothold in the Middle East, strangle the Russian economy and deny it leverage in the European energy market.

Syria also opposes the pipeline. In 2009 Assad refused to sign the agreement allowing the pipeline to pass through his country in order to protect the interests of the Russians, who are his allies. The moment he made this decision, military and intelligence planners formulated a plan to start a Sunni uprising in Syria.

Fore quotes another commenter, Cy Hersh, who states that before the war, Assad was actually beginning to liberalise the country. He gave thousands of files on jihadi radicals to the CIA after 9/11, as he viewed the jihadis as his and America’s mutual enemies.

On September 13th, 2013, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, told congress that the Sunni kingdoms in the Middle East – that is, countries like Qata and Saudi Arabia – had offered to pay for an American invasion of Syria to overthrow Assad. He repeated this statement to Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman for Florida.

Two years before this, the US had joined France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and England to form the ‘Friends of Syria Coalition’, which demanded the removal of Assad. The CIA also paid $6 million to Barada, a TV company in Britain, to run pieces demanding Assad’s overthrow. Files from Saudi Intelligence released by WikiLeaks also show that by 2012 Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were training, arming and funding Sunni jihadists from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Dore makes the point that the decision to use a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’as isn’t a new policy. In 2008 a report by the Rand Corporation, funded by the Pentagon, provided the blueprint for the strategy. This stated that the control of the petrochemical resources in the Persian Gulf was a strategic priority for America, and that this would ‘intersect strongly with that of prosecuting the long war.’

He also points out that this is the same policy America has adopted against nations the world over when they have refused to serve American interests. It’s particularly similar to the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister, Mossadeq, in the 1950s. Iran at that time was a secular democracy, just as Syria is a secular state. However, America was afraid of Arab nationalism, linking it with Communism. Mossadeq nationalised the Iran oil industry, which was previously in the hands of the West. So the CIA arranged a coup, which led to the Shah eventually ruling as the country’s absolute monarch. Until he was toppled in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution, which produced the Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Iranian regime that has been a bitter opponent of America ever since.

Dore also states that it was known long before this that American intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere was turning the world’s peoples against America. He cites a report by Bruce Lovett in the 1950s which condemned American military interventions around the world as ‘antithetical to American leadership’ and moral authority, and noting that this occurred without Americans knowledge. In other words, as Dore points out, they don’t hate the US because America enjoys freedoms that they don’t possess. They hate America because America bombs and kills them. The people in those countries are well aware of what is occurring, but this is carefully kept from America’s own people.

This is all too plausible. Dore’s own producers off-camera state that they’re not conspiracy theorists, but there’s nothing in this that is implausible given America’s foreign policy record.

This is the real reason we have people in our own parliament, like Bomber Benn, demanding military action against Assad in Syria. It also shows, on a more philosophical level, how right Jacob Bronowski, the scientist and member of the Fabian Society, when he decried war as ‘theft by other means’.

None of this makes Putin any less of a thug and a bully domestically. And Assad is also guilty of horrific human rights abuses. But those are not the reasons we’re being led into another war in the Middle East, and possibly with Russia.

I can remember back in 1990 when Gulf War 1 broke out. There were protesters chanting, ‘Gosh, no, we won’t go. We won’t die for Texaco’. The Green Party denounced it as a ‘resource war’. They were right then, and I’ve no doubt whatsoever they’re right now.

Our courageous young men and women should not be sent to die just to despoil another nation of its natural resources, and inflate the already bloated wealth of more petrochemical industry executives and oil sheikhs. And we definitely shouldn’t be doing anything to assist the Saudis, the very people who are giving lavish material aid to al-Qaeda and ISIS in order to export a viciously intolerant and brutal Islamism around the world through military force.

And a little while ago I mentioned how the veteran British comics writer, Pat Mills, had put in a few satirical comments about the Gulf War in the ABC Warriors strip in 2000 AD. In the stories about the Volgan War, the robot soldiers recount how they fought in a war against the Russians, the real cause of which was to steal the Russians’ oil reserves after the world had past the tipping point. This was called by the Volgans/Russians the ‘Fourth Oil War’.

Russia has indeed vast resources of oil and other minerals, which it exports around the world. And again, NATO forces are building up in eastern Europe, with NATO generals predicting that by May next year, we will be at war with Russia. It seems to me that Mills is right, probably more than he knew when he wrote the strip, and that the West really is pushing for a war to seize their oil.

This may lead us all into nuclear Armageddon. Quite apart from being grossly immoral.

We have to stop it.

As Hammerstein and his metal comrades say: ‘Increase the peace’.

Spread the word.

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David Tennant Reads Out Scottish Tweets Attacking Trump for Brexit Comments

October 27, 2016

Way back in July Donald Trump travelled to Scotland to open one of his golf courses. At the press conference there, one of the assembled hacks asked him what he thought about Brexit. Trump was very positive, stating that the strong pound had meant that Britain had lost trade. Now it was weak, trade would recover, and we Brits had taken our country back.

This annoyed the guid people north of the border, as the majority of Scots had voted to remain. In this clip from the American Full Frontal satirical news show, the former Doctor Who, David Tennant, reads out some of the tweets directed at Trump by outraged Scots. Warning – there is a lot of profanity, so be careful where you play it. As the Beeb used to warn audiences, it’s not really suitable for children and those of a sensitive disposition. On the other hand, some of the insults are highly inventive despite the obscenity. One of the show’s hosts, Samantha Bree, asks Tennant, as a former Dr. Who, if he could go back in time to stop people voting Brexit. Cue that clip from Dr. Who, of the Doctor explaining how he can’t go back in time to save people.

