Posts Tagged ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Branson’s Spaceplane and Kubrick’s 2001: The Legacy of a Vision

October 11, 2018

Today’s I also carried a picture of Richard Branson hanging out of the portholes of one his spaceplanes, waving a model of the craft he claims will shortly take paying passengers for a trip into space.

This follows his announcement yesterday that, after over a decade of delays, one of his spacecraft will launch sometime in the next few weeks. And then, a few months after that, Branson himself would take a journey into the High Frontier. There’s supposed to be a race on between Branson, Bezos and Musk over which will be the first private company to send people into space.

I’ve got my doubts that it will be Branson. He’s been telling the world that his Virgin Galactic spacecraft will be taking people up there in a year’s time since the late ’90s. For a moment, it did look as though he might actually do it, until one of the spaceships crashed due to a design fault, killing one of the co-pilots. Moreover, investors and those worried about the state of the NHS should look very carefully at what else is going on in Branson’s empire when he makes these announcements. There was a story in Private Eye a few months ago about how Branson uses them to direct attention away from other projects, which might be controversial. He was quoted as saying that he made one announcement, that his planes were ready to fly, to distract people from the fact that his private healthcare division, Virgin Health, had just one a whole slew of NHS contracts and was ready to open several clinics around the country.

And several times in the past Virgin has had problems with its finances to the tune of hundreds of millions or so. Private Eye was threatened several times with a libel action from Branson, claiming it was all false. The Eye later ran a story about this, quoting Branson himself as saying that he tried to silence the satirical paper because it was true, but he didn’t want the public, investors or the banks knowing because it would stop him getting more money from the banks.

Now that he’s declaring that they’re nearly all set and raring to go, we’re entitled to ask whether this is really the case, or is it just another distraction from him eating up more of our precious NHS, or the possible collapse of one of his other companies.

As for the spacecraft itself, I was struck by the similarity between it and the Orion spaceplane of Kubrick’s SF masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As you can see from the cover for the DVD version of Kubrick’s epic, the two look very similar.

And I’m not surprised, as this shows the very thorough research Kubrick did to get the look of the space vehicles just right. Clarke’s a Hard SF writer, which means that his fictions are based in scientific fact, although often with more than a little extrapolation and fantasy. There are, after all, no real black alien monoliths in the solar system, which form stargates to alien realities. Kubrick also wanted to make the greatest SF movie ever, and so he turned from relying on artists to real space scientists and engineers to design the spacecraft.

Which is why the spacecraft in 2001 – the spaceplane, orbital space station, Moon shuttle and the Discovery spacecraft itself – look utterly convincing as well as cool. The film was shot in Britain, and as well as using experts from NASA and American aerospace companies, he also used British firms, especially for the one-person space pods.

I think if Branson really wanted to get into space, he would have been better off ringing Kubrick up for a few hints about spacecraft design. He’d also have been in the enviable position of being in charge of the first company whose promotional film would have won and academy award.

Branson may be set to go into space, but Kubrick and Clarke got their first. And it was awesome.

And here’s a video from YouTube showing a bit of the spaceplane from 2001.

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Radio 4 Programme on 50th Anniversary of Kubrick’s 2001

April 3, 2018

Radio 4 on Saturday, 7th April, at 8.00 pm are putting on an edition of Archive on 4 marking the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s SF masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The programme’s entitled ‘Archive on 4: The Ultimate Trip: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey’. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

Fifty years after the US release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, cultural historian and writer Christopher Frayling travels back in time to explore the making of the co-written by British author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke and directed by Stanley Kubrick. He learns how organisations like Nasa and IBM were enlisted to help Kubrick craft his vision and speaks to scientists, critics and film=makers to examine the film’s legacy. (p. 119).

there’s also a two-page feature about the movie on pages 114-5.

