Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Rolling Stones and Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robots

December 5, 2021

I’m fascinated by robots and their use in musical and artistic performances. There’s an awesome robot band, Compressorhead, created by a team of robot engineers who seem mostly to perform covers of Rock and Heavy Metal hits. In this video from Boston Dynamics, the Stoned perform their song, ‘Start Me Up’, accompanied by boogie dance moves from a group of the four-legged Spot robots produced by the company. And these do a very good job of impersonating Mick Jagger.

The Italian Futurists would have loved this, as their art was based on and celebrated the new machine age and industrial Italy that was just then emerging. One of their operas was about a love affair between a train and her driver, while other pieces had titles like ‘The Agony of the Machine’. Real science is catching up with the Futurist aesthetic while popular culture with its robots, video games and the near instantaneous communication of the internet would have amazed and delighted them. The Futurists, however, were determined that their creations were high art, while pop music and videos are seen as much less. Nevertheless, I do wonder how long it will be before the technology becomes sufficiently cheap and accessible for writers and impresarios to use them in rather more serious productions.

Blue Man Group Give Young Fan State of the Art Artificial Arm

December 5, 2021

Here’s something a bit more positive for a Sunday morning. The Blue Man Group are a group of musicians, who use the personae of blue aliens to explore music and culture from the standpoint of slightly confused outsiders. Yesterday I put up a video of the Blue Man Group performing with Kuka industrial robots. In this video, they meet a young fan, Wyatt, who’s a Heavy Metal fan. Wyatt’s autistic and had an arm amputated as a baby. The group has been working with a company specialising in the manufacture of artificial limbs, Limbitless Solutions. They produce artificial arms in various styles as desired by the user. And Wyatt wanted one in the style of his heroes, which they were delighted to give him.

This is obviously a good advert for the companies involved in the creation of the arm, but it shows the amazing advances that have been made in recent years in the creation of the such artificial limbs. There’s a similar company over here in Britain, which was set up as a spin-off from the robotics department of the University of the West of England here in Bristol. This also produces artificial limbs in various styles, and was in negotiation to create arms like those of C-3PO and other Hollywood robots. This is where robots and prosthetics are becoming works of art as well as practical machines, and it’s great to see them benefiting the people who need and rely on them.

The Blue Man Group and Kuka Industrial Robots

December 3, 2021

The Blue Man Group are a group of performance artists and musicians, who take the form of blue men, outsiders to our world and society to explore it from the perspective of alien outsiders. In this video on andirobot’s channelon YouTube they perform in front of a pair of Kuka industrial robots spraying a car. This fascinates me because it’s a form of Futurist performance. Marinetti in his 1909 Founding and Manifesto of Futurism declared that they looked forward to the coming union of man and machine and the new machine age. This is very much in that spirit, though it certainly doesn’t share the belligerent nationalism of the Marinetti’s movement. I’m fascinated by it because it shows the way real robots are also becoming included in artistic performances.

Private Eye on the Massive Failure of the Pepper Commercial Robot in Japan

December 1, 2021

I found this highly amusing little snippet in Private Eye’s ‘Funny Old World’ column in their edition for the 6-18 August 2021. It’s report from the Japan Times about a Japanese company suspending manufacture and recalling thousands of their robots due to malfunctions and poor performance. The article runs

“We have suspended production of our Pepper robot,” a spokeswoman for Softbank Group Corp told reporters in Minato (Tokyo), “the AI robot, home companion and store assistant that we first marketed in 2014. We are in discussions with our French robotics unit about potential job reductions.”

Over the past seven years, 27,000 Pepper robots have been produced, and marketed as the world’s first AI robots, but many were sacked by the companies that bought them for inappropriate behaviour. “We bought one for our flagship Edinburgh store,” said a spokesman for Margiotta grocery chain, “but fired it because it kept telling customers ‘to look in the alcohol section’ when they asked it where things were.” Funeral director Osamu Funaki bought a Pepper robot to recite sutras during ceremonies, but sacked it after repeated malfunctions, lamenting “what if it refuses to operate in the middle of a ceremony? It would be such a disaster.” A Japanese nursing home purchased three Pepper androids to lead community singalongs, but dismissed them for repeatedly breaking down.