Here’s the clip:

Of course, it’s not just Trump’s stupid and ill-informed comments about Brexit that have angered people in Scotland and across the rest of the UK. He’s also managed to make himself massively unpopular by purchasing land and trying to get people evicted from their homes for his wretched golf course, in an area that already has far too many of them. Scots already had one good reason to despise Trump, quite apart the threat he poses to peace and any chance of international prosperity and justice throughout the world if he gets to be America’s next president. His remarks praising Brexit were just one insult too many, and so the floodgates opened to this wave of spleen and vitriol. Which he justly deserved.

Poppy: 3D Printed Open Source Robot

October 27, 2016

I’ve put up several posts this week about robots and robotics, discussing the ultimate origins of H.B.O.’s WestWorld in Karel Capek’s 1920 play about a robot revolt, R.U.R. This has been performed using real, lego robots, and a short speech about the play given by a British robot, Robothespian, by Café Neu Romance at the National Technical Library in Prague. Robothespian also appeared on the BBC’s Breakfast TV show a couple of years ago in 2014.

The humanoids in WestWorld are less like today’s industrial machines and far more like the Replicants in Blade Runner or Capek’s original robots. They’re a kind of artificial biology created through synthetic chemistry, and produced through something like 3D printing, rather than today’s mechanical devices. Scientists are, however, exploring various synthetic materials, which would expand and contract similar to the way animal muscles move, which gives WestWorld’s humanoids a grounding in scientific fact, even if we are still a very, very long way away from such complex, truly intelligent and self-aware artificial beings.

Looking through some of the videos on robots on YouTube, I found the short video below for a small, humanoid robot, Poppy, created by a group of French scientists and engineers. This is interesting, as it shows how far robot technology has come, including their manufacturing methods, and how close we are to a true age of popular robotics. The machine is bipedal, and designed to be used as a research tool by scientists. It’s also open source and can be made at home using a 3D printer. It’s creators state that it’s a robot for everyone, and so while it can be used for serious research – the video shows the machine walking along a treadmill, for example – it is not solely for professional robotics scientists, but aimed at a popular market.

This brings the world of R.U.R. and other, similar works of SF, where everyone owns a robot, just that bit closer. Along with Star Trek’s universe, in which anything can be produced using a replicator, an idea which the late Arthur C. Clarke explored in his book, Profiles of the Future, some decades ago. Robots pose serious problems in the mass redundancies that have occurred and are threatening to become worse through their adoption in industry, as well as the possibility that they will overthrow and replace humanity as the dominant beings when their intelligence eventually exceeds ours. 3D printing also has its drawbacks and problems for the economy. One of these is how people will be able to make a living from manufacturing, when nearly anything at all can be made cheaply by anyone at home with a printer. We haven’t reached that stage yet, and possibly never will. Nevertheless, it’s a serious issue that needs careful consideration and debate.

Poppy isn’t the only open source robot available that can be created through 3D printing. A glance through some of the other videos available on this subject on YouTube shows that there are a number of them. No doubt this will grow as the technology improves and costs drop so that the technology becomes more affordable. Assuming that everyone isn’t put out of work by then as more firms decide its cheaper to employ machines than people.

Here’s the video for the Poppy robot:

Alan Moore’s ‘The Stars My Degredation’

October 27, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece reporting the sad death of British comics legend Steve Dillon, along with his obituary from the I newspaper, and a link to the Nick Fury strip he drew for Hulk comic right at the very beginning of his professional career in comics, which can be read over at the Bronze Age Blog. Amongst the other gems from the Bronze Age of Comics – the 70s and 80s is one of the strips Alan Moore created for the music newspaper, Sounds. Written and drawn by Moore under the monicker, Curt Vile, this was The Stars My Degradation, and ran in the magazine from 1980 to 1983. This was about the space adventures of Dempster Dingbunger, and featured such characters as Three-Eyes McGurk and his Death Planet Commandos, Nekriline, who was literally dead, Laser Eraser, the deadly galactic female assassin, and the psychotic cyborg, Axel Pressbutton. Laser Eraser and Pressbutton were later to get their own strip in the British adult comic, Warrior. The strip there, if I remember correctly, was drawn by Steve Moore, no relation to Alan, under the pseudonym Pedro Henry. Moore was another stalwart of the British comics industry, and closely involved with the Fortean Times, the magazine of the weird and bizarre.

The strip’s title, The Stars My Degradation, seems to me to be a satirical nod to Alfred Bester’s classic, The Stars My Destination, also known as Tiger, Tiger. It was one of the pieces Moore created very early in his career, just before he broke into mainstream comics and became the massive legend he is today with V For Vendetta and Watchmen. Pete Dorree notes that the strip was nihilistic and satirical. In the example he gives, Moore spoofs the New X-Men, created by Chris Claremont and Johnny Byrne. Here’s the link. Enjoy!

http://bronzeageofblogs.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/alan%20moore

‘I’ Tribute to Comics Giant Steve Dillon

October 26, 2016

Steve Dillon, one of the great figures of British comics, has sadly passed away at the age of 54. The I newspaper has run a tribute to him by Hellen William today, 26th October 2016, on page 14. The piece runs

Comic book genius Steve Dillon, who is best known for his artwork on Judge Dredd, Preacher and The Punisher, has died aged 54.