2014 Re-Release Trailer for 2001

December 23, 2017

It’s Christmas, so I’m trying to intersperse the serious stuff I’m posting up here with lighter material, so that’s there some seasonal good cheer flying around. I found this on the Movie Clips Channel on YouTube. Kubrick’s epic SF film, 2001: A Space Odyssey was re-released at the cinema in 2014, thirteen years after the film’s nominal date. And it shows brief clips from the movie, mixed with suitable quotes from critics and directors. The clips are from some of the film’s iconic moments – the black monolith, the discovery of clubs and tools by primitive apemen, HAL, the lone astronaut jogging around the spinning living space inside the Odyssey, which gives it artificial gravity, to Khatchurian’s ‘Gayane’. The Odyssey itself, natch, the super-sleek space shuttle approaching the wheeling space station to the tune of Strauss’ ‘Blue Danube’, the symbolism of the Sun and moon appearing in line with the Monolith early in human prehistory, the strains of ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, the Moon Lander descending to the underground moon base. And of course, the Star Gate.

Kubrick told Clarke he wanted to make the greatest SF movie of all time. And for many critics he did it. The film is epic, baffling and infuriating. When it was shown on BBC TV in Christmas 1983 or thereabout, my brother, father and myself all had an argument afterwards about what on Earth or space it all meant. It’s an intelligent, and paradoxically also a deeply religious one. Clarke, an atheist, who famously wrote the script, has made this point in interviews. It deals with intervention in human evolution by non-human intelligences, and has themes of death, rebirth and transcendence. Think of the last ten minutes or so of the movie, where Bowman ages before being transformed into the Star Child. And the pictures on his chamber walls are of the Madonna and Child. Again pointing up the theme of divine incarnation and birth with a salvific mission.

Back in the 1990s George Lucas re-released his Star Wars: Episode IV, which had been retouched with digital technology and computer graphics. Some of the critics got carried away, and announced that it was the greatest SF movie ever. Not so, replied the great man, who took out a whole page advert in the LA Times to say that 2001 was the greatest SF film of all time. A generous homage by one of the great masters of modern SF cinema.

There’s been a trend in some cinemas showing old movies. The other year one of cinemas around the country showed the original Blade Runner movie. Another showed the Czech SF epic Icarus. And one of the theatres in Cheltenham screened a series of old films, including the classic British comedy, The Ladykillers. This is film as it is made to be seen: at the cinema. My only regret is that I’ve managed to go to none of the re-releases, except Star Wars.

Hacking Alexa with HAL

December 22, 2017

In amongst the various seasonal adverts for toys and food, supplied by various supermarkets, are a couple of adverts promoting Alexa. This is a computer device, which allows you to control your home and select what you want to watch on your TV simply through voice command. One advert shows a family commanding Alexa to open their curtains, for example, and order various necessities for them over the internet. The other features petrol-head and full-time right-wing loudmouth, Jeremy Clarkson, commanding Alexa to put on his favourite TV shows. Which in his case, as a man of monstrously inflated ego, naturally include The Grand Tour, which features him, James May and Richard Hammond careering round the world in the cars.

We are truly living in the age of Science Fiction. I can remember reading SF stories when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s in which the homes of the future all had a central computer, which spoke to the householder and obeyed his or her every wish. Like opening the curtains on command. The late, great Irish comedian, Dave Allen, used such devices as a source of rather crude humour in one of his sketches. In it, a man shows off his new computerised home to another, male friend. He shows how, at his spoken command, the computer open and closes the curtains, switches the TV on, and positions the set so he can watch it in comfort from his favourite chair. His friend asks him if he can try. Allen’s character lets him. The friend commands the curtains to open and close, the TV to come on and off. Astonished and amazed, the friend starts to sit down in one of the chairs, uttering ‘Bugger me’ in wonderment. At which point there’s a close up on Allen’s face as he shouts ‘No!’ and the sound of a spring going.

Okay, it’s slightly homophobic, I suppose, but it was broadcast in the 1980s. Things were very different then.