“Pepper did a lot of harm to genuine robotics research by giving an often false impression of a bright cognitive being that could hold conversations,” Professor Noel Sharkey observed. “But it was mostly remote-controlled with a human conversing through its speakers. I’m happy to see an end to it.”

This is less the ruthlessly efficient killing machines of The Terminator franchise or the similarly murderous androids of the early Tom Baker Dr. Who story, ‘The Robots of Death’ or any number of other stories in which the machines rise up to exterminate their human masters. It isn’t like Judge Dredd’s Megacity One, where automation and the use of robots has created a 95 per cent unemployment rate. No, it’s the Sirius Cybernetics Company from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whose products are so uniformly terrible that the complaints division now covers the major land masses of three whole planets, as this clip from the Beeb TV series on Michael Snow’s channel on YouTube explains:

As for the robots being sacked, for comics readers of a certain age this sounds like they suffered the same fate as those poor machines that were sent down to be ripped apart by the frightening, but also frighteningly stupid demolition robot Mekquake in the ‘Robusters’ and ‘ABC Warriors’ strips in 2000 AD. Mekquake was always being frustrated at not being able to destroy the strips’ two heroes, Rojaws, a foul-mouthed sewer droid, and Hammerstein, an old war robot, who continually outwitted him. But if robots keep being manufactured with the same spectacular flaws as the Pepper robot, it probably won’t be long before someone invents a Mekquake-style machine to take care of them. Oh, by crikey, yes, as the thuggish old machine used to say!

Rojaws and Hammerstein prepare to meet Mekquake for the last time. From ABC Warriors – Return to Robusters, by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, (Rebellion: 2015, 2016).

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Rolls-Royce on Their Record-Breaking Electric Aircraft

November 29, 2021

One of Bristol’s most important industries is aviation and space research. The city has a proud heritage of designing and manufacturing aircraft and space satellites. One of the greatest of these planes was the Anglo-French Concorde, partly built in Bristol at Filton. Rolls-Royce is one of the companies involved, which is why I was particularly interested in this little video from them. posted on their channel on YouTube. It’s a short film about their new plane, ‘Spirit of Innovation’. It’s a small, single person propeller plane, but differs from other, similar aircraft in that the engine’s electric rather than oil-driven. In the video, the pilot and various officials and technicians describe working on the aircraft, how it involved engineers from all over England and the huge advance in research into electric aviation the plane represents. It was designed to beat the speed record and has done so by a large margin. The team believe that the third age of aviation – electric planes – are here and will make a strong contribution to carbon-neutral travel.

It’s a fascinating plane and obviously a great achievement, but I wonder how much of a contribution such planes will make to making international travel greener. I think to have any significant impact on the production of greenhouse gases by aircraft, it will have to be installed on the large passenger aircraft. And while I have seen other videos about electric airplanes, I can’t recall seeing anything about replacing jet propulsion with electric propeller engines. One possible replacement for fossil fuel jets may be engines using liquid oxygen and hydrogen, like the large space rockets. If this was done, the result would be water and steam rather than anything harmful to the environment. I first read about the idea of planes using Lox and liquid hydrogen way back in the Usborne Book of the Future when I was 12. There has been the odd murmur about the idea since then, but I really haven’t heard anything about any research on it for a long time so I do wonder if that idea is dead.

In the meantime, I salute the Rolls-Royce engineers latest achievement, and hope it does help create the greener future our planet and society so desperately needs.

*****

I’ve also written the following books, which are available from Lulu.

The Global Campaign, Volume 1

Price: £12.00

Available at The Global Campaign Volume 1 (lulu.com)

The Global Campaign Volume 2

Price: £12.00

Available at Global Campaign Vol 2 (lulu.com)

For a Worker’s Chamber

Price: £4.50

Available at For A Worker’s Chamber (lulu.com)

Privatisation: Killing the NHS

Price: £5.25

Available at Privatisation: Killing the NHS (lulu.com)

Crimes of Empire

Price: £10.00

Available at Crimes of Empire (lulu.com)

Video on the Use of Toys as Models in the Gerry Anderson Shows

November 23, 2021

Here’s a bit of fun for a Tuesday morning. I found this short video on the Gerry Anderson channel in YouTube, in which the hosts talk about the times the show used toys while filming the various cult series Anderson created. Sometimes it was simply a case where a commercial toy was cannibalised for its parts, which were then used in the creation of one of the shows’ models. This happened to a model tank, which was taken apart and its pieces used for a number of models, including the armoured vehicle hunting down the aliens that made it down to Earth in UFO. At other times commercial toys of the spaceships and other vehicles seen in the show were used while filming, including one of the spacecraft from Terrahawks.