His younger brother, Glyn, also a comic book artist, confirmed on Twitter that his ‘big brother’ and ‘hero’ had died.

Dillon, who grew up in Luton, Bedfordshire, started his career by drawing Nick Fury for Hulk magazine when he was 16. By the 1980s he was contributing artwork to Doctor Who magazine and created his own character, Absalom Daak. He also drew for the comic 2000 AD, contributing artwork of Judge Dredd.

In 1988, Dillon founded Deadline, with fellow comic book artist Brett Ewins. The comics magazine focussed on promoting younger and underground comic artists, including artist Jamie Hewlett, who went on to create the comic Tank Girl and co-create the virtual band Gorillaz with Damon Albarn in 1998.

Dillon and Ewins also collaborated on the comic book series Preacher from 1995 to 2000. In it a religious Texan, his girlfriend and an Irish vampire attempt to track down God and hold him to account for the state of the world.

In 2016, the series was adapted for a television show in the US, featuring Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga and Joe Gilgun. It has now been renewed for a second series.

Actor and film-maker Seth Rogen, who helped adapt the comics for television, tweeted, “Devastated by the lost of Steve Dillon. My favourite comic artist who drew my favourite comics. RIP”

Shortly before his death, Dillon appeared at Comic Con in New York City. He met fans and signed books, the profits of which were partly donated to The Hero Initiative, a charity which provides medical and financial help to comic book artists.

Tributes also come from author Neil Gaiman, who added: “Just heard about Steve Dillon’s passing. It’s been so long since we’ve talked, but he was kind to a young writer long ago, and a good guy.”

Wonder Woman artist Liam Sharp wrote: “My old friend Steve Dillon has died. He was like my industry big brother. Pragmatic to the core, casually cool, and effortlessly brilliant.”

Marvel Entertainment, which ran much of Dillon’s best-known work, said: “Marvel is saddened by the passing of Steve Dillon, a great storyteller. We offer condolences to his family and remember his incredible work.”

Doctor Who magazine tweeted: ‘We’re saddened to report the death of Steve Dillon, one of Doctor Who magazine’s earliest artists, and co-creator of Absalom Daak. RIP Steve.”

Vertigo Comics tweeted: “We lost a giant among creators and artists today. Steve Dillon will be missed by us all here at DC and Vertigo.”

Dillon is survived by his parents, three children, his brother, sister and two grandchildren.

Born: 22 March 1962.
Died 22 October 2016.

The newspaper also carries a photo of the great man.

Dillon was one of the great figures in British comics when I was a teenager in the late 1970s and 80s, contributing strips to a number of Marvel UK comics, as well as 2000 AD. I’ve also got a feeling he may also have drawn for Warrior, the short-lived adult British comic, launched by Dez Skinn, in which V for Vendetta first appeared.

I’m also seriously impressed by how young he was when he started work in comics. His artwork was great, and it showed the immense talent he had that he started when he was only 16.

Truly, a great talent and one of the mainstays of comics for the last 30 years has left us.

Additional

There’s another tribute to the great man by Pete Dorree in his The Bronze Age of Blogs. This is a site devoted to 70’s comics, including reproductions of some of the strips. In addition to the tribute, Dorree has also put up the Nick Fury strip, which was Dillon’s very first strip for Hulk comic. It’s a great piece, and shows the man’s artistic skill at such a young age. Here’s the link

http://bronzeageofblogs.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/steve-dillons-nick-fury-agent-of-shield.html

Trump and the Rise in Real Anti-Semitism in America

October 25, 2016

After all the false accusations of anti-Semitism brought by the Israel lobby against the country’s critics and opponents comes the real thing. In this video from The Young Turks, the presenters R.J. Eskow and John Iadarola discuss a new report from the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organisation set up to combat anti-Semitism, on the surge of genuinely anti-Semitic comments posted online. In the year from July 2015 to July this year, 2016, a total of 2.5 million Tweets were posted. These Tweets were viewed 10 billion times. Eskow and Iadarola put this into perspective by pointing out that it’s the same amount of coverage which would be produced by a £20 million advertising campaign at the Superbowl. These included 20,000 hate messages sent to 50,000 journalists. 70 per cent of these messages come from a mere 1600 accounts, however.

Most of these Tweets and messages came from people who identified themselves as Conservatives, White Nationalists and supporters of Donald Trump. The messages’ contents are horrific and disgusting. They included photoshopped pictures showing the journalists in the gas chambers or among the piles of corpses at Auschwitz, and the journos have suffered explicit threats to put them in the ovens. One journalist, Hadas Gold, who was born in Israel, received a message which showed her with a bullet wound in her head and a yellow Star of David on her shirt, as worn by the Jewish victims of the Nazis. Accompanying the picture was the message, ‘Don’t mess with our boy Trump, or you’ll be the first in the camps.’

