Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Flightless Bird So Good It Evolved Twice

May 12, 2019

Another fascinating piece of news in yesterday’s, for 11th May 2019, was about the discovery by evolutionary scientists that a type of flightless bird had evolved twice on the same Indian Ocean atoll. It reappeared the second time thousands of years after it had first come extinct, in a process biologists call ‘iterative evolution’. The article, ‘Evolution strikes twice for flightless bird on isolated atoll’, by Ben Mitchell, reads

A flightless bird that became extinct when its home island became flooded by the sea “came back to life” when a similar species evolved in the same location, scientists have discovered.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Natural History Museum found that a species of rail colonised an isolated atoll called Aldabra in the Indian Ocean on two occasions separated by tens of thousands of years. On both occasions, the white-throated rail evolved independently to become flightless. The last surviving colony of the flightless rails is still found on the island.

A University of Portsmouth spokesman said: “This is the first time that iterative evolution – the repeated evolution of similar or parallel structures from the same ancestor but at different times – has been seen in rails. 

The co-author of the study in the Zoological Journal of Lennean Society, Professor David Martill of the University of Portsmouth, said: “We know of no other example that demonstrates this phenomenon so evidently.”

How fascinating! It sounds similar to the phenomenon of parallel evolution, in which unrelatedly creatures develop similar features through occupying similar ecological niches. One example is the way penguins have evolved features similar to other marine creatures like whales and fish, with their wings becoming flippers. Another example is the thylacine, the marsupial wolf, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger. This creature is, unfortunately, now extinct, as it was hunted down as a pest by the Australian farmers. Although it was a marsupial, and had evolved independently in Australia over millions of years, it was remarkably like a European wolf. There was speculation at one time that the different human races were also the result of parallel evolution around the world, each evolving separately from common hominid ancestors. This has since been rejected, not least because it’s considered to be more than a little racist, somehow suggesting that the different varieties of modern humanity are biologically different species.

The palaeontologist Simon Conway-Morris has been so impressed by parallel evolution, that he considers that humans would have evolved anyway, even if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretacious Period 64 million years ago. He also believes that this means that other, extraterrestrial alien races, would also be humanoid. The final chapter of one of his books describes an alien spacecraft landing in southern England. When the aliens leave their ship to make contact with us, they are a humans. So much so that when asked if they want food, not only do they say yes, but they also ask for water for their dog.

Conway-Morris’ views are extreme, and not shared by other biologists. And some researchers into extraterrestrial life, like Seth Shostak, believe that aliens would be radically different from us.

Even so, this piece of science news is fascinating, and makes you wonder about the other possibilities of similar species evolving parallel or iteratively.



Time Travel Tale of Scientists Warning of Ecological Collapse: Gregory Benford’s ‘Timescape’

May 10, 2019

Gregory Benford, Timescape (London: Victor Gollancz 1980).

Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, has asked me to do a review of Gregory Benford’s time machine book, Timescape. I read it a few years ago, having bought the 1996 edition, over a decade and a half after it was first published. It is just a bit dated now in its prediction of life in 1998, but still well-worth reading if you’re into physics and hard SF.

Benford, the ‘Galactic Centre’ Novels and Timescape

Gregory Benford is an American astronomer and hard SF writer. He’s probably best known for his ‘Galactic Centre’ series of novels. Set thousands of years in the future, this is about the last remnants of humanity battling for survival against a ruthless and almost overwhelmingly superior machine civilisation, the Mechs, at the centre of the Galaxy. Hard SF is the type of science fiction that tries as far as possible to keep to established scientific rules. Such as, for example, the inviolability of the rule of Relativity, so that there are no Faster Than Light drives taking humans to the stars in a matter of hours, days or months rather than years. But that doesn’t mean ruling out other scientific advances, like time travel. Several of the ‘Galactic Centre’ novels are set in an artificial environment within the Black Hole at the centre of our Galaxy, where careful engineering by alien creatures formed of pure magnetism have merged two Black Holes to form an artificial environment of warped space time, within which humans and organic aliens are able to seek sanctuary from the Mechs. The curvature of spacetime and stress cracks within it in this environment allow the inhabitants to travel backwards and forwards in time. One of the novels features the adventures of a modern human family, who are forced to flee forward in time as the Mechs invade, almost to the end of time itself.

Brief Synopsis

Timescape doesn’t go that far, and is very firmly set in the recent past, and near future according to the time it was written. It’s the tale of two scientists and their friends, Gordon Bernstein and his fellows at CalTech in 1963, and Gregory Markham, an American scientist and his friend Markham, at Cambridge Uni in 1998. Bernstein is a young graduate student, who detects strange signals from an experiment he and his fellows are running, signals that he gradually begins to realize cannot be explained as just random noise or the product of background radiation. In 1998 Markham and Renfrew are working on ways to generate tachyons, faster than light subatomic particles that will travel back in time through bombarding iridium with high energy particles. They hope that by creating such particles, they may be able to use them to send a warning to the past.

The Earth in this very near future is dying. The ecology is collapsing through a deadly bacteriological bloom that destroys vegetable and animal life. The result is global famine, poverty and social unrest, with food rationing and bands of hostile, violent beggars moving across England. Markham and Renfrew hope they can send a message to the past detailing how the disease can be fought and eradicated in order to save civilisation by preventing the catastrophe occurring in the first place.

Time Travelling Subatomic Particles from Space

The idea of using subatomic particles and quantum physics to contact the past is highly speculative, of course, but not unreasonable. Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that information is able to move backwards through time, so that events in the future are able to determine the results of certain experiments, for example. There was also speculation in the 1990s that some subatomic particles reaching Earth from despite might be tachyons in origin. I can’t quite remember whether these were a type of neutrino or meson, but the theory was that they were produced by high energy events in space, such as supernovas. This produced tachyons, which traveled backwards in time until they decayed to become neutrinos or mesons or whatever, which were then able to be detected by scientists.