I was interesting in this, because I had a Super Eight cine camera when I was lad, and like many others me and a few friends went and made our of SF films with it using action men and spaceships made from plastic model kits. These were hung from strings across a painted space background and flown about by hand. We really enjoyed making them, but I always felt a bit frustrated as I would have loved to have been able to make something of more professional quality. Of course, this was far beyond my boyhood capabilities. I knew that the SF films used matte work and TV series like Dr. Who and Blake’s 7 used Colour Separation Overlay, or Chromakey, to superimpose their spaceships on a space background without strings, and wished I could do the same. You were supposed to be able to do something like it with Super Eight by exposing a section of film twice to produce ghosts etc. Or so I was assured by the manuals. In fact you couldn’t with Super Eight, as one you reached the end of the cassette holding the film, that was it. It was all over and locked. I think you could do it with Standard Eight, however.

Since then I’ve found out that many of my favourite SF shows hadn’t used such sophisticated optical techniques, but instead had models dangling from wires. If I’d known about this at the time, and particularly about the use of commercial toys as props, I would have felt better about my own efforts.

Making these short films – Super Eight lasts only 3 minutes 20 seconds – were immense fun, and like a number of other children I dreamt of being a film director like George Lucas or Spielberg. Well, that hasn’t happened. But I do think Super Eight filming did encourage creativity among the children and young adults who used it. If you can remember that far back, Screen Test with Michael Rod also used to run an annual competition for the best Super Eight film created by the show’s young viewers. Some of these were very good, others not so impressive. I think several of them were about a future in which everything was done on computer. Obviously, it was very far-fetched!

Super Eight was rapidly made obsolete by videotape and the new video cameras, which have also been superseded by DVD, Blue Ray and digital media. Editing software is available for computers so that people in their homes, using footage from their phones or digital cameras, can produce their own films for YouTube and other social media platforms of extremely high quality, far above what could be done with ordinary amateur cine film. And it’s great that the technology has moved on, so that more people are able to do this and share their creations with a wider public than just themselves, their family and friends in the privacy of their own homes.

The hosts here also talk about how they threw their model Gerry Anderson spaceships into the ground, or pulled them along in the hope that it would look like the special effects sequences on screen. Its says much about Anderson’s series that they’re still so fondly remembered after decades. They’ve even revived Thunderbirds, though it’s now computer generated rather than puppets. Which, I have to say, is a bit disappointing for fans of practical effects, but you can’t have everything. I hope Anderson will continue to inspire new generations of young SF film-makers for some time to come.

Lab Grown Goats and the Shape of Wombs to Come

November 19, 2021

I found this photo of goat fetuses growing in tanks filled with amniotic fluid in a Japanese lab in an old an old issue of Scientific American Presents – Your Bionic Future from autumn 1999. It illustrated an article by Tabitha M. Powledge, ‘The Ultimate Baby Bottle’, which had on the contents page the comment ‘Aldous Huxley was right. Artificial wombs are in our future.’ I hope, I really hope that they aren’t. At least, not in the way he portrayed it in Brave New World. In the book, the Fordists have abolished natural reproduction so that everyone is grown artificially in hatcheries. As a result, sex is only for pleasure – and as this is a hedonistic society there are plenty of orgies – and the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are dirty terms of abuse. This is definitely not a society anyone would want to see realised. On the other hand, milder forms of such reproduction have also been suggested. The people of humanity’s first extraterrestrial colony also reproduce in hatcheries in Brian Aldiss’ and David Wingrove’s history of the future, The Third Millennium. And in Paul McAuley’s book, In The Belly of the Whale, the two human species on Fomalhaut also reproduce through cloning in hatcheries, but are placed with surrogate parents who raise them in something like a normal family structure after their birth.

The success of the Japanese scientists in growing the goat fetus’ generated a considerable interest at the time. It was widely predicted, as the Scientific American article did, that this would lead to artificial wombs. In fact there was speculation about possible breakthroughs in such research a decade earlier in the 1980s. About 1984/5 I remember an article appearing in the Absurder which predicted that some day people would be gestated in such devices.