Eskow and Iadarola make the point that this comes after hate speech against Muslims, Hispanics and Blacks rose thanks to Trump’s campaign. They make the point that, while the Israel lobby accused Israel’s critics of anti-Semitism, especially of its colonisation of the West Bank, the real anti-Semitism was always on the Right. Eskow also describes how he received massive amounts of hate mail from Hillary supporters when he was supporting Bernie Sanders’ campaign. This is interesting, as Shrillary has made a very explicit appeal for support to AIPAC, one of the main political lobbying groups for Israel in the US, and has stated that she wants even greater American support for the country. The Israel lobby also succeeded in getting Sanders’ Jewish Outreach Officer sacked for alleged anti-Semitism, despite the fact that she was Jewish and a very active member of her community. This was because she dared to criticise Israel’s maltreatment of the Palestinians.

The two discuss how this racism comes from intellectual laziness. Instead of trying to grapple with the real, complex issues, the racist Right prefers simple solutions, such as blaming the country’s plight on racial minorities. This becomes a problem when it becomes the driving force behind politics. They also state that it’s very much a product of the Alt-Right. At the moment, this loose collection of extreme Right-wingers is torn by intense controversy about their racism. On the one hand there are those, who would like to hide or tone-down their anti-Semitism, while on the other is a more extreme faction, which sees the main issue as always having been about the Jews, and accuse their opponents of trying to weaken the movement.

The two criticise Trump for not trying to restrain his supporters’ expressions of hate. Eskow states that when he wrote a piece attacking the bankers, he received many messages stating that they should all be ‘strung up.’ Eskow responded by telling the people sending them to tone down their language. The bankers shouldn’t be killed. What was needed was not their deaths, but proper legislation. Trump, on the others hand, has never told his followers to ‘dial it down’, and indeed has stoked up their anger and aggression by encouraging them to attack his enemies and protesters at his rallies, even to the point of telling them that he’ll pay their legal bills.

The two debate whether this upsurge in anti-Semitism is a product of the internet and recent events, or has been there all along. John Iadarola speculates that it may well have been there all the time, given the long history of lynching in America. It’s just while in the past a racist may have said the ‘N’ word to his neighbour, and it didn’t get much farther than that, now with the emergence of the internet such messages can spread far and wide and reach a much larger number of people.

This clearly is a very worrying trend, especially as the content goes far beyond mere derogatory names and racial slurs to death threats and menaces invoking the Holocaust. I concur with the two hosts in that it does appear that the rise in anti-Semitism has been inspired by the Trump campaign’s legitimation of hatred against other religious and racial groups. There is some comfort, however, in that 70% of this vile stuff comes from only 1,600 people. It shows that anti-Semitism at this point is mainly the province of a small group of hardline fanatics. If you consider how large the American population is – well over 300 million – then it’s very clear that those 1,600 bigots are a trivial minority. Which I realise doesn’t make receiving those messages any more pleasant, or the individuals sending them less of a danger. Most of the terrorist offences committed in America are by Nazi and White Supremacist groups, not by Muslims. And while Muslims and Blacks now seem to be the main targets, they certainly have no compunctions whatsoever about killing Jews.

There’s a warning here for Britain. This country has also seen a rise in hate speech and crimes against ethnic minorities following the success of the Brexit campaigns, which some racists and bigots feel legitimates their own expressions of hatred. There hasn’t been a rise in anti-Semitism, but this may yet arise following its resurgence in America.

The piece is also important because it shows very clearly how, contra to what the Israel lobby and the Blairites in the Labour party are trying to tell everyone, the real anti-Semites aren’t on the Left with the critics of Israel, but on the Right, amongst the genuine racists the Israel lobby chooses to ignore in favour of screaming down and smearing genuinely decent people, anti-racists, both gentile and Jewish, who object to Israel, not because it is Jewish, but because it is a racist Western settler state.

Robothespian, the British Robotic Actor

October 25, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece about a performance of Karel Capek’s classic play about a robot rebellion, RUR, at the Czech national library a few years ago by a theatre group, Café Neu Romance, using lego robots. The theatre company was the creation of Vive Les Robots, a Danish company set up to encourage public interest in robots and robotics. I said in the article that I thought it would be good if the play could be performed by full-sized robots, to give it the stature it deserves. I realise, however, that was unlikely given how massively expensive the animatronic technology is, that brings to life robotic puppets like Ry’gel from the SF series Farscape.

One British company, Engineered Arts, has created such a full size mechanical actor. It’s called Robothespian, and there are a number of videos about it on YouTube. The video below shows it, appropriately enough, talking about R.U.R. as part of Café Neu Romance, a robot arts festival, at the Czech National Technical Library in 2012.

Robothespian has also appeared on British breakfast television. In this clip from the Beeb’s Breakfast TV programme from 2014, the two presenters talk about, and sometimes to Robothespian with Dr Nigel Crook of Oxford Brookes University. The robot was created by Engineered Arts as a research project to explore the ways people interact with robots. Crook explains that it can respond to a number of voice commands, and the two presenters ask it questions such as what advantages robots have over human beings. Crook also explains that despite this ability, real intelligence is a long way off, and the problem of giving the robot the ability to hold a genuinely intelligent, wide-ranging conversation is very challenging. So right now, the machine responds giving the answers programmed into it by a human operator.

Robothespian, or Artie, as it is called, from RT – Robothespian – replies to the question about its usefulness that robots can perform simple, repetitive tasks accurately without tiring, or needing to go for breaks. They ask it if it could do their job. Its answer is that it certainly could, as all they do is read from an autocue. So when does it start?

