Posts Tagged ‘Banu Musa Brothers’

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.

Secular Talk: Candidate for Trump’s Secretary of State Wants War with Iran

November 19, 2016

Unfortunately, the Neocons demanding war with Iran, along with just about every other opposing, or simply independent country, in the Middle East didn’t die with Killary’s campaign for the presidency.

In this piece from Secular Talk, host Kyle Kulinski talks about how John Bolton, one of the potential candidates for Trump’s secretary of state, has made a speech demanding ‘regime change in Tehran’. Bolton blames the Iranians for destabilising the Middle East. Kulinski points out how ludicrous and hypocritical Bolton’s views are. He begins with the point America and the West are now at war with seven countries in the Middle East, including boots on the ground. Bolton was one of the worst of the warmongers. Unlike many others, he still supports the Iraq invasion. Kulinski states ironically that Bolton never met a war he didn’t like. Kulinski goes on to explain how we, America and the West, have destabilised the Middle East. As for Iran, it’s a Shi’a theocracy, but Kulinski accurately states that it is far more liberal and progressive than Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t like the horrific Islamic theocracy in Iran, but also explains that the majority of the population is much younger, under thirty, and more secular than the dinosaurs that rule over them. Again, true.

Kulinski also explains how the Shi’a are a tiny minority in the Middle East, and are under attack everywhere. They have the Israelis on one side of them, and the Saudis on the other. And what about countering their destabilisation of the region? Israel, for example, invaded Lebanon in order to expand its influence, and continues to build illegal settlements to push out the Palestinians. The Saudis have invaded Yemen to attack the Shi’a there. And Qatar and the other Sunni states are funding al-Qaeda, so that they will overthrow Assad in Syria. But no, according to Bolton, it’s the Iranians, not these, who are primarily responsible for the chaos and carnage in the region.

Kulinski also describes how Bolton has blithely made this demand for war with Iran, without even thinking about whether the American people themselves want another war. Usually governments need to build up a propaganda campaign to prepare the public’s mood for war. But no, not this time. Bolton and his friends simply aren’t bothered about that. They’ll just steal Americans’ money through taxation to fund yet another war that no-one except them wants.

Kulinski concludes by stating that if Bolton is picked by Trump as his secretary of state, or even remains in Trump’s circle of advisors, it means that Trump wasn’t serious about keeping America out of further conflicts. Of course, there’s a chance that Trump may keep him as an advisor, but not listen to him. Similarly, if Trump doesn’t pick him, or anyone like him, to be secretary of state, then perhaps there is a chance for America to avoid going into another war.

This is another stupid, horrendous pronouncement by yet another Republican fossil. Again, it ultimately seems to go back to the Neocon plans under Bush, to overthrow a series of regimes in the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Somalia. The result has been an unmitigated disaster. Iraq is now a warzone. As we saw this week, ISIS is determined to smash as much of the regimes precious heritage as it can. After destroying immeasurably valuable antiquities from the dawn of civilisation in Syria and Iraq, it carried out another assault on the Iraqi people’s ancient civilisation by levelling one of the country’s ziggurats. These barbarians have been funded by Saudi Arabia, in its campaign to spread its extremely repressive, intolerant brand of Islam across the world. The Iraqis weren’t responsible for 9/11: it was Saudi Arabia. But the Neocons and Likud wanted Iraq invaded. The Likudniks despised Saddam Hussein because he supplied the Palestinians with guns, while the Saudis and Neocons just wanted to the loot the country of its oil industry and other potentially valuable state assets.

Now, apparently, they want to do this to Iran. The mullahs are unpleasant. They’re extremely corrupt, intolerant and repressive. But they aren’t as corrupt and intolerant as the Saudis. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Iranian theocracy does include a democratic element. Every so many years, the Iranian people vote for a president. I got the impression that in many respects, it’s pretty much Hobson’s choice, in that there’s little ideological difference permitted between the candidates. Nevertheless, the Iranian people enjoy a measure of popular sovereignty that is denied the peoples of the Sunni absolute monarchies in the Gulf.

I also need hardly say that Iran is also an ancient land with an immensely rich cultural and artistic heritage. This was demonstrated a few years ago when the British Museum lent the Cyrus cylinder for exhibition in Iran. The cylinder records the conquests of the great Persian emperor, Cyrus, over the Babylonians. It’s valuable because it documents how he freed the Israelites from their exile, and allowed them to return to Israel and Judea. This heritage would also be seriously threatened if the Americans decide to invade, just like the heritage of Iraq.

One of the causes for the present chaos in Iraq is the fact that the country is an artificial creation of the imperial powers, in this case, Britain during the Mandate in the 1920s. It does not have a uniform population, but is composed of different tribal groups and sects, including Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Mandaeans, a small Gnostic sect that reveres John the Baptist as the true messiah. Iran similarly is composed of a multitude of different peoples. Just over half – 52 per cent – speak Farsi, the language derived from ancient Persia. There are also a number of other different tribes, speaking languages related to Turkish, Arabs in Khuzistan in the West, and Kurds, Lurs and Bakhtiars in their homelands. Three per cent of the population are Armenian Christians, and there are also Parsees, the followers of the ancient religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism, a monotheist faith centred around the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. The Kurds have been fighting a war for their independence since the 1970s, just as they have in Iraq and Turkey. Iran was also the birthplace of the Baha’i faith, which claims that Baha’ullah, an Iranian religious of the 1920s, was a prophet. Baha’ullah and his followers were exiled to Haifa, in what is now Israel, when it was still part of the Turkish empire. Because of this, the Baha’i’s are under considerable pressure and suspicion as agents of Israel, intent on destroying Islam and Iran. It’s nonsense, but it has been strongly promoted by the authorities, with the result that there have been terrible pogroms and persecution against them.

There is also a massive underground Christian church in Iran. Although its comparable to the underground Christian churches in China, you’ve probably never heard of it. This is made up of Iranians, who