The Connecticutt College Professor’s Time Machine

Also in the 1990s came a plan by a Black professor at Connecticutt Community college to build a real, working time machine. This wouldn’t be able to transport people, just other subatomic particles back into the past. The idea was to create an Einstein-Rosen Condensate of iridium ions. An Einstein-Rosen Condensate is a strange state of matter where a plasma – an ionised gas is supercooled so that its component particles behave as a single particle. This plasma was to be whirled around in a chamber mimicking the spin of stars. Stars are so massive that as they spin, they pull the fabric of space time itself around after them. The effect has been observed around the Sun, providing confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It has been suggested that this effect could be used in the case of extremely massive objects, like Black Holes, to travel back in time. You simply enter the region of space being dragged around by the Black Hole, and then travel in the opposite direction to the local movement of spacetime. This should make you go back in time, it is suggested, and so you should be able to leave that area of space some time in the past, before you entered it. The professors plan worked along similar lines. Electrons would be shot into the chamber in the opposite direction to the circulation of the condensate. This should allow them to travel back into the past. If the scientists running the experiment found a larger number of electrons in the condensate than normal or otherwise explained, before they had started shooting them into it, then it would mean that the electrons had traveled there from the future. Time travel, or at least that possibility of communication between past and future, would be possible.

This obviously got very many people very excited. H.G. Wells’ grandson, who directed the ’90s version of his grand-dad’s classic, The Time Machine, appeared in a documentary telling us that the age of time travel was almost upon us. The experiment was due to be run aboard one of the space shuttles, but I think it must have been cancelled when one exploded, thus grounding the fleet and finally endings its use.

Time and the Weird World of Quantum Physics

Benford warns in his acknowledgements that

Many scientific elements in this novel are true. Others are speculative, and thus may well prove false. My aim has been to illuminate some outstanding philosophical difficulties in physics. If the reader emerges with the conviction that time represents are fundamental riddle in modern physics, this book will have served its purpose.

Which must be one of the rare occasions when a scientist writes a book to show how mysterious and incomprehensible a scientific phenomenon is, rather than how it can be grasped and understood. This famously applies to quantum physics. As one prominent scientist said of this subject, you don’t understand it, you just get used it.

Science and Society in the ’60s and ’90s

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of physics in the book, though none of its so hard that only physics graduates, let alone the late Stephen Hawking, would be the only people that understand it. And the book does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like doing physics at an advanced level in the early 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Gordon Bernstein, the hero of the early years, is a New York Jew, whose girlfriend, Marjorie, is a Conservative gentile. As his investigations proceed, he first believes that the signals are messages from space before coming to understand they’re from the future instead. He faces scepticism and opposition from his colleagues and academic supervisors, and risks being failed and his academic career and research terminated. as he goes on and his theories become public, he suffers from the attentions of the press and a procession of cranks, who traipse through his office door offering their own weird theories. I think this is a common experience to many astronomers and cosmologists. I can remember reading a comment by one such scientist that hardly a week went by without him receiving in the mail letters from people explaining their ‘theory of the universe’. At the same time, Bernstein’s relationship with his girlfriend also comes under pressure. His family don’t approve, and would like him to marry a nice Jewish girl instead. There are also political disagreements. Penny and her friends fully support the Vietnam War, views that aren’t shared by the liberal Bernstein. But in a twist, it’s Penny who understands that the waiters at their favourite restaurant are gay, is comfortable with that fact.

Back in Blighty in 1998, Markham’s and Renfrew’s backgrounds are solidly middle class. This is still a world where women were expected to stay home and cook, and the aristocracy still wields power and influence. A society in which entitled public school boys shout their food and alcohol choices in the local pub in Latin. It’s a world in which Markham is an outsider, and resents the privilege and condescension of the upper class Brits among which he moves.

Timescape and ’70s Fears of the End of Civilisation

Like much near-future SF, the book’s now dated. 1998 is now twenty years ago, and fortunately civilisation has not collapsed. Not yet. The book was partly a product of the sense of crisis in the 1970s, when many people really did fear the end of civilisation through industrial and social unrest and ecological collapse. It was predicted that overpopulation would result in mass famine, while the resources would run out and the Earth itself become uninhabitable through massive pollution. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. Not yet. But there is still a real danger of global civilisation collapsing through irreversible ecological damage from climate change and pollution, and algal blooms are poisoning the water in some parts of the world. Despite it’s age, the book thus remains acutely relevant.

Social Change and the Rise of Domestic Computers

In other respects, the book as a prediction of the future hasn’t worn quite as well. The advance of feminism in the 1980s and ’90s meant that traditional gender roles were breaking down as women sought careers outside the home. By 1998 there was the expectation that both partners in a relationship would be working, and the old domestic arrangement in which women looked after children and the home and were supported by their husbands was seen as anachronistic. At the same time, he also doesn’t predict the advances in information technology that has produced the home and personal computers or mobile phones. There is, however, a machine called the Sek, which is a type of answerphone and database, if I recall correctly.


These differences between the book’s expectation of what the ’90s would be like and the reality actually don’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the story. Science Fiction tends not to be very good at predicting the future. If it was, then humanoid robots with a comparable level of intelligence and genuine consciousness, like Star Wars’ C3PO, would be in every home and we would already have colonies on the Moon, Mars and Earth orbit. We don’t have any of that. But we do have personal computers, the internet and mobile phones, as well as a variety of industrial machines, which weren’t predicted. Many SF novels still remain worth reading even though their predictions of the future, or the contemporary present in which they were set, are dated. These include such classics as those of H.G. Wells’, Jules Verne, John Wyndham and so on. What matters in the story and the writer’s ability to create a convincing, fascinating world, which Timescape does.

While some of its details are inaccurate, this is still a readable, gripping story with a solid base in plausible science, and whose warning about environmental decline is, horrendously, just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1980.