The machine has a range of expressive hand gestures, a moving mouth, and two screens in its head, which show images of eyes. These blink, helping it show a number of expressions. They also show hearts, like those shown in the eyes of cartoon characters to indicate they have fallen in love. The two presenters are, however, advised to stand a few feet away from the robot. Crook explains it is compliant, which means that, unlike an industrial robot, it won’t blindly continue to perform a gesture if it accidentally strikes someone who happens to stand in the way. Similarly, it’s possible to pull the robot’s limbs away from where they’ve settled without damaging it. Nevertheless, the presenters were advised to stand clear of it just in case it accidentally flipped back and struck them.

As well as delivering monologues, Robothespian can also sing, giving a hilarious rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and do impressions, like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Crook explains that it was built to act as a guide at museums, festivals and exhibitions. The two presenters ask about its gender, and are told that it’s creators think of it as male, as it’s been given a male voice.

Also on the show is a little feature about a robot toy, Caspar, which is used in schools to teach autistic children. The toy was being tried out as a teaching tool as autistic people can find it immensely challenging understanding other’s emotions. They also like things in a very set order. Caspar is useful in that its responses, although intended to mimic those of humans, are always the same. For example, when it smiles, that smile is always the same smile every time it makes that expression. And this regularity and constancy of expression is intended to be reassuring and non-threatening, so that the child using it finds it easy, or easier to do so, than more conventional forms of interaction with people.

Robothespian isn’t cheap. Crook explains that it costs about £50,000. Despite this, Engineered Arts have built more than one of them. In this video from last year, 2015, two of them sing, ‘I Am Not A Robot’.

I find robots and robotics interesting, but I am very much aware of the problems they pose. There are the general philosophical issues like human identity and uniqueness – how long before they develop real intelligence and consciousness, start performing sophisticated task like creating art or composing music, or resent at their enslavement and control by humans? There are also the very real social and economic problems caused by their manufacture. The more industry is automated, the more real jobs, that could be performed by people, are lost. The Beeb a few months ago broadcast a documentary which forecast that in the next 15-20 years a third of all jobs could be lost in Britain. You can certainly see it in retail, where a number of companies have replaced human staff with self-service tills, where you scan in yourself the items you want to purchase into the machine, which then takes your money and hands you your change and receipt. If we aren’t careful, this will lead to the emergence of a society very much like that of 2000 AD’s Megacity One. Judge Dredd’s home city has, thanks to robots, a massive unemployment rate of 95% or so. As a result, most people’s lives are marked by boredom and despair, a situation brought home in the classic ‘Judge Dredd’ story, ‘Un-American Graffitti’, featuring Chopper, a teenage lad trying to escape this crushing social malaise through ever more daring pieces of graffiti artwork. 2000 AD and the ‘Dredd’ strip in particular always had a very strong element of satire and social commentary, and this was one of the most outstanding examples of the strip telling an entertaining story while also describing the real situation many of its readers faced for real due to Thatcherism.

And unfortunately, despite the boom years of the 1990s, the prospect of long-term unemployment and grinding poverty has got worse, due to globalism and the spread of neoliberalism as the dominant political and economic ideology. This will only get worse unless humanity finds ways to manage robotic technology wisely, to create jobs, rather than to the replace them.

RUR Performed by Lego Robots in Prague

October 24, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece discussing the similarities between the humanoids in H.B.O.’s WestWorld SF TV series, based on the 1970s film of the same name by Michael Crichton, and R.U.R., the 1920’s play by Czech writer, Karel Capek, which introduced the word ‘robot’ to the English language. In both WestWorld and RUR, the robots are actually closer to the replicants of Blade Runner, in that rather than being machines, they’re biological constructs produced artificially through the processes of industrial manufacturing. Capek’s play has been produced many times, and its theme of a robot rebellion against humanity has been one of the dominant themes in Science Fiction. It’s most famous treatment has been in the Terminator films, in which a virus infects the Skynet computer system, causing it to revolt against humanity, unleashing an army of killer drones and humanoid robotic soldiers.

I found this short video on YouTube. It’s about a production of R.U.R. staged last year, 2015, at the Czech republic’s national gallery in Prague by Café Neu Romance, and directed by Christian Gjorret. Gjorret is a member of the group, Vive Les Robots, which has been set up to get the public interested in robots and robotics. The theatre company took the unusual step of performing the play entirely with robots, made out of the commercially available lego kits available in toy shops.

It’s an interesting approach, even if it means that the physical scale of the performance is rather small. I think there’s an opportunity to stage the play on a much grander scale, using life-size animatronic robots. There is, after all, a robot band called Compressorhead, which plays cover versions of various Rock and Heavy Metal tracks. The ABC Warrior, which appeared in the 1995 Judge Dredd film was also genuinely robotic. It also looked to me very much like a real robot was used to show C3PO’s mechanical nature, when R2D2’s metal mate made his first appearance being built by Anakin Skywalker in the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. The problem with staging such a production would be the immense cost. Animatronics aren’t cheap. The operators of the Ry’gel puppet in the SF series Farscape said in an interview that the portable version of the character cost as much as a car, while the studio version was even more expense, and cost the equivalent of a house. Nevertheless, I think if it could be staged, it would be a fascinating and genuinely thought-provoking experiment. If nothing else, it would show how near we are to creating some of these machines, and how pressing and prescient some of the SF stories dealing with the issues of Artificial Intelligence, freedom, and the survival of humanity faced with machines, which may be its superior, are.