I’ve got very mixed feelings about this. I can admire the scientific skill behind it, and it does touch that part of me that enjoys seeing Science Fiction become reality. I can also see that it would benefit women, who for one reason or another could not carry a baby to term. But I don’t know how women would react to such machines if they became possible. I realise that pregnancy and childbirth are fraught, dangerous times for women and their children. Many women go through everything from the discomfort of bad backs and morning sickness to far worse conditions that may seriously damage their health. The other night there was a piece on the One Show, for example, about the dangers to pregnant women from a condition that causes severe nausea. And then there are the problems and dangers in childbirth itself.

But femininity throughout history has been intimately bound up with motherhood. So much so that in many traditional societies the view of women has been that of baby factories, whose primary role is the bearing and raising of children. Modern feminism challenges this in order to give women the freedom to work outside the home in previously masculine roles and professions. But I am not sure if women would welcome the complete separation of femininity from motherhood. Would women feel somehow diminished, deprived of a vital component of their womanhood, if there was a wholesale move towards artificial reproduction? Part of the psychological motivation behind gender critical feminisms opposition to transwomen being accepted as women is a powerful feeling that this is men usurping and appropriating femininity, while marginalising natural biological women. Reading through some of the comments on Kellie-Jay Kean’s videos, I came across some women talking about the joy they felt as women bearing children. One women said that men’s lives must be so empty because of their inability to do so. Now these are just a few women’s views, but I do wonder how women with a similar attitude would look upon artificial wombs.

I also wonder whether there would be the same strong bond between parents, and especially mothers, and their children if babies weren’t born naturally but collected from the hatchery. I realise that the parents of adopted children are in a similar position, and generally greatly love their children, as, of course, to step-parents. I’m also well aware of the dreadful neglect and abuse some parents inflict on their kids. It’s perfectly possible, therefore, that bringing your baby home from the lab for their first time would have all the emotional impact of a natural birth and that the parental bond wouldn’t be affected. But nevertheless, I wonder.

And I’m also worried that such hatcheries could lead to the further mechanisation of what would once have been considered essential human traits, to produce genuine post-human creatures like the cyborgs of the transhumanists. These could be far beyond us in their capability while at the same time lacking in what we consider to be our essential human natures, like the Cybermen and Sontarans of Dr. Who.

These are deep, ethical issues. But fortunately, they have become pressing just yet, as the promised artificial wombs have yet to appear.

Focus Magazine on the Israeli Intelligence Agencies

November 16, 2021

I found this brief description of the Israeli intelligence agencies and their exploits in an old copy of Focus, dating from September 1993. It’s nearly 30 years out of date, but nevertheless gives an indication of what they’re like which I think is still relevant. It runs

The Shin Bet is responsible for security at home. Mossad, a highly notorious secret service, conducts clandestine operations abroad. Agents infiltrated the PLO and killed some of its leaders. In 1986 in London, a female Mossad agent abducted Mordechai Vanunu, who had blown the whistle on Israel’s secret nuclear weapons programme. He was flown secretly to Israel and sentenced to 18 years. Questions remain about Britain’s prior knowledge of the operation. Mossad agents have also taken torpedo boats from a French port, stolen the design of the Mirage jet fighter and hijacked cargoes of uranium at sea. In 1988 a Palestinian student living in Britain was found with a cache of explosives. He was a Mossad agent, a discovery which briefly soured MI6 and Mossad relations.

They’ve also been caught spying over here. Once was under Maggie Thatcher, who threatened to throw them out of the country. They did it again a few years ago, and nothing was done. They were allowed to get away with it. And I very well remember the scandal over Vanunu’s revelation that Israel had broken the anti-nuclear proliferation treaty and his subsequent abduction. It’s all very murky indeed. What comes across from this is that the Israeli intelligence agencies have scant regard for their supposed allies and pretty much do whatever they like.

And now Starmer has got one of these clowns in the Labour party, searching for anything he thinks is anti-Semitic which he can use to purge the left.