Yay! David R. Bunch’s ‘Moderan’ Now Back in Print

May 7, 2019

Bit of good news for fans of classic SF. Looking through the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s last week, I found that David R. Bunch’s Moderan was now in print. This was published in 1971, and is really a series of vignettes originally published in small magazines, as well as the big SF mags Amazing and Fantastic. These are set in a future in which organic humanity has decided that its reached the end of its natural evolution, and to evolve further it must transform itself into machines. This process is described as it affects the hero, Stronghold 10. The style is superficially sympathetic to heighten what the reality of what this new, cyborg humanity has become: immortal, but paranoid with each stronghold at war with their neighbours.

Brian Aldiss gives as sample paragraph of Bunch’s prose style, which explains the background to the novel, in his and David Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion Year Spree:

Now, to turn tedious for a time, this is what happened. Flesh-man had developed to that place on his random Earth-ball home where it was to be the quick slide down to oblivion. All the signs were up, the flags were out for change for man and GO was DOWN. To ENDING. Flesh-man was at the top, far as he could climb as flesh-man, and from there he was certain to tumble. But he had the luck to have these brave good white-maned men in the white smocks, the lab giants, the shoulders, and great-bulged thighs of our progress (what matter if they were weazened, probe-eyed, choleric scheming, little men sometimes – more often than not, REALLY?) authors of so much of man’s development and climb to that place where he was just due to die, expire, destroy himself and his home at this grand stage of development to make new-metal man and set him in the Strongholds upon the plasto-coated Earth that had been man’s random and inefficient home. New-metal replaced flesh (down to the few flesh-strips and those, we hope, may soon be gone) the bones were taken out and new metal rods, hinges and sheets put in (it was easy!) and the organs all became engines and marvellous tanks for scientifically controlled functional efficiency forever. YAY! Don’t you see?! Our Scientists made of life-man (the VERY-STRANGE-accident man) essentially a dead-elements man, one who could now cope with eternity, but he certainly was not a dead man. AH! Heavens no! He was alive! with all the wonderful scienc3e of the Earth ages, and just as functional as anyone could wish. YAY! science, take your plaudits now! You’ve shown what was meant from the beginning for the VERY-STRANGE-accident man. (p.324).

Aldiss states that it’s a technophobic piece in the SF tradition of questioning technological progress that began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Moderan was out of print for a long time, so I’m looking forward to reading it some time. Bunch also wrote poetry in an avant-garde style very much like his prose, though in verse. A collection of his pieces, of which only one or two were SF, The Heartacher and the Warehouseman, was published in the 1990s. The title poem is set in the Moderan world, and is about one of these cyborgs coming to a warehouse carrying his pump in his heart. He complains that he – and all the other cyborgs – have no heart. The cyborg warehouseman, suspicious, retreats behind his armoury of weapons, informing him of all the cyborg bits and pieces they have, like hearts and mechanical fingers. But he fails to understand the man’s real complaint – that their civilisation has no heart in the metaphorical sense. The warehouseman drives the Heartacher away, but wonders what will happen to him as he retreats back into his cubby-hole.

It’s one of those pieces that was acutely relevant in the 1990s, when there was much talk among the chattering classes of transhumanism and cyborgisation. It was the decade when Radio 3 broadcast the series Grave New Worlds examining these possibilities through interviews with writers, artists and scientists, including Paul J. McAuley, J.G. Ballard and the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, who really has tried to turn himself into a cyborg in performances in which he wired himself up to the net, so that images found online would work his body automatically through galvanic stimulators some Borg organic puppet, and by giving himself a third, cybernetic arm. It’s still relevant as prosthetic limbs continue to improve. While these are an immense benefit to those, who have lost their real limbs through accident or disease, it does raise the question of how far this process can go and humans become the cyborgs of SF. This was the central question David Whittaker was pondering when he created Dr. Who’s cybermen. Bunch’s novel also seems to have influenced one of the writers of Dr. Who Magazine way back in the ’70s. One of the comic strips, Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman, was about a cyberman, who had some how retained his emotions and compassion. The story was set on the planet ‘Moderan’. And in the 1980s the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, expressed concerns that people, who were heavily reliant on medical machines suffered a loss of creativity when he explored the possibility of similar mergers between humans and machines in his class Man and the Planets.

I’m glad that this lost classic is back in print. But still more than a little annoyed that it, and other SF works like it, are overlooked by the literary crowd in favour of those by ‘literary’ authors like Ian McEwan. Sorry to ride this old hobby-horse again, but a few weeks ago there was an interview with McEwan in the I. The newspaper mentioned to him that Science Fiction fans were upset about him denying that his book was part of the genre. McEwan repeated his sentiment, saying it wasn’t SF, but was based on him considering real world issues. Well, so is much Science Fiction, all the way back to Frankenstein. Aldiss has praised it as the first real work of Science Fiction as it was based on science as it was known at the time. This was Galvani’s experiments making the severed legs of frogs twitch and move through electricity. McEwan’s attitude shows the basic contempt of many literary authors and critics for the genre. They’re keen to borrow its tropes, but sneer at it as essentially trivial fantasy, unlike the serious stuff they’re writing. Much SF is, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But there is a very large amount which isn’t, and which deserves to be taken as seriously as so-called ‘serious’ literary works like McEwan’s.


Radio 4 Serialising Ian McEwan’s Robot Book Next Week

April 23, 2019

I don’t belieeeve it! As the great Victor Meldrew used to say. Next week, according to the Radio Times for 27th April – 3rd May 2019, Radio 4 is serialising Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, Machines Like Me, about a love triangle between a man, his wife and the android he has bought. It’s in ten parts, Monday to Fridays at 12.04 pm, and read by Anton Lesser.

I’ve already put up two posts about the book, which has only just been published. McEwan’s novel is one of a long-line of SF stories about humans falling in love, or pursuing sexual relationships with the humanoid robots they have built, such as Asimov’s ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’. Genre science fiction writers have explored the issues of machine consciousness and its philosophical and ethical issues, from highbrow authors like Poland’s Stanislaw Lem, to comic book writers like Pat Mills in 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’. The issue I have with McEwan’s book, and other literary authors that are planning similar works of fiction, is that while genre science fiction is still looked down on somewhat by the literary elite, McEwan’s book is going to receive immediate acclaim as proper literature.