Here’s the video:

West World and the Original Robots of R.U.R.

October 23, 2016

A few weeks ago H.B.O. launched the latest SF blockbuster show, West World. It’s a TV series based on the 1970s film of the same name, written by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton’s Jurassic Park nearly twenty years or so later, West World is about a fantasy amusement, presided over by a sinister inventor played by Anthony Hopkins, the man who scared audiences witless as the cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs and its sequel, Hannibal. While Jurassic Park was about scientific attempts to recreate the dinosaurs for popular amusement, in West World the amusement park was a resort which attempted to recreate past eras for fun. This included the Middle Ages, and a section devoted to the old West. Like Jurassic Park, things go disastrously wrong. A computer malfunction makes the robots break the inbuilt restrictions on their behaviour, so that they gain autonomy and independence. In the medieval part of the resort, a man, who is used to getting his way with the female androids has his advances rebuffed with the curt answer, ‘Methinks Sir forgets himself’. But the real action of the story is the attempts by the movie’s hero over in the West World part of the resort to overcome the black-garbed, robot gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner. Like Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films, the gunslinger is an implacable, unstoppable killing machine, and the hero has to destroy it before it kills him, just like it gunned down his friend.

The TV series has adapted and altered the story. The gunman is now human, rather than robotic, and the focus seems to have shifted more to the robots than the humans. They are the victims of the humans enjoying the resort, who come to act out terrible fantasies of rape and killing that they would never dare consider doing in the real world to other human beings. The robot hosts they use – and abuse – are repaired and have their memories wiped ready for the next set of visitors to do the same, all over again. But attempts to give the machines consciousness have had an effect. The machines are beginning to remember. The press releases to the series state that its premise is not about machines developing consciousness and intelligence, but what they will make of us when they do.

The artificial humans in West World are less robots in the sense of mechanical people, than artificial humans. The titles show artificial tendons and muscles being placed on synthetic skeletons by robotic arms in a more developed version of 3D printing.

This conception of artificial humans shows the influence of Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film changed Dick’s androids to ‘replicants’, artificial men and women created through sophisticated genetic engineering for use as slave soldiers and sex workers. Produced by the Tyrell Corporation under the slogan ‘More Human Than Human’, these genetic constructs have a desire for freedom and longevity. In order to stop them overthrowing humanity, they only have a lifespan of six years or so. They are also becoming increasingly sophisticated psychologically and emotionally. In the book and film, they can only be distinguished from natural people through the Voight-Comp Test. This is a complex psychological test in which the subjects have to answer a series of questions. Part of this is to measure their capacity for empathy. Replicants generally are unable to sympathise or understand others’ suffering. The test asks those undergoing its questions to imagine their in a desert. They see a tortoise lying on its back, dying in the hot sun. The animal is clearly in pain and dying, but they don’t help it. Why not? At the end of the movie, Deckard, the film’s hero, a Blade Runner – the special policemen charged with catching and ‘retiring’ replicants that have made it down to Earth, is in serious danger. In his battle with Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader and now their only survivor after he has tracked them all down, Deckard has failed to make a jump across two of the buried skyscrapers underneath the sprawling future LA. He is hanging from a girder, about to fall to his death. Until Batty, before his own programmed obsolescence kills him, pulls him to safety. Batty has developed genuine sympathy for another stricken creature. He has triumphantly passed the Voight-Comp test, and shown more humanity than the humans who made him and who enslave his kind.

It’s a very old theme, which goes all the way back to one of the very first Science Fiction plays, if not the very first SF play, to deal with a robot revolt, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Written by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, this was the play that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. The word comes from the Czech for ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. It’s set in a company producing these artificial people, which are used for everything from factory workers to domestic servants. They have also been stripped of complex emotional responses to make them suitable servants. But as with the synthetic hosts of West World, this is breaking down. Instead of simply performing their tasks, the robots are increasingly stopping and refusing to work. They simply stand there, grinding their teeth. Eventually their growing dissatisfaction turns from simple recalcitrance to outright revolt. The machines rebel, exterminating humanity and leaving the company’s accountant, Alquist, as the only survivor.

Like Blade Runner’s replicants and the synthetic hosts of West World, Capek’s robots were not machine so much as creatures produced through a kind of artificial biology. In the first act, the company’s general manager, Domain, explains the origins of the robots in the biological researches of the biologist, Rossum, to Helena Glory, the daughter of an Oxbridge prof.

‘It was in the year 1922’, informs Domain, ‘that old Rossum the great physiologist, who was then quite a young scientist, betook himself to this distant island for the purpose of studying the ocean fauna, full stop. On this occasion he attempted by chemical synthesis to imitate the living matter known as protoplasm, until he suddenly discovered a substance which behaved exactly like living matter, although its chemical composition was different; that was in the year 1932, exactly four hundred years after the discovery of America, whew!’ (The Brothers Capek, R.U.R. and The Insect Play(Oxford: OUP 1961) p. 5). Later Domain tells Helena a little about the industrial processes in which the robots are manufactured:

Domain: … Midday. The Robots don’t know when to stop work. In two hours I’ll show you the kneading-trough.