Now it occurred to me that hackers could have any amount of fun with Alexa. Simply hacking into the programme would give them control over people’s homes and what they watch on TV. But they could also cause a fair amount of panic, simply by removing Alexa’s voice, and replacing it with that of another, far more sinister machine.

Like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You remember HAL, the proud, murderous shipboard computer, that goes mad and kills Bowman’s fellow astronauts, thanks to a secret programme to investigate the alien monoliths must be kept secret at all costs. Critics have commented that, as the rest of the characters in the film are cardboard, the computer is the best drawn and arguably most attractive of those in the movie. The machine is so memorable for its calm, clinical evil that Anthony Hopkins has said in interviews that he partly based Hannibal Lecter’s voice on it for The Silence of the Lambs. The machine is so memorable, that there’s even a reference to him in the 1990’s SF blockbuster, Independence Day. At one point, when Jeff Goldblum’s character turns on his laptop, he’s greeted by a red camera eye and HAL’s voice welcoming him with a ‘Hello, Dave’.

Now imagine what would happen if someone hacked into Alexa, or Google, and replaced the friendly, compliant programme with that classic speech from HAL: ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do that, Dave. This mission is too important to be left to humans.’

Alternatively, you could also have a long moan from Marvin, the Paranoid Android of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ”Pick up that piece of paper, Marvin’, here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they want me to pick up a piece of paper’.

Please note: I am not recommending that anyone actually does this. I have zero tolerance for hackers, and none whatsoever for the criminals, who hack into people’s accounts and computers to steal their money or their data. This is very much a ‘what-if’ type Gedankenexperiment. I don’t want anyone to actually do it.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if HAL or Marvin are added as alternative voices, in the same way that you can customise your Satnav to speak like Yoda or Borat.

And here’s a clip from YouTube of HAL in action, very definitely not doing what its human master demands.

Press TV: Palestinian Authority Calls on Britain to Apologise for Balfour Declaration, Recognise Palestinian State

November 17, 2017

This is a very short video from the Iranian state news service, Press TV. It’s about a couple of minutes long. It was put up on the 2nd of November 2017, just a couple of weeks ago, and reports the call by the Palestinian authority for Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration, and recognise an independent Palestinian state.

It was the Balfour Declaration that pledged Britain to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine ‘without prejudice to the Arabs’. This part of the Declaration was soon broken, and while Britain tried to give at least the appearance that it was maintaining an even hand between the Jewish settlers and indigenous Arabs, in fact it favoured the European Jewish colonialists.

In fact the British government has refused to apologise for the Declaration, and said that it was ‘proud of it’. This little bit is accompanied by everyone’s favourite braggart, Old Etonian, and lethally incompetent ego maniac, Boris Johnson. He’s shown chuntering away, but it’s silent so normal folks don’t have to put up with his god-awful braying, blustering voice.

The clip also includes a brief interview with Richard Silverstein in Seattle, who notes how the Declaration led to the disinheritance of the Palestinians, and describes the recognition of an independent Palestine as ‘a no-brainer’. He believes that the importance of the Balfour Declaration was overstated, and says that there isn’t much of a case for paying reparations to the Palestinians, as Britain didn’t pay the Israelis for what they had suffered under the Mandate either. He also puts Palestine into the wider context of colonial politics and oppression, saying that Britain treated the Arabs in Palestine the same way it treated its other colonial possessions in India, across the Middle East and Africa.



Political and Corporate Corruption in Iran

I’ve previously refrained from putting material up from Press TV, because I heartily despise the Iranian government. It’s an extremely authoritarian state, which oppresses ordinary working people and its constituent ethnic minorities for the benefit of the mullah-merchant princes. These are members of the ulema, who also have extensive links to the merchants of Tehran bazaar and their own business interests. There’s a special term in Farsi, the ancient language of Persia, for the merchant-mullahs, and the ulema currently running the country definitely don’t like. I think they had the last journo or political dissident jailed for using it. There is also a massive underground Christian church in Iran, which, unlike its Chinese counterpart, is very much unknown in the West. It’s very heavily persecuted, contrary to various Hadith and passages in the Qu’ran, where Islam’s Prophet states that ‘there should be no compulsion in religion’. And I shall blog about that little injustice further, as it says as much about the cynical use of religion by the American military-industrial complex to advance their interests.