Now Radio 4 has serialised a number of great works of SF, including Robert Silverberg’s masterwork Dying Inside, and has, like some of the other channels, Radio 3 and Radio 4 Extra, put on SF plays. Not so long ago there was a series of these, with the title Dangerous Visions. SF buffs will recognise this as the title of the groundbreaking SF anthology edited by Harlan Ellison, that ushered in the SF New Wave over in America. But despite the achievements of genre SF authors, there is still this feeling that it hasn’t quite won critical respectability in the elevated literary circles that support McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and the other regular literary award winners, who are writing or preparing to write books about robots and AI.

As I’ve said, I feel very strongly that if McEwan and co. win literary awards for their SF works, like Machines Like Me, then those awards should have the decency to drop some of the snobbishness and include genre SF authors. Whose latest works I hope the Beeb will also serialise the moment they come out.

Reviewing the ‘I’s’ Review of Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’

April 21, 2019

George Barr’s cover illo for Lloyd Biggle’s The Metallic Muse. From David Kyle, the Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (London: Hamlyn 1977).

The book’s pages of last Friday’s I , for 19th April 2019, carried a review by Jude Cook of Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, a tale of a love triangle between a man, the male robot he has purchased, and his wife, a plot summed up in the review’s title, ‘Boy meets robot, robot falls for girl’. I’d already written a piece in anticipation of its publication on Thursday, based on a little snippet in Private Eye’s literary column that McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro were all now turning to robots and AI for their subject matter, and the Eye expected other literary authors, like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, to follow. My objection to this is that it appeared to be another instance of the literary elite taking their ideas from Science Fiction, while looking down on the genre and its writers. The literary establishment has moved on considerably, but I can still remember the late, and very talented Terry Pratchett complaining at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the organisers had looked at him as if he was about to talk to all his waiting fans crammed into the room about motorcycle maintenance.

Cook’s review gave an outline of the plot and some of the philosophical issues discussed in the novel. Like the Eye’s piece, it also noted the plot’s similarity to that of the Channel 4 series, Humans. The book is set in an alternative 1982 in which the Beatles are still around and recording, Tony Benn is Prime Minister, but Britain has lost the Falklands War. It’s a world where Alan Turing is still alive, and has perfected machine consciousness. The book’s hero, Charlie, purchases one of the only 25 androids that have been manufactured, Adam. This is not a sex robot, but described as ‘capable of sex’, and which has an affair with the hero’s wife, Miranda. Adam is an increasing threat to Charlie, refusing to all his master to power him down. There’s also a subplot about a criminal coming forward to avenge the rape Miranda has suffered in the past, and a four year old boy about to be placed in the care system.

Cook states that McEwan discusses the philosophical issue of the Cartesian duality between mind and brain when Charlie makes contact with Turing, and that Charlie has to decide whether Adam is too dangerous to be allowed to continue among his flesh and blood counterparts, because

A Manichean machine-mind that can’t distinguish between a white lie and a harmful lie, or understand that revenge can sometimes be justified, is potentially lethal.

Cook declares that while this passage threatens to turn the book into a dry cerebral exercise, its engagement with the big questions is its strength, concluding

The novel’s presiding Prospero is Turing himself, who observes that AI is fatally flawed because life is “an open system… full of tricks and feints and ambiguities”. His great hope is that by its existence “we might be shocked in doing something about ourselves.”

Robots and the Edisonade

It’s an interesting review, but what it does not do is mention the vast amount of genre Science Fiction that has used robots to explore the human condition, the limits or otherwise of machine intelligence and the relationship between such machines and their creators, since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. There clearly seems to be a nod to Shelley with the name of this android, as the monster in her work, I think, is also called Adam. But Eando Binder – the nom de plume of the brothers Earl and Otto Binder, also wrote a series of stories in the 1930s and ’40s about a robot, Adam Link, one of which was entitled I, Robot, which was later used as the title of one of Asimov’s stories. And although the term ‘robot’ was first used of such machines by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920s play, RUR, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, they first appeared in the 19th century. One of these was Villier de l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Futur of 1884. This was about a robot woman invented by Thomas Edison. As one of the 19th centuries foremost inventors, Edison was the subject of a series of proto-SF novels, the Edisonades, in which his genius allowed him to create all manner of advanced machines. In another such tale, Edison invents a spaceship and weapons that allow humanity to travel to the planets and conquer Mars. McEwan’s book with its inclusion of Alan Turing is basically a modern Edisonade, but with the great computer pioneer rather than the 19th century electrician as its presiding scientific genius. Possibly later generations will have novels set in an alternative late 20th century where Stephen Hawking has invented warp drive, time travel or a device to take us into alternative realities via artificial Black Holes.

Robot Romances

As I said in my original article, there are any number of SF books about humans having affairs with robots, like Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy and Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed. The genre literature has also explored the moral and philosophical issues raised by the creation of intelligent machines. In much of this literature, robots are a threat, eventually turning on their masters, from Capek’s R.U.R. through to The Terminator and beyond. But some writers, like Asimov, have had a more optimistic view. In his 1950 I, Robot, a robot psychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, describes them in a news interview as ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’.

Lem’s Robots and Descartes

As for the philosophical issues, the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem, explored them in some of his novels and short stories. One of these deals with the old problem, also dating back to Descartes, about whether we can truly know that there is an external world. The story’s hero, the space pilot Pirx, visits a leading cybernetician in his laboratory. This scientist has developed a series of computer minds. These exist, however, without robot bodies, but the minds themselves are being fed programmes which make them believe that they are real, embodied people living in the real world. One of these minds is of a beautiful woman with a scar on her shoulder from a previous love affair. Sometimes the recorded programmes jump a groove, creating instances of precognition or deja vu. But ultimately, all these minds are, no matter how human or how how real they believe themselves to be, are brains in vats. Just like Descartes speculated that a demon could stop people from believing in a real world by casting the illusion of a completely false one on the person they’ve possessed.