Helena: What kneading-trough?

Domain. [Dryly] The pestles and mortar as it were for beating up the paste. In each one we mix the ingredients for a thousand Robots at one operation. Then there are the vats for the preparation of liver, brains, and so on. They you’ll see the bone factory. After that I’ll show you the spinning-mill.

Helena: What spinning-mill?

Domain: For weaving nerves and veins. Miles and miles of digestive tubes pass through it at a stretch. Then there’s the fitting shed, where all the parts are put together, like motor-cars. Next comes the drying-kiln and the warehouse in which the new products work. (p. 15).

Like Blade Runner, the robots of R.U.R. end by becoming human emotionally. Just as the replicants in Blade Runner have a severely limited lifetime, so Capek’s Robots, as beings created purely for work, are sterile. After their victory, they approach Alquist requesting that more of them be created as their numbers of falling. Despite their entreaties, Alquist can’t. He is not a scientist, and the last of the company’s management destroyed the manuscript describing how they were made before they themselves were killed. Radius, the leader of the robots, requests Alquist to find out by dissecting living robots. When Primus, one of the male robots, and Helena, a female robot, each defend the other, refusing to let Alquist take them for experimentation, the old accountant realises that the mystery of their reproduction has been solved. The play ends with him reciting the text of Genesis describing God’s creation of Man. The last lines are him reciting the Nunc Dimissit : ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy will, for mine eye have seen Thy salvation.’

This last marks the major difference between R.U.R. and modern treatments of the rise of robots and their possible replacement of humanity: R.U.R. is explicitly Christian in its underlying tone. It’s stated very clearly that Rossum was a militant atheist, who wanted to play God in order to show that God is unnecessary for the emergence of life. The ending, however, is ambiguous. Rossum was an anti-theist, but his artificial creations, which are based on a chemistry not found in nature, clearly work, and in turn become genuine, self-perpetuating, authentic men and women with intelligence, emotions and morality.

Some critics have said that R.U.R. really isn’t SF so much as a technological parable about the threat of Communism. It was written in 1920, a few years after the Russian Revolution and similar outbreaks of working class militancy across Europe, including Germany, Austria and Hungary. But other works, that are undoubtedly considered Science Fiction, are also veiled comments on events and issues of the time. Much of the SF of the former Soviet Union, like that of the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote the classic Stalker, was written in the ‘Aesopian Mode’. They were intended as parables to say in veiled form truths and comments that could not be overtly made under Soviet censorship.

And the conception of robots as a form of genuine artificial life does seem to be based on some of the scientific speculation of the time. Russian scientists, such as Oparin, were acutely interested in the emergence of life on the prehistoric Earth, and devised several experiments to suggest how the chemicals necessary for life may have been formed. And the Communists, as militant atheists, were keen supporters of Darwinian evolution, though I think they viewed it as proceeding through a form of dialectal materialism, and so bearing that theory out, rather than some of the more sophisticated, non-Marxist conceptions that have occurred later. Russian Cosmists, like the Transhumanists today, wished to develop scientific methods of resurrecting the dead and then colonising space as a suitable habitat for the new, perfected humanity.

Furthermore, some experiments and speculation in robotics has moved away from simple, mechanical processes. Human muscles operate biochemically. Messages from nerves changes the shape of the molecules composing muscles, which in turn makes those same muscles contract or expand, moving the organism’s limbs. Some scientists have therefore worked on trying to mimic this process of movement using artificial substances, rather than existing electrical or petrol-driven motors. This brings the construction of robots very close the type of 3D printing shown in West World’s titles.

My own feeling is that it will be a very long time, if ever, before humanity produces anything like the sentient robots of SF. As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the scientists interviewed by the science magazine, Frontiers, in 1998 stated that he didn’t think we’d see genuinely conscious, intelligent robots in his lifetime. Anthony Hopkins in an interview in this week’s Radio Times makes the same point, stating that we haven’t created anything as simply as a single cell. This does not mean that humanity won’t, or detract from stories about robots as entertainment, or as the means by which philosophical issues about creation, the nature of life and humanity, consciousness and intelligence, can be explored. West World in this sense is part of a trend in recent screen SF attempting to explore these issues intelligently, such as Automata and The Machine. These new treatments are far more secular, but as philosophical treatments of the underlying issues, rather than simple stories about warfare between humanity and its creations, like the Terminator, they also follow in a long line that goes all the way back to Capek.

Frontiers Magazine on Robot Weapons

October 23, 2016

The popular science magazine, Frontiers, way back in October 1998 ran an article on robots. This included two pages on the ‘Soldiers of Tomorrow’, military robots then under development. This included drones. These are now extremely well-known, if not notorious, for the threat they pose to privacy and freedom. The article notes that they were developed from the unmanned planes used for target practice. They were first used in the 1960s to fly reconnaissance missions in Vietnam after the US air force suffered several losses from surface to air missiles. Drones were also used during the Cold War to spy on the Soviet Union, though instead of beaming the pictures back to their operators, they had to eject them physically. They were further developed by the Israelis, who used them to spy on their Arab neighbours during their many wars. Their next development was during the Gulf War, when they broadcast back to their operators real-time images of the battlefields they were surveying.