Kojo Moe: Factories as Tourist Spots in Japan

November 15, 2021

I found this interesting snippet in the ‘Funny Old World’ column in Private Eye’s issue for 18-31 March 2011, ultimately taken from a CNN item for 26th January of that year. It’s about a recent development or fad in the Japanese tourist industry: visiting factories. I know they do this in Britain, where people tour historic factories looking at things being made, or learning how they were made in the past. A good example is Ironbridge. But this is something different. It’s about appreciating factories as objects of beauty in themselves. This is radically different to previous ideas of beauty, which are centred on the living landscape, either natural or that of the rural village. And from reading the article, it seems to have its origins partly in the beginning of the film Blade Runner, where Deckard’s car flies past a refinery belching fire. The article runs

‘”Kojo moe is an infatuation with factories,” Daigo Yokoto told reporters outside a power plant in the industrial city of Kawasaki, near Tokyo, “and it’s becoming an alternative form of tourism in Japan. The geometric patterns of metal pipes and frames, the eerie smoke and sudden eruptions of flames – it is a completely different world, and it’s less than an hour away from Tokyo, where and my friends live. It’s not what goes on inside the factories that interests us, it’s the moment where the cylindrical smoke stack sends up steam, or a furnace starts belching smoke. That’s what makes us happy.”

Over the past year, kojo moe has grown from a tiny Japanese subculture into a major form of tourism, with 4,000 yen cruises to industrial zones booked out months in advance. “I love taking photos and I love factories,” added photographer Masaki Ishitani from Osaka, “and combining the two gives me an innocent sense of enjoyment. Kawasaki factories are the biggest, the most beautiful, and most wonderful in Japan. Standing here watching a giant power plant billowing out smoke is just like being in the movie Blade Runner.”

There is a similar aesthetic over here as well, albeit to a far lesser extent. I can remember passing a refinery near Cardiff with friends on the way to a re-enactment event in the ’90s, and we were struck by its awesome beauty. It was floodlit and really did resemble the refinery from Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, the film’s director, based that sequence on a factory or refinery he used to pass when he was a schoolboy or arts student. One night as was passing he said to himself, ‘God, this is beautiful’.

I find this particularly fascinating because it’s precisely the kind of aesthetic that the Futurists were trying to promote. They were a reaction to Symbolism and hated traditional, especially neo-classical art. They celebrated instead the new, modern, urban Italy, of youth, speed, violence and the new machine age. The Futurist architect Sant’Elia designed huge modernist buildings representing the new aesthetic, designs which even now, after the horrors of mid-20th century Brutalist architecture, still look futuristic. Kojo moe also interests me because it does seem to be an instance where Science Fiction has altered or set up a different ideal of beauty. I really don’t believe that the Conceptualism that was all rage as the official art of the ’90s really has done much to push the boundaries of art. I think that’s being done elsewhere, and particularly within Science Fiction and Fantasy, in media such as computer games, films, TV, book illustration and comics. And I’d like to see it appreciated by the art establishment.

Title for Big Finish Audio Adaptation of Space: 1999

November 10, 2021

More fun for Space: 1999 fans. Yesterday I put up a video from doctormab’s YouTube channel of his reworking of the Space: 1999 titles to create Space: 2099. After that, I discovered these short little video by Big Finish. Big Finish specialise in audio versions of classic British SF TV series. Most of these are Doctor Who, featuring many of the surviving cast. They’ve also done Sapphire and Steel, with David Warner playing Steel, and I think they may have also done a couple of Blake’s 7 plays. This video seems to be for their reimagining of Space:1999’s pilot episode, ‘Breakaway’. It stars Mark Bonnar, Maria Teresa Creasy, Clive Hayward, Glen McCready, Jules de Jongh, Amaka Okafor, Susan Hingley and Timothy Bentinck, and written by Nicholas Briggs. Briggs has appeared in Dr. Who several times as the voice of the Daleks as well as in a series of DVDS in which he interviews the actors in Dr Who and Blake’s 7, including those who had the job of climbing into the monster costumes. The reworked titles for the play follow the format of the original, but have obviously been reworked to include the new actors and brought up to date by CGI special effects. Now I haven’t heard the play itself, but Briggs is such an enthusiast himself for classic British SF like Dr. Who that I expect it’s probably very good. And looking at the redone titles, I wish once again that somebody was doing this for a TV series rather than an audio play on CD. Perhaps with the current trend for reviving or making sequels to previous SF and Fantasy epics someone might actually do one of Space: 1999. After all, there’s now a CGI version of on of Gerry Anderson’s other creations, the fondly remembered Thunderbirds.