Morality and Tragedy in The ABC Warriors 

Some of these complex moral and personal issues have also been explored by comics, until recently viewed as one of the lowest forms of literature. In a 1980s ‘ABC Warriors’ story in 2000AD, Hammerstein, the leader of a band of heroic robot soldiers, remembers his earliest days. He was the third prototype of a series of robot soldiers. The first was an efficient killer, patriotically killing Communists, but exceeded its function. It couldn’t tell civilians from combatants, and so committed war crimes. The next was programmed with a set of morals, which causes it to become a pacifist. It is killed trying to persuade the enemy – the Volgans – to lay down their arms. Hammerstein is its successor. He has been given morals, but not to the depth that they impinge on his ability to kill. For example, enemy soldiers are ‘terrorists’. But those on our side are ‘freedom fighters’. When the enemy murders civilians, it’s an atrocity. When we kill civilians, it’s unavoidable casualties. As you can see, the writer and creator of the strip, Pat Mills, has very strong left-wing opinions.

Hammerstein’s programming is in conflict, so his female programmer takes him to a male robot psychiatrist, a man who definitely has romantic intentions towards her. They try to get Hammerstein to come out of his catatonic reverie by trying to provoke a genuine emotional reaction. So he’s exposed to all manner of stimuli, including great works of classical music, a documentary about Belsen, and the novels of Barbara Cartland. But the breakthrough finally comes when the psychiatrist tries to kiss his programmer. This provokes Hammerstein into a frenzied attack, in which he accidentally kills both. Trying to repair the damage he’s done, Hammerstein says plaintively ‘I tried to replace his head, but it wouldn’t screw back on.’

It’s a genuinely adult tale within the overall, action-oriented story in which the robots are sent to prevent a demon from Earth’s far future from destroying the Galaxy by destabilising the artificial Black and White Holes at the centre of Earth’s underground civilisation, which have been constructed as express routes to the stars. It’s an example of how the comics culture of the time was becoming more adult, and tackling rather more sophisticated themes.

Conclusion: Give Genre Authors Their Place at Literary Fiction Awards

It might seem a bit mean-spirited to compare McEwan’s latest book to its genre predecessors. After all, in most reviews of fiction all that is required is a brief description of the plot and the reviewer’s own feelings about the work, whether it’s done well or badly. But there is a point to this. As I’ve said, McEwan, Winterson, Ishiguro and the others, who may well follow their lead, are literary authors, whose work regularly wins the big literary prizes. They’re not genre authors, and the type of novels they write are arguably seen by the literary establishment as superior to that of genre Science Fiction. But here they’re taking over proper Science Fiction subjects – robots and parallel worlds – whose authors have extensively explored their moral and philosophical implications. This is a literature that can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed as trash, as Stanislaw Lem has done, and which the judges and critics of mainstream literary fiction still seem to do. McEwan’s work deserves to be put into the context of genre Science Fiction. The literary community may feel that it’s somehow superior, but it is very much of the same type as its genre predecessors, who did the themes first and, in my opinion, better.

There is absolutely no reason, given the quality of much SF literature, why this tale by McEwan should be entered for a literary award or reviewed by the kind of literary journals that wouldn’t touch genre science fiction with a barge pole, while genre SF writers are excluded. It’s high time that highbrow literary culture recognised and accepted works and writers of genre SF as equally worthy of respect and inclusion.

Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

April 17, 2019

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.  

Israel, the Nazis and the Condemnation of Racial Intermarriage

February 27, 2019

A little while ago I wrote a piece about how the Raelians’ original design for their embassy in Jerusalem was becoming increasingly accurate as a symbol of the increasingly fascistic nature of the Israeli state and its persecution of the Palestinians. The Raelians are a new religious movement, a sect that believes its leader and founder, Rael, real name Claude Vorilhon, was contacted and given a message for humanity by space aliens. These extraterrestrials, according to Rael, are the Elohim, one of the names for the Lord in the book of Genesis in the Bible. According to Rael, these aliens are due to return to Earth, where they will bring about a new age of peace and prosperity. Under their guidance, only certified geniuses will be allowed to rule, and all the menial work will be done by a specially genetically engineered slave race. The Holy City was chosen as the site of their embassy because that’s where Rael and his followers expect the Elohim to land and establish their centre of power on Earth.The society’s belief in ‘geniocracy’ – rule by the intelligent – has left it open to accusations of fascism. An accusation that probably wasn’t helped when they chose this as the design for their embassy in Jerusalem.

Yes, you’re seeing this correctly: it is a swastika in a Magen Dawid, a Star of David. And no, I don’t know why they chose this design. I suspect it’s because Rael, like a number of other new religious movements and occult sects since the 19th century, may have been impressed and drawn on eastern spirituality. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the swastika is a symbol of good. It also used to be like that over here before the rise of the Nazis. I think there’s even a town of Swastika in Canada, or there was.

Obviously, this didn’t go down at all well with the Israelis, who were justifiably and understandably outraged. The Raelians were forced to change their design, which is now a nice swirly galaxy in the Star of David instead.

But the symbol nevertheless suits the Israeli state, as it becomes more racist and Fascistic. And that Fascism has become blatant with Netanyahu’s new choice of coalition partners. A few days ago, the dedicated Jewish anti-Fascist and anti-Zionist, Tony Greenstein, blogged about how Netanyahu had made the Otzma Yehudit merge with another far right party, Jewish Home, which represents the settlers, so that they could join his wretched Likud in a governing coalition. Otzma Yehudit’s name means ‘Jewish Power’ in Hebrew, and they are Jewish Nazi party. It’s led by Michael Ben Ari, who takes his ideology from Meir Kahane’s wretched Kach, which was outlawed as a terrorist group. Kahane and his followers demanded the following