Apart from drones, the article also covered a number of other war machines under development. This included remotely operated ground vehicles like SARGE, and the Mobility Module and remotely controlled buggy shown below.

robot-army-cars

SARGE was a scout vehicle adapted from a Yamaha four-wheel drive all-terrain jeep. Like the drones, it was remotely controlled by a human operator. The top photo of the two above showed the Mobility Module mounted aboard another army vehicle, which contained a number of reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition sensors. Below it is a missile launcher fixed to another remote-control buggy. The article also carried a photo of a Rockwell Hellfire missile being launched from another of this type of adapted vehicle.

robot-army-car-missile

Next to this was a photo of the operator in his equipment, who controlled the Tele-Operated Vehicle, or TOV, as the developers were calling such machines.

robot-army-car-operator

Another of the machines described in the article was the Telepresent Rapid Aiming System, a robot gun designed by Graham Hawkes and Precision Remotes of California as a sentry robot. As the article itself notes, it’s similar to the tunnel machine guns used by the Space Marines in the film Aliens. It could either be operated by remote control, or made fully automatic and configured to shoot live ammunition. At the time the article was written it had already been tested by a number of different law enforcement agencies.

The only vaguely humanoid robot was the Robart III, shown below.

robot-solider

This machine was able to track a target automatically using its video vision, and possessed laser guidance to allow it to be operated remotely. In demonstrations it carried a pneumatic dart gun, capable of firing tranquillizer darts at intruders. In combat situations this would be replaced with a machine gun. It was designed to be used as a mechanical security guard.

The article also stated that miniature crawling robots were also under development. These would be used to creep up on enemy positions, sending back to their operators video images of their progress. If such machines were mass-produced, their price could fall to about £10. This would mean that it would be easily affordable to saturate an area with them. (pp. 56-7).

The article describes the state of development of these machines as it was nearly 20 years ago. Drones are now so widespread, that they’ve become a nuisance. I’ve seen them in sale in some of the shops in Cheltenham for anything from £36 to near enough £400. Apart from the military, they’re being used by building surveyors and archaeologists.

And while robots like the above might excite enthusiasts for military hardware, there are very serious issues with them. The Young Turks, Secular Talk and Jimmy Dore have pointed out on their shows that Bush and Obama have violated the American constitution by using drones to assassinate terrorists, even when they are resident in friendly or at least non-hostile countries. Despite all the talk by the American army about ‘surgical strikes’, these weapons in fact are anything but precise instruments that can kill terrorists while sparing civilians. The three programmes cited, along with no doubt many other shows and critics, have stated that most of the victims of drone attacks are civilians and the families of terrorists. The drones may be used to home in on mobile signals, so that the person killed has been someone using their phone, rather than the terrorists themselves. Others have been worried about the way the operation of these weapons through remote control have distanced their human operators, and by extension the wider public, from the bloody reality of warfare.

Way back in the first Gulf War, one of the French radical philosophers in his book, The Gulf War Never Happened, argued that the extensive use of remotely controlled missiles during the war, and the images from them that were used in news coverage at the time, meant that for many people the Gulf War was less than real. It occurred in Virtual Reality, like a simulation in cyberspace. Recent criticism of the military use of drones as killing machines by whistleblowers have borne out these fears. One, who was also an instructor on the drone programme, described the casual indifference to killing, including killing children, of the drone pilots. They referred to their actions as ‘mowing the lawn’, and their child victims as ‘fun-sized terrorists’, justifying their deaths by arguing that as the children of terrorists, they would have grown up to be terrorists themselves. Thus they claimed to have prevented further acts of terrorism through their murder. And they did seem to regard the operation of the drones almost as a video game. The instructor describes how he threw one trainee off the controls after he indulged in more, unnecessary bloodshed, telling him, ‘This is not a computer game!’

And behind this is the threat that such machines will gain their independence to wipe out or enslave humanity. This is the real scenario behind Dr Kevin Warwick’s book, March of the Machines, which predicts that by mid-century robots will have killed the majority of humanity and enslaved the rest. A number of leading scientists have called for a halt on the development of robot soldiers. About 15 or twenty years ago there was a mass outcry from scientists and political activists after one government announced it was going to develop fully autonomous robot soldiers.

I’m a fan of the 2000 AD strip, ‘ABC Warriors’, which is about a group of robot soldiers, who now fight to ‘increase the peace’, using their lethal skills to rid the galaxy of criminals and tyrants and protect the innocent. The robots depicted in the strip are fully conscious, intelligent machines, with individual personalities and their own moral codes. The Frontiers article notes elsewhere that we’re a long way from developing such sophisticated AI, stating that he did not believe he would see it in his lifetime. On the other hand, Pat Mills, the strips’ writer and creator, says in the introduction to one of the collected volumes of the strips on the ‘Volgan War’, that there is a Russian robot, ‘Johnny 5’, that looks very much like Mechquake, the stupid, psychopathic robot bulldozer that appeared in the strip and its predecessor, ‘Robusters’. None of the machines under development therefore have the humanity and moral engagement of Hammerstein, Ro-Jaws, Mongrol, Steelhorn, Happy Shrapnel/ Tubalcain, Deadlok or even Joe Pineapples. The real robotic killing machines now being developed and used by the military represent a real threat to political liberty, the dehumanisation of warfare, and the continuing safety of the human race.