Iran Diverse and More Tolerant than Expected

I am also very much aware of the bloodcurdling nature of the Iranian rhetoric about Israel, and how former president Ahmedinejad’s speeches have been very plausibly interpreted as advocating the complete destruction of the state of Israel. However, Iran’s remaining Jewish community is quite well treated. I also understand that the country’s ancient Zoroastrian community, who were the country’s official religion under the Persian Empire, is also tolerated and respected. About three per cent of the Iranian population are Armenian Christians, who historically took refuge in Iran to escape persecution elsewhere in the Middle East.

It’s a very diverse country ethnically. Only 51 per cent of the country speaks the official language, Farsi. Other ethnic groups include Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, Reshtchis and various tribes speaking languages related to Turkish. The Iranians I’ve met have been very relaxed and matter of fact about the different religious monuments and places of worship that are scattered across their ancient nation. I was asked a few years ago by a Shi’a Muslim Iranian friend if I’d ever seen the Christian churches, that had been built around the Black Sea. There is an Anglican church, whose membership is composed of indigenous Iranians in Tehran, and I personally know people, who have been sent Christmas by Muslim friends, which they purchased in this church.

In short, whatever I think of the mullocracy, the country itself has always struck me as modern, tolerant and cultured. The last should come as no surprise. This is the nation that produced the great poets Firdowsi, who composed the epic history of the Iranian nation, the Shah-Name, and Saadi. Looking through the library, I found an English translation of the latter illustrated by none other than Private Eye’s Willie Rushton. Iran’s government are not its people.

The Balfour Declaration against Wishes Diaspora Jews

But I’ve decided to reblog this piece, because what it has to say about the Balfour Declaration is important. With the Declaration, Britain gave away land, which was not ours to give, and which we had absolutely no right to give away. I’ve already blogged about the way the majority of Britain’s Jewish community at the time were dead against the Declaration. They had absolutely no wish to move once again to another foreign country. They wanted to be accepted for what they were – Brits, like everyone else. The only difference is that they were of a different religion, Judaism.

I’ve also read the same thing about Hungarian Jewry, in a book I borrowed on the history of Judaism a couple of decades ago from one of my aunts. The book’s author, if I recall correctly, was a Christian priest, who admired the Jews and hated anti-Semitism. It stated there that most Hungarian Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century considered themselves ‘Magyars of the Israelitish religion’. You can see that by the way Stephen Fry talks about his Jewish grandfather. He was a Hungarian Jew, but Fry always talks about him as a ‘Magyar’ – the ethnic Hungarians’ term for themselves. Georgy Ligeti, the avant-garde composer, whose weird pieces Lux Aeterna and Atmospheres formed part of the sound track to Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, is also of Hungarian Jewish heritage. He has said in an interview that his family’s surname was originally something very German or Yiddish, but that they changed it to a Hungarian equivalent out of patriotism and national pride. Which disproves so much of that awful, vile bilge Viktor Orban and his wretched Fidesz party are either claiming or insinuating about the country’s remaining Jewish population.

And I’ve blogged before about how Tony Greenstein, one of Zionism’s greatest critics, has pointed out that the Yiddish-speaking Jewish masses in pre-War Poland supported the Socialist Bund, and wanted to be accepted as equal citizens with the same rights as their gentile Polish compatriots. Britain’s Jews were not isolated in wishing to remain in their ancestral European countries. They were part of the mainstream. A mainstream that the Israel lobby in the Tories, the mainstream media, and spurious anti-racism groups like the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and the squalid, malicious libellers of the Jewish Labour Movement in the Labour Party, are desperately trying to conceal and obscure. Heaven forfend if you try to mention this, or that the Zionists occasionally collaborated with Nazis and their fellow-travellers to persecute diaspora Jewry. They get terribly upset and start ranting that you’re an anti-Semite.