– Revocation of non-Jewish citizenship.
– Expulsion of non-Jews from Jerusalem and eventually Israel.
– The eventual imposition of slavery on Arabs and other non-Jews.
– Prohibition of contact between Jews and Arabs, including sexual relations.
– Segregated beaches.
– Prohibition of non-Jews living in Jewish neighborhoods.
– Forced dissolution of all intermarriages.
In 1988 Kach was banned by the Israeli Supreme Court when it looked like gaining four to eight seats in the Knesset.
Greenstein notes that not only did this come straight out of the Nazis’ vile Nuremberg Laws, but it also did little more than codify existing Israeli legislation.
Since 1948 successive Israeli governments have tried to forbid intermarriage between Arabs and Israelis. Mixed marriages are not recognised by Orthodox Judaism, the religion of the Israeli state. Which is one of the factors contributing to the outrage a little while ago when a couple of Israeli celebrities, who were respectively Jewish and Palestinian, got married, with the Jewish partner converting to Islam. Greenstein has also revealed on his blog that a number of municipalities in Israel are so keen to stop relationships between Jews and Arabs, that they are running courses in conjunction with the local police and religious organisations to discourage Jewish women from going out with Palestinian men.
The Nazis were also concerned to prevent intermarriage between Germans and those of what they considered to be inferior races, such as Poles and other Slavs. They were most fervently against gentile and Jewish Germans intermarrying. And the Jews also weren’t alone in being forced to wear identifying marks, in their case the Star of David. The Nazis developed a system of badges for the prisoners in the concentration camp, which identified the offence for which they were incarcerated. Gay men notoriously wore a pink triangle. The Gypsies, I think, were forced to wear a brown one. Red triangles were worn by socialists, Communists, Anarchists, other political dissidents and Freemasons.
There were also identification badges for ‘Jewish race defilers’. Men had to wear this
While women were identified by this badge
Clearly this represents the Nazis’ criminalisation of racial intermixing and the shaming of those, whose only crime was that they were Jewish married or in a relationship with a non-Jewish German. I also wonder if it was also foisted on non-Germans, who were incarcerated because of their marriage to a Jew.
But the Israelis are also attempting to discourage intermarriage between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, and if Otzma Yehudit get their way, such liaisons will be criminalised. In which case I wonder if those convicted of such crimes will also have to wear similar vile symbols. 

John McDonnell Outrages Tories with Comments about Churchill’s Villainy

February 16, 2019

John McDonnell kicked up a storm of controversy this week when, in an interview with the Politico website on Wednesday, he described Winston Churchill as a villain. McDonnell was answering a series of quick-fire questions, and the one about Churchill was ‘Winston Churchill. Hero or villain?’ McDonnell replied ‘Tonypandy – villain’. This referred to the Tonypandy riots of 1910, when striking miners were shot down by the army after clashing with the police. According to the I’s article on the controversy on page 23 of Wednesday’s edition, Churchill initially refused requests to send in the troops, instead sending a squad of metropolitan police. Troops were also sent in to stand in reserve in Cardiff and Swindon. Following further rioting, Churchill sent in the 18th Hussars. He later denied it, but it was widely believed that he had given orders to use live rounds. There’s still very strong bitterness amongst Welsh working people about the massacre. The I quoted Louise Miskell, a historian at Swansea University, who said that ‘He is seen as an enemy of the miners’.

Boris Johnson, who has written a biography of Churchill, was naturally outraged, declaring ‘Winston Churchill saved this country and the whole of Europe from a barbaric fascist and racist tyranny, and our debt to him is incalculable’. He also said that McDonnell should be ashamed of his remarks and withdraw them forthwith.

McDonnell, speaking on ITV news, said that although he didn’t want to upset people, he’d give the same answer again to that question if he was honest, and said that he welcomed it if it has prompted a more rounded debate about Churchill’s role. He said that Churchill was undoubtedly a hero during the Second World War, but that this was not necessarily the case in other areas of his life. He said ‘Tonypandy was a disgrace.: sending the troops in, killing a miner, tryinig to break a strike and other incidents in his history as well.’

The I then gave a brief list of various heroic and villainous incidents. These were

* Saving Britain from the Nazis during and helping to lead the Allies to victory during the Second World War.

* Introducing the Trade Boards Bill of 1909, which established the first minimum wages system for various trades across the UK.

* Making the famous speech about an Iron Curtain coming down across Europe in 1946.

* According to his biographer, John Charmley, Churchill believed in a racial hierarchy and eugenics, and that at the top of this were White Protestant Christians.

* Saying that it was ‘alarming and nauseating’ seeing Gandhi ‘striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace.’ He also said ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’.

* Three million people died in the Bengal famine of 1943, in which Churchill refused to deploy food supplies.

It’s in the context of the Bengal famine that Churchill made his vile remarks about Indians. The Bengalis starved because their grain had been sequestered as back up supplies to fee British troops. In the end they weren’t needed, according to one video I’ve seen on YouTube. Churchill also said that the famine was their fault for having too many children.

He also supported the brief British invasion of Russia to overthrow the Communist Revolution, and the use of gas on Russian troops. Just as he also wanted to use gas to knock out, but not kill, Iraqi troops in Mesopotamia when they revolted in the 1920s against British rule.

He also said that ‘Keep Britain White’ was a good slogan for the Tories to go into the 1951 general election.

It’s clearly true that Churchill’s determined opposition to the Nazis did help lead to a free Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany. But according to the historian of British Fascism, Martin Pugh, he did not do so out of opposition to Fascism per se. He was afraid that Nazi Germany posed a threat to British interests in the North Sea. The Conservative journo, Peter Hitchens, is very critical of Churchill and Britain’s entry into the Second World War. He rightly points out that Churchill wasn’t interested in saving the Jews, but that we went in because of the treaties we had signed with Poland and France. As for defeating Nazism, historians have for a long time credited the Soviet Red Army with breaking the back of the Wehrmacht. In one of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, he jokes that if Churchill hadn’t sent the troops in, then the Iron Curtain would begin about Bexhill in Kent. Churchill also went on a diplomatic visit to Mussolini’s Italy after the Duce seized power, though privately he remarked that the man was ‘a perfect swine’ after the Italian dictator declared that his Blackshirts were ‘the equivalent of your Black and Tans’. For many people, that’s an accurate comparison, given how brutal and barbaric the Black and Tans were. And as an authoritarian, Churchill also got on very well and liked General Franco. And George Orwell also didn’t take Churchill seriously as the defender of democracy. In the run-up to the outbreak of war, he remarked that strange things were occurring, one of which was ‘Winston Churchill running around pretending to be a democrat’.

