Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Surveillance Britain: Police Using Massively Inaccurate Facial Recognition Technology on Ordinary Brits

May 20, 2019

Here’s another piece of news that should further worry anyone concerned that Britain is slowly sliding down the tubes towards a surveillance state. The rozzers have launched a pilot scheme for a facial recognition system. They’re testing it out by photographing the fizzogs of ordinary British citizens walking down the streets. And it’s already resulted in one extremely dubious arrest. One man didn’t want to be photographed by the cops, and so he hid his face. The rozzers then pounced and fined him for ‘disorderly conduct’. This was filmed by the Beeb’s Politics Live. It’s completely disgraceful. The man had committed no crime, except to protect his own privacy against the state.

Mike in his article on this points out that there have been a couple of incidents where attempts to compile information on ordinary members of the public have resulted in disastrous mistakes, or deeply worrying infringements of personal freedom. For example, there were the innocent people, who suddenly found themselves with criminal records when their prospective employers started making background checks. Many of them were wrongly left without jobs because of this. And then there’s the DNA genetic database scandal, in which genetic material obtained from the public has been kept by the police, some of which was then illegally passed on for use in genetic research.

Mike also shows how this technology is also massively inaccurate. It had a failure rate of 96 per cent in eight trials in London between 2016 and 2018 according to the Independent. The software gave false positives, wrongly identifying innocent people as crims. It was also deployed twice in a shopping centre outside Stratford last year, where it had a failure rate of 100 per cent. This resulted in people being wrongly identified, including a 14 year old Black schoolboy, who was fingerprinted. The cops also stopped people for covering their faces and wearing hoods, and one man was fined for doing so in  Romford. The Independent found that shoppers were unaware their photos were being taken, despite the rozzers’ claim that the tests were overt, and campaigners have said that it’s being rolled out by stealth.

But despite its dangers and massive inaccuracy, the scheme is being defended by the Tories. Police Minister Nick Hurd has said that the technology offers ‘real opportunities’, said we are not a surveillance state, and that they have no intention of becoming one, and so the new technology must be used in a way that is sensitive to their impact on privacy, and proportionate.

To which Mike comments

Fail. It’s not sensitive to privacy and its use isn’t proportionate. But the Tories – and the police – won’t withdraw it, so we can only conclude that we do – indeed – live in a police surveillance state.

Police state Britain: Failed facial recognition pilot leads to fine for disorderly conduct. WTF?

This is precisely the type of information gathering that Privacy International and other campaigners were warning about in the ’90s. When DNA evidence first began to be collected, there were fears that it would be used to set up a national DNA database. In one incident, all the men in a small town where a rape had been committed were asked to supply samples of their DNA. There were concerns about what would happen to it afterwards, and that the material would be retained, even though the men were innocent. There were also fears that the collection of such samples would go from being simple requests to demands, and that anyone who refused, would automatically come under suspicion, even though they may be innocent.

It also reminds of the way the police also started compiling records in the 1980s of people they considered suspicious, as revealed in the Beeb documentary, Secret State. Perfectly innocent people suddenly had police files opened on them and their movements recorded for reasons that reflected the prejudices of the cops, rather than anything they’d done. Like being punks. One teenage girl was marked down as a potential suspect simply because she was pregnant and there was no father.

I am also not surprised by the massive failure rate of the technology at the moment. It seems par for the course that any and all information technology adopted by the state should be seriously flawed. Like all the computer systems supplied to local authorities in the 1990s by outsourcing companies like Crapita.

Black people are particularly at risk from these systems. The I newspaper a few weeks ago reported on the concerns about the massive under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the computer industry. Only four per cent of employees in one of the big American tech giants came from ethnic minorities. As a result, the pattern recognition system they developed misidentified Black people as gorillas. Which makes you wonder who programmed this wretched system. The Klan?

As for not becoming a surveillance society, privacy campaigners have warned repeatedly about the dangers of ‘function creep’. Once one innovation or strategy is adopted, other agencies will want to use it, and so it will expand. Also, other forms have surveillance have become normalised. There were serious concerns about the use of CCTV cameras when they first appeared. Alan Moore deliberately wrote them into his depiction of a Fascist Britain in the V for Vendetta comic. He thought at the time that this would really shock people. Niall Ferguson shared his fears. He was also alarmed at how ubiquitous CCTV cameras had become here after he returned from a visit to China. But he was also astonished at how his concerns were not shared by anyone else.

And with the campaign by the IT and automobile industries, I wonder how long it will be before we get the repressive police state and its robots described by the great SF writer Ray Bradbury in his short story, ‘The Pedestrian’. In this tale, a man is stopped by a robotic police car simply for taking a walk in the middle of the night.

It’s SF as the ‘literature of warning’. It’s not meant to be prophetic. But somehow that seems to be the future these technologies are leading to.

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Facebook Bans Israeli Company for Interfering in Elections Around the World

May 18, 2019

Here’s another very interesting piece from Mike over at Vox Political. The social media giant, Facebook, has banned the Archmides Group, an Israeli company based in Tel Aviv, because it was trying to manipulate elections in Africa, Asia and Latin America by posting propaganda and setting up fake accounts. It took down 265 Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages, groups and events, followed by 2.8 million Facebook accounts, because they were judged or disseminated manipulative content.