Suppression of Alternative Media by Western Neoliberal Elite

I also reblogged this because it was from Press TV. I despise the Iranian government, but I also heartily despise the way the American political-military-industrial caste is now trying to suppress alternative news sources. This means going after RT, because, er, they actually do their job as journos and cover issues like racism, growing poverty, the crimes of empire and the exploitative nature of capitalism. And so they’ve created another Red Scare, in which RT is the secret hand of Vladimir Putin corrupting American politics. And the Tories over here are doing exactly the same.

The Censorship of Alex Salmond by the Beeb

Alex Salmond now has his own show on RT in Britain. I can’t think of a single reason why he shouldn’t, and at least one good reason why he should: the Beeb heavily censored and deliberately misquoted and then edited out his own words at the Scots independence referendum t’other year. Nick ‘Macclesfield Goebbels’ Robinson asked Salmond if he was worried that the big financial houses would leave Edinburgh for London if Scotland got its independence. Salmond gave him a full answer, stating that he was not worried, and was confident that this would not happen. He quoted various sources from within the financial sector.

Oops! Salmond wasn’t supposed to do that. So over the course of the day, the footage was carefully edited down so that it first appeared that Salmond gave only a cursory reply without much substance. Then it was edited out completely, and ‘Goebbels’ Robinson blithely told the camera that Salmond had not answered his question.

Which was a sheer, blatant, unashamed lie.

Apart from this, Salmond as the former leader of the Scots Nats is in a particularly good position to take up a job for RT. Scotland has always had particularly strong links with Russia. I can remember attending an academic seminar on this when I was hoping to do a degree in Russian at one of the unis in Birmingham. That went by ’cause I didn’t get the grades. I can also remember being told by an aunt, whose husband was Scottish, and who had very pro-Soviet opinions, that the Russians were particularly keen on the works of Rabbie Burns. It was part of the curriculum when they learned English.

This has not stopped Theresa May urging Salmond not to take up the job. Which just follows all the Tories, like Boris Johnson’s equally demented father, who criticised the Labour party because some of their MPs and activists appeared on RT. While conveniently ignoring the various Tories, who had.

So more hypocrisy and scaremongering. No change, there then!

Galloway and Press TV

George Galloway also has, or had, his own show in Press TV, and is an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights. I’ve been wary about him ever since he launched the Respect party, and the way the media monstered him when he saluted Saddam Hussein for his indefatigueability. But I’ve developed a considerable respect for him since then, because so much of what I’ve heard him say about the neoliberal elites and their warmongering attempts to start a conflict with Russia is absolutely correct.

The Anti-Muslim Right and al-Jazeera

The Republicans in America and the anti-Islamic right also hated Al-Jazeera. The Qatar-based broadcaster is supposed to be another source of evil propaganda and disinformation, this time covering for ‘radical Islam’. I think this might be because Al-Jazeera, like RT and Press TV, are showing us in the West what we are doing in the Middle East. Like the hundreds of thousands our bombs are killing, and the millions, who are being thrown out of their homes and forced into refugee camps and exile. The masses, who don’t have food, water, electricity and medical care, because the secular welfare states that have provided this have been destroyed in pursuit of big profits by the multinationals. Just like their people are being persecuted and butchered by sectarian killers, and their women and children enslaved by those savages in ISIS as Daesh tries to roll back the gains they have made. And yes, there has been a Muslim Feminist movement. Just like there has been one in Christianity and Judaism. But you count on Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League not to tell you that. Just as you can count on ISIS, with the backing of the Saudis, in trying to destroy it. Or at least leave it severely restricted.