Now I don’t share Hitchen’s view that we shouldn’t have gone into the Second World War. The Nazis were determined to exterminate not just Jews, Gypsies and the disabled, but also a large part of the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe. One Roman Catholic site I found had an article on Roman Catholic and Christian martyrs under the Nazis. This began with the Nazis’ attempts to destroy the Polish people, and particularly its intellectuals, including the Polish Roman Catholic Church. It quoted Hitler as saying that war with Poland would a be a war of extermination. Hitler in his Table Talk as also talks about exterminating the Czechs, saying that ‘It’s them or us.’ Churchill may have gone into the War entirely for reasons of British imperial security, but his action nevertheless saved millions of lives right across Europe. It overthrew a regime that, in Churchill’s words, threatened to send the continent back into a new Dark Age, lit only by the fire of perverted science’.

Having said that does not mean he was not a monster in other areas. The General Strike was a terrible defeat for the British working class, but if Churchill had been involved it would almost certainly have been met with further butchery on his part. Again, according to Pugh, Churchill was all set to send the army in, saying that they were ready to do their duty if called on by the civil authority. The Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was all too aware of what would happen, and when another minister of civil servant suggested finding him a position in the Post Office or the department looking after the radio, he enthusiastically agreed, because it would keep Churchill out of trouble.

As for the Bengal famine, I think that still haunts Indian nationalists today. I was looking at the comments on Al-Jazeera’s video on YouTube about the UN finding severe poverty in Britain a few months ago. There was a comment left by someone with an Indian name, who was entirely unsympathetic and said he looked forward to our country being decimated by starvation. My guess is that this vicious racist was partly inspired in his hatred of Britain by the famine, as well as other aspects of our rule of his country.

I think McDonnell’s remarks, taken as a whole, are quite right. McDonnell credited him with his inspiring leadership during the War, but justifiably called him a villain because of the Tonypandy massacre. And eyewitnesses to the rioting said that the miners really were desperate. They were starving and in rags. And Churchill should not be above criticism and his other crimes and vile statements and attitudes disregarded in order to create a sanitized idol of Tory perfection, as Johnson and the other Tories would like.

‘I’ Newspaper on Labour’s Plans to Liberate University Regulator from Market Forces

February 16, 2019

Today’s I for Saturday, 16th February 2019 has an article by Florence Snead on page 4 reporting Labour’s plans to overhaul the universities regulator, and remove the free market ideology currently underpinning its approach to higher education in the UK. The piece, entitled ‘Universities ‘should not be left to the mercy of market forces’ runs

Labour has unveiled how it would overhaul the higher education system as it claimed the system’s new regulator was “not fit for purpose”.

The shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner will criticize the Office for Students – established by the Government in 2018 – in a speech today at the annual University and Colleges Union conference.

She will say the regulator represents a system “where market logic is imposed on public goods” and where “forces of competition run rampant at the expense of students, staff and communities.”

Labour said it wants the regulator to report on diversity in university staff and student bodies and to take action to make universities “genuinely representative of the communities they serve”.

Staff should also be represented on the regulator’s board to ensure their views are heard, it added.

The party said it would also ban vice chancellors sitting on their own remuneration committees.

Ms Rayner is also expected to address the issue of universities being on the brink of bankruptcy, as previously revealed by I.

“Students would be left with immense uncertainty about their futures and entire communities would lose one of their major academic, economic and social institutions.”

Universities minister Chris Skidmore responded: “Universities know they can’t trust Corbyn as his plans would crash the economy, mean less investment in our higher education, compromising its world class quality”.

Actually, if anything’s trashed our world class education system, it’s been the Thatcherite programme of privatization and free market ideology. Scientific research at UK universities has been hampered ever since Thatcher decided that university science departments should go into partnership with business. Which has meant that universities can no longer engage in blue sky research, or not so much as they could previously, and are shackled to producing products for private firms, rather than expanding the boundaries of knowledge for its own sake. Plus some of the other problems that occur when scientific discoveries become the property of private, profit driven industries.

Then there’s the whole problem of the introduction of tuition fees. This should not have been done. I was doing my Ph.D. at Bristol when Mandelson and Blair decided to do this, and it’s immediate result was the scaling down of certain departments and shedding of teaching staff. Those hardest hit were the departments that required more funding because of the use of special equipment. This included my own department, Archaeology, where students necessarily go on digs, surveys and field expeditions. This means that the department had to have transport to take its staff and students to wherever they were excavating, provide digging equipment, although many students had their own trowels. They also needed and trained students in the use of specialist equipment like the geophysical magnetometers used to detect structures beneath the soil through the measurement of tiny changes in the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, as well as labs to clean up and analyse the finds, from the type of soil in which they were found, the material out of which the finds were made, chemical composition of various substances, like food residue in pots, so you can tell what people were eating and drinking, and the forensic examination of human and animal remains.

I’ve no doubt that this situation was made worse when Cameron and Clegg decided to raise tuition fees to their present exorbitant level. Which has meant that students are now saddled with massive debt, which may make it difficult for some ever to afford to buy their own homes. Student debt was already an issue just after I left college, when the Tories decided to end student grants. After the introduction of tuition fees it has become an even more critical issue.

Then there’s the whole issue of proper pay and conditions for university lecturers. This is nowhere near as high as it should be. A friend of mine in the ’90s was one of the Student Union officers at our old college/uni. He told me one day just what some of the highly skilled and educated lecturers were earning. And it was low. Many of them were on part-time work, and I think the pay for some of them was at average wage level or below. And that was then. I’ve no idea what it’s like now. I’ve come across reports of a similar crisis at American universities and colleges, where the pay for the managers has skyrocketed while that of teaching staff has fallen catastrophically. And this is all part of the general pattern throughout industry as a whole, where senior management has enjoyed massively bloated pay rises and bonuses, while staff have been laid off and forced on to short term or zero hours contracts and low pay.