Mike asks the obvious questions. Like whether this means that the Israelis have been trying to influence politics in this country, whether other countries, like Russia, are also doing the same, and whether Facebook itself can be trusted. It hosts ‘dark advertising’, which is targeted as specific individuals. This makes it hard to follow for anyone but the specified recipient, and so can be used by political parties to hide how much they are spending on electoral campaigns.

And Mike wonders if the Tories realised that their support of globalisation would mean that they would be allowing other countries to influence elections right here?

Israeli company banned from Facebook after interfering with elections around the world

This is another instance where, unfortunately, I’m not remotely surprised. It seems that the Israeli state has no scruples whatsoever in its dealings with other nations. From the 1970s onwards it formed alliances with extremely repressive, Fascist states around the world. This included not only apartheid South Africa, which shocked many Israelis, but also the Fascist regimes in Latin America. Like Guatemala, where Israeli experts showed the Fascist government how to isolate and imprison the indigenous peoples in special villages in its genocidal war against the Mayan Indians. They supported the horrific regimes of Nicaragua and El Salvador, as well as General Pinochet in Chile. Even though the bloody butcher also tortured and murdered Jews in his roundup of Left wing activists.

And they’re still doing pretty much the same today, supporting the far right regimes in Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States and Ukraine, because these regimes buy their guns and armaments. Right at the same time those same regimes are celebrating Nazi collaborators, or pushing anti-Semitic propaganda. Like the Polish Law and Justice Party, which has passed legislation prohibiting discussion of Polish collaboration in the Holocaust.

As for the Tories allowing foreign influence in our elections, frankly, they really don’t care. You think of all the Russian oligarchs that are funding the Tory party. And the way the Tories were very keen to shut down any further discussion of Israeli influence in the party after al-Jazeera expose Shai Masot. Not that Blair was much different. Under international law, allied countries may not spy on each other. However, the Israelis have been caught several times doing so in Britain. They did it under Thatcher, who went berserk and threatened them with closing down their embassy. They duly caved in. When they did it again under Blair, he issued a feeble reprimand, but did nothing. Possibly because Blair was receiving donations from Zionist businessmen he’d met through the Israeli embassy.

Israel is a brutal, Fascist, manipulative state. But proper exposure of just how nefarious it is, is prevented through threats and accusations of anti-Semitism. It’s high time this was stopped, and Israel really shown for what it is. Especially as it is using the Eurovision Song Contest to brighten its foul image.

What A Surprise! Anti-NHS Thinktank Funded by Tobacco and Fast Food Industries

May 18, 2019

One of the fascinating articles Mike put up yesterday was about an article in the British Medical Journal that reported that Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think tank that funds the Tories and which demands the privatisation of the NHS, is funded by all the industries that actively damage people’s health: tobacco, gambling, alcohol, sugar and fast food. One of the major donors to this secretive think tank is British-American Tobacco. The report noted that the IEA had attacked campaigns against smoking, drinking and the obesity academic, and raised concerns that a future leader of the Tories would side with these industries against the interests of the British people.

Well, as Bill Hicks used to say ironically, ‘Colour me surprised!’

I don’t wish to sneer at the doctors and medical professionals behind this article, and am absolutely fully behind its publication. But I’m not remotely surprised. It’s almost to be expected that a think tank that demands absolute privatisation and deregulation in the interests of complete free trade, should be funded by those industries, which have the most to lose from government regulation. And in the case of the Tories, that has always included tobacco, alcohol and gambling. Way back in the early ’90s under John Major, when Brits were just beginning to get into the habit of binge drinking and the government was considering allowing pubs and nightclubs all day licences, there were concerns about the damaging effects of alcohol. People were demanding greater regulation of the drinks industry. But this was being blocked by the Tories, because so many Tory MPs has links to these companies. This was so marked that Private Eye actually published the names of these MPs, and the positions they held in various drinks companies.

As for gambling, the Labour government after the War tried to crack down on this, but it was the Tories under MacMillan, who legalised the betting shops. Later on, Tony Blair, taking his ideas from them, had plans to expand the British gambling industry further with the opening of ‘super-casinos’, one of which was to be in Blackpool, I believe. But fortunately that never got off the ground. Unfortunately, there has been a massive rise in gambling addiction, despite all the warnings on the the adverts for online casinos.

The Tories have also had a long relationship too with the tobacco industry, resisting calls for bans on tobacco advertising. Private Eye also reported how, after Major lost the election to Blair, former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke then got a job with British-American Tobacco. As did, I believe, Saint Maggie of Grantham herself. BAT was employing him to open up markets in the former Soviet central Asian republics. The Eye duly satirised him as ‘BATman’, driving around in a car shaped like a giant cigarette, shoving ciggies into people’s, mostly children’s, mouths.

The Institute of Economic Affairs is a particularly nasty outfit that’s been around since the mid-70s. For a long time, I think it was the only think tank of its type pushing extreme free market ideas. A couple of years ago I found a tranche of their booklets in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. One was on how the state couldn’t manage industry. This looked at four examples of state industrial projects, which it claimed were incompetently run and a waste of money. One was the Anglo-French supersonic airliner, Concorde. The booklet had a point, as many of the industries they pointed to, like British Leyland, were failing badly. Concorde when it started out was a massive white elephant. It was hugely expensive and for some time there were no orders for it. But now it is celebrate as a major aerospace achievement. While the British aircraft industry has decline, the French used the opportunities and expertise they developed on the project to expand their own aerospace industry.

Looking at the booklet, it struck me how selective these examples were. Just four, out of the many other nationalised industries that existed at the time. And I doubt the pamphlet has worn well with age. Ha Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism and John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics have very effectively demolished their shoddy and shopworn free market capitalism, and shown how, rather than encouraging industry and prosperity, it has effectively ruined them. Read these books, and you’ll see just why we need Corbyn, whatever the champions of free market capitalism scream to the contrary.

Oh yes, and ladies, particularly, be warned. This is an anti-feminist organisation. Mike mentions in his article that it has a spokeswoman, Kate Andrews, who turns up regularly on Question Time to push for the privatisation of the NHS. Or rather, its reform, as they don’t want to alarm the populace by being too open about what they want to do. Despite this feminine face, this is an organisation that has very traditional views about gender roles. One of the pamphlets I found had the jaunty title Liberating Women – From Feminism. The booklet was written by women, and I know that some women would prefer to be able to stay home and raise their children rather than go to work. And that’s fine if it’s their choice. But this outfit would like to stop women having a choice. Rather than enabling women, who choose to stay home, to do so, they would actively like to discourage women from pursuing careers.

The IEA really is a grubby organisation, and the sooner it’s discredited everywhere, the better. Like the Tories.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Plans to Take Us Back to the Moon

May 12, 2019

One of the other interesting pieces in yesterday’s I for 11th May 2019 was David Parsley’s article, ‘Amazon tycoons furthest delivery – putting people back on the Moon’. As the headline says, this is about the plans by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for a crewed mission to the Moon within the next five years. The article runs

The man who made billions from sending parcels around Earth is taking one giant leap towards the Moon.

The world’s richest man and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos aims to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024, 55 years after Neil Armstrong took his first small step.

Mr Bezos said his space company Blue Origin will initially land an unmanned robotic ship about the size of a small house, but would also help Nasa to meet its target to put humans back on the surface of Earth’s satellite in five years’ time.

“We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago,” said Mr Bezos. “It’s time to back to the Moon, this time to stay.”

Known as Blue Moon, the reusable lunar lander is capable of carrying four rovers and uses a newly designed rocket engine powerful enough to carry up to 6.5 metric tons of cargo on the 238,000-mile journey.

Mr Bezos, who is worth £100bn, unveiled a model of one of Blue Moon’s proposed rovers, which was roughly the size of a golf cart, and presented a new rocket engine called BD-7 which can blast 10,000 lb of thrust.

“We have been given a gift – this nearby body called the Moon,” Mr Bezos added.

In March, US Vice President Mike Pence called on Nasa to build a space platform in lunar orbit and put American astronauts on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 “by any means necessary”, four years earlier than planned.

Blue Origin said the group would “share our vision of going to space to benefit Earth”. Based in Kent, Washington, the group is also developing the New Shepherd rocket for short space tourism trips and a heavy-lift launch rocket called New Glenn for commercial satellite launches. It is aiming to deliver the New Glenn rocket by 2021, while launching humans in a suborbital flight later this year aboard New Shepherd.

Elon Musk also develops plans to take humans to Mars with his company SpaceX. He previously set the first cargo-carrying Mars mission for 2022 and a crewed mission for 2024.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson achieved Virgin Galactic’s first manned flight last year and plans to launch the first space tourism flights later this year. (p. 13).

This is very exciting, and I’m really looking forward to Bezos to take humanity back to the Moon, and Musk to send us to Mars. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Branson to take tourists into space, as he’s been promising that ‘soon’ or ‘next year’ for decades.

However, I’d like Bezos to pay his Amazon workers a living wage first. From what I gather, the peeps working at his warehouses really are paid starvation wages. Which, I ‘spose, is how he get to be worth £100 billion. But he can afford to earn a little less, and workers a lot more. Sending people into space does not mean ignoring or exploiting the folks back on Earth. If he gives his workers a proper wage, then I’ll be behind him and his plans to take humanity to the planets 100 per cent.

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.

Conclusion

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 Programme Today on the Decline of Women in Computing

April 28, 2019

According to this week’s Radio Times, There’s a problem on Radio 4 today at 1.30 pm, ‘A Job for the Boys’ examining the decline of the number of women working in computing. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

Women once made up 80 per cent of the computer industry, but now the figure is less than 20 per cent. Mary Ann Sieghart explores the reasons for this phenomenon and reveals it’s hidden and disturbing consequences. (p. 121).

Yesterday’s ‘Saturday Live’ programme at 9.00 am carried a piece on Dame Stephanie Shirley, a female tech pioneer who set up Britain’s first all-female software company in 1962. That programme’s been broadcast, but it may still be available on BBC iplayer.

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.