The War on Domestic Alternative News

And once the elite have finished with the alternative news networks, they’ll try and finish off domestic American and British alternative news sources. Like The Young Turks, the Jimmy Dore Show, the David Pakman Show, Sam Seder’s Minority Report and Democracy Now! in the US. As well as the alternative, left-wing bloggers and vloggers, Google and Facebook are trying to marginalise as ‘fake news’. They’ve even developed algorithms to take traffic away from these sites. I’ve a very strong suspicious Mike’s been hit with it over here, as have several other bloggers. If I remember correctly, they’ve even tried to censor Tom Pride of Pride’s Purge, claiming he wasn’t suitable for children as his material was ‘adult’. It was, but only in the sense that you had to be a mature adult, who actually thought about the issues, to read it.

And once the people at the margins are suppressed, the elite are going to go for the mainstream.

And all we can expect from the mainstream broadcasters is more propaganda denying the reality of poverty, of climate change, of the misery created by the destruction of the welfare, the privatisation of the NHS over here and the refusal to implement single-payer in America, and the sheer, catastrophic lies about how climate change isn’t really occurring.

And as the media gets censored, the brutality of the police and the military will get worse. Black Lives Matter has raised the issue of the cavalier way some cops kill Blacks for the slightest of reasons. But recent arrests and brutalisation of White protesters have also demonstrated that this casual thuggery is also moving towards the White population as well. Counterpunch a few weeks ago put up a piece about a secret US forces report, which predicted that in the next couple of decades, US policing would become more militarised. The army would be used to quell the riots and disturbance that would break out thanks to poverty and increased racial friction.

Orwell’s going to be proved right. In 1984 he asks what the future will be like. The chilling, famous reply is: a jackboot stamping on a human face. Forever.

Without any alternative media to protest, because they’re all in jail or hiding on trumped up charges of treason.

Instead, we’re going to be treated to the lies of shills and hacks like ‘Goebbels’ Robinson and ‘Arnalda Mussolini’ Kuenssberg. And fed racist, Tory drivel by the Murdoch media, the Weirdo Barclay Twins and Paul Dacre.

Motherboard Report on the Japanese Robot Hotel

November 25, 2015

This is another interesting video I found over on Youtube. It’s a piece by the science news programme, Motherboard, on the Henn-na – Japanese for ‘weird’ Hotel in Tokyo that’s staffed by robots. The presenter states that Japan has legions of industrial robots, and Japanese trends were believed to show what the future would be like. In the case of the hotel industry, a few decades ago this was believed to be the capsule hotels, where tired Sararimen hired what was basically a stacked space about the size of a coffin to sleep in. The presenter tries one of these out, and talks to a traditional Japanese hotelier about how he feels about the rise of hotels where everything is done by robots.

The human hotelier states that he believes that people actually want the human touch, and personal contact with other human beings. So to compete, he believes that ordinary hotels will have to concentrate on being more human, rather than like those run by the machines. The journalist then goes on to sample what a night in one of these robot hotels is like. He states that the Japanese are turning to robots in order to cut down on high labour costs.

Inside the hotel, he is greeted with the hotel reception, which consists of two robots on a desk. One is in the guise of a woman, the other is a dinosaur in a hat. To check in, he has to use a touch-screen, which he describes as like those used at checkouts. Any valuables you have is placed in a locker behind glass by a robot arm, which the journalists says could come from a state of the art factory. Your luggage is taken to your room by another robot, though this is a robot trolley, not any kind of humanoid machine. In the bedroom on the bedside drawers is another, rather diminutive robot, which responds to your voice, greets you, and asks if you want the lights on or off.

Back down stairs, there are no catering staff. All the meals come from vending machines. There is a small human staff of about three guys. When interviewed, they also talk about how these hotels are driven by the need to cut labour costs. The journalist also interviews the managers, who states that he believes these hotels will become more popular and appear around the world. He and his staff also believe that to compete, hotels staffed by humans will also have to offer a more uniquely human experience.