All this has been done in the name of ‘market forces’ and the logic of privatization.

I am not remotely surprised that British higher education is in crisis, and that an increasing number of colleges and universities are facing bankruptcy. This was always on the cards, especially as the population surge that inspired many colleges and polytechnics to seek university status on the belief that there would be enough student numbers to support them, is now over. Market logic would now dictate that, as the universities are failing, they should be allowed to collapse. Which would deprive students and their communities of their services.

The structure of British higher education needs to be reformed. The entire Thatcherite ethic of privatization, free markets, and tuition fees needs to be scrapped. Like everything else Thatcher and her ideological children ever created, it is a bloated, expensive and exploitative failure. My only criticism about Corbyn’s and Rayner’s plans for the unis isn’t that they’re too radical, but that they’re too timid.

Scientists Told to Halt Development of War Robots

February 15, 2019

This week’s been an interesting one for robot news. Yesterday, or a few days ago, there was a piece about the creation of a robot that could draw and paint thanks to facial recognition software. The robot’s art has been sold commercially. This follows an artistic group in France that has also developed an art robot. I’ll see if I can fish that story out, as it sounds like one of the conceits of 2000AD is becoming science fact. The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic told its readers that all its strips were the work of robots, so that the credits for the strips read ‘Script Robot X’, and ‘Art Robot Y’. Of course it was all created by humans, just as it really wasn’t edited by a green alien from Betelgeuse called Tharg. But it was part of the fun.

Killer robots aren’t, however. Despite the fact that they’ve been in Science Fiction for a very long time, autonomous military machines really are a very ominous threat to humanity. In today’s I for 15th February 2019 there was a report by Tom Bawden on page 11 about human rights campaigners telling the scientists at an American symposium on the technology that these machines should be preemptively banned. The article, ‘Scientists warned over ‘killer robots’ in future wars’, runs

Killer robots pose a threat to humanity and should be pre-emptively banned under an international treaty, the world’s biggest gathering of scientists was told yesterday.

Lethal, autonomous weapons – military robots that can engage and kill targets without human control – do not yet exist.

But rapid advances in autonomy and artificial intelligence mean they are well on their way to becoming a reality, delegates attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s symposium on the technology were told in Washington DC.

A poll conducted in 26 countries found that 54 per cent of Briton’s – and 61 per cent of respondents overall – opposed the development of killer robots that would select and attack targets without human intervention.

“Killer robots should be banned in a similar way to anti-personnel landmines,” said Mary Wareham, of the arms division at the campaign group Human Rights Watch, who also co-ordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“The security of the world and future of humanity hinges on achieving a ban on killer robots,” she added. “Public sentiment is hardening against the prospect of fully autonomous weapons. Bold, political leadership is needed for a new treaty to pre-emptively ban these weapons systems”.

The article was accompanied by a picture of one of the robots from the film Terminator Genisys, with a caption stating that it was perhaps unsurprising that most Britons oppose the development of such robots, but they wouldn’t look quite like those in the film.

I’ve put up several pieces before about military robots and the threat they pose to humanity, including a piece from the popular science magazine, Focus, published sometime in the 1990s, if I recall. Around about that time one state or company announced that it intended to develop such machines, and was immediately met with condemnation by scientists and campaigners. Their concern is that such machines don’t have the human quality of compassion. Once released, they could go on to kill indiscriminately, killing both civilians and soldiers. The scientists were also concerned that if truly intelligent killing machines are developed, then they could have the potential to turn on us and begin wiping us out or enslaving us. This was one of the threats to humanity’s future in the book Our Final Minute by the British Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. When I saw him speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Science about his book a few years ago, one of the audience said that perhaps it would be a good thing if humanity was overthrown by the robots, because they could be better for the environment. Well, they could, I suppose, but it’s still not something I’d like to see happen.

Kevin Warwick, the robotics professor at the University of Reading, is also very worried about the development of such machines. In his 1990’s book, March of the Machines, he describes how, as far back as the 1950s, the Americans developed an autonomous military vehicle, consisting of a jeep adapted with a machine gun. He also discussed how one of the robots currently at the university could also be turned into a lethal killing machine. This is firefighting robot. It has a fire extinguisher, and instruments to detect fire. When it sees one, it rushes towards it and puts it out using the extinguisher. Warwick states, however, that if you replaced the extinguisher with a gun, gave it a neural net and then trained the machine to shoot people with blue eyes, say, then the machine would do just that until it ran out of power.

This comes at the end of the book. But it’s introduction is also chilling. It foresees a future, around 2050, when the machines really will have taken over. Those humans that have not been exterminated by the robots are kept as slaves, to work in those parts of the world that are still inaccessible or inhospitable to the robots, and to hunt down and kill the very few surviving humans that remain free. Pretty much like the far future envisioned by the SF writer Gregory Benford in his ‘Galactic Centre’ series novels.

Warwick was, however, very serious about the threat posed by these robots. I can remember seeing him also speak in Cheltenham, and one of the audience asked whether he still believed that this was a real threat that could occur about that time. He said he did, but that the he’d lowered the time at which it could become a real possibility.

Warwick has also said that one reason why he began to explore cyborgisation – the cybernetic enhancement of humans with robotic technology – was because he was so depressed with the threat robots cast over our future. Augmenting ourselves with high technology was a way we could compete with them, something Benford also explores in his novels through an alien race that has pursued just such a course. This, however, poses its own risks of loss of humanity, as depicted in Star Trek’s Borg and Dr. Who’s Cybermen.

This article sounds like something from Science Fiction, and I don’t think that at the moment robots are anywhere near as sophisticated to pose an existential threat to humanity right now. But killer robots are being developed, and very serious robotic scientists and engineers are very worried about them. Mary Wareham, Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are right. This technology needs to be halted now. Before it becomes a reality.