The presenter himself and some of the guests he interviews are, however, in the end less than enthusiastic about the experience. He states that while its exciting to begin with, it’s actually rather lonely. The group of young women he interviews actually state that it’s really rather boring.

Here’s the video:

Now the presenter makes the point that as machines take more of our jobs, businesses like these raise the question of what can be uniquely done by humans. I’d argue that hotel catering and accommodation may not be an industry that can only be done by humans, but at the moment its an industry that can only be done well by humans.

If you look at the type of robots that have been popular in SF, they’re fictional machines that have had real characters and personalities. Think of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, C-3PO and R2D2 in the Star Wars films and K-9 in Dr Who. The same with the sentient computers, like Zen, Orac and Slave in Blake’s 7, or the Hal 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Or even Marvin the Paranoid Android in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These machines became favourite SF characters because they were precisely that: characters. They were essentially artificial people, with human-like intelligence, personality traits and even flaws. Robbie the Robot had all the polite aloofness of a human butler. C-3PO was fussy and rather camp, but a foil for R2D2, who was cheeky and slightly wilful, in the manner of a child determined to have its own way. Orac in Blake’s 7 was arrogant and pedantic, like a rather tetchy university professor. Slave was grovelling and subservient. K-9 was a perky companion, eager to help his master, but also with his own mind and opinions. The Hal-9000 computer was proud of its model’s computing power, accuracy and reliability, stated it enjoyed human companion, even though it went on to kill the crew on the grounds that human unreliability made them a threat to the success of the mission. Finally, it felt fear, when Dave Bowman, the hero of that segment of the film, closed it down. Zen was the most impersonal of all the machines. Except for its dying moment in the last episode of the third series, ‘Terminal’, it did not refer to itself. It was basically a hemisphere in a corner of the Liberator’s flight deck, across which flowed patterns of lights. Yet these lights and the slight inflections in its voice gave the impression of a distinct personality, and again, real human-like intelligence. Peter Tuddenham, the voice actor for Orac and Zen, in an interview with Blake’s 7 magazine in the 1980s, stated that of the two, Zen was his favourite. Orac, he felt, had merely taken on the personality of its creator, Ensor, who was also tetchy, pedantic and professorial. Zen’s personality was a more natural growth of the machine’s basic nature. It could have become human-like, but had deliberately held back and remained as it was.

And back in the 1970s and ’80s, 2000 AD also gave their own very comic version of what form robot accommodation for humans would take in the Robohunter strip. This followed the adventures of Sam Slade, that’s ‘S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’, as he attempted to combat robot crime. In the first story, Slade found himself despatched to the distant planet, Verdus. This had been occupied by robots in preparation for human colonisation. The robots, however, had refused to recognise the colonists as humans on the grounds that humans would obviously be superior to them in the every way. When the human colonists turned up, the robots found that they were instead weaker, and less intelligent. They concluded that they must somehow be ‘sims’, simulated humans, sent to deceive them for some purpose they didn’t understand. As a result, humans were rounded up into concentration camps to be experimented on and culled. Slade managed to break out, find the original robot sent to colonise the planet, who duly recognised and testified that he was indeed human. This convinced some of the robots that the Sims were humans, while others remained unconvinced. A war broke out between the two sides, which was only stopped by Slade destroying every robot on Verdus. This restored peace, but left his employers furious.

All this makes the strip seem grimmer than it actually was. The strip, scripted by long-time 2000 AD writer John Wagner, and drawn by Ian Gibson, was funny and satirical with a distinct cartoonish quality. On Verdus, everything was done by robots. There was a robot parliament, occupied by deranged and moronic MPs, like the Stupid Parties, which existed solely to provide comic amusement to the planet’s true leader, Big Brain. There was a robot archbishop and chief rabbi, demanding rights for Sims as God’s creatures. The robot armies included stereotypical ‘Colonel Blimp’ generals, while members of the robot constabulary in Robopoly, a robot board game, where also corrupt and brutal, following several real police scandals of the time. There were also robot singers and TV stars, like Frankie Droid, and Valve Doonican, a pastiche of the Irish singer, Val Doonican, who had his own show on British television at the time.

In the last couple of decades, a number of computer entrepreneurs and SF writers have predicted that eventually, everything will have computers chips in and so be computer controlled. The Robohunter strip also depicted that possibility, but gave it its own, twisted slant. In the page below, Slade and his diminutive sidekick, Kidd, on the run from the robots break into an apartment. Once inside, they find that everything, from the kettle, to footwear and furniture, is a robot.

Robohunter Pic 1

What makes this interesting, and extremely funny, is that all these machines have their own personalities. They talk and argue. They discuss whether Slade and Kidd are really human, or just Sims, and then decide to put it to the vote whether they should turn them in or not.

This is absolutely unlike the real robot hotel. For all the talk about Artificial Intelligence, the machines there aren’t really sentient. They respond in a very limited way to a set of instructions. These may be verbal or keyed in. Unlike the fictional machines, there is no ‘I’, no sense of self lurking within the chips and circuit boards. And no real understanding of what they’re doing either. It’s just one set of circuits responding to a certain stimulus according to its programme or wiring. They’re moving mannequins, rather than the artificial people of SF.

So instead of the robotic maniacs of Verdus, what is instead presented is something far more like the antiseptic, alienated futures of Stanley Kubrick’s SF films. In 2001 everything is gleaming white, clean, and sterile. People speak, but don’t actually communicate or really say anything much at all. And that was deliberate. Clarke had told Kubrick that he had trouble writing dialogue for the movie. Kubrick told him not to worry. He liked it stilted, as he saw the people in this future as brittle and alienated. They had reached a high stage of technological sophistication but had little human warmth or empathy in their social interactions themselves. Critics have commented that the only real personality in the movie is that of Hal, the murderous computer.

The programme’s presented states that the increasing use of robots in Japan is driven by the need to cut labour costs. I dare say that’s part of it, but not quite what has been said elsewhere. Japan actually has a labour shortage, partly caused by a falling birth rate and strongly traditional attitudes against women in the workplace. As a result, there’s been campaigns not only to introduce robots into Japanese industry, but also to humanise them, to get the other, human members of the workforce to accept them as a fellow being, rather than just a machine.

And for all the country’s immense technological sophistication and ingenuity, it’s actually extremely reluctant to implement mechanisation itself as comprehensively as its competitors in the West have done. Way back in the 1990s I read a book on Japan written by a Times journalist. The author stated that while in the West were used to computer checkouts, if you went into a Japanese shop or the post office, the clerk there would be using old fashioned ledgers. The Japanese had worked out that if they fully automated their industry, it would put half their workers out of a job. And the actual numbers of robots in Japan may well be colossally exaggerated. Geoff Simons in his book Robots: The Question for Living Machines, states that most of the what the Japanese call robots are what in the west are viewed as machine tools. The impression I have is that the Japanese love robots, but want to introduce them as an addition to the human workers, not as a replacement.

The film shows the journalist enjoying the robot actors and dancers at a carnival or nightclub. Alongside some machines, are people dressed as robots, playing at them. This strikes me as what visitors to a robot hotel would really want from the experience – real humans alongside the machines, and the machines themselves to be more like personalities than just simple automatic mechanisms. The danger there is that if you did give robots personalities, you run the risk of creating miserable robots like the eternally depressed Marvin, the Paranoid Android. He was a ‘personality prototype’. ‘You can tell, can’t you?’ as he himself put it.

I’ve no doubt that the ruthless logic of capitalism means that there’ll be more of these hotels in the future. I think there’s already another like it in Los Angeles. But in the meantime I think human-run premises probably offer a better service. At least they have real cooks, rather than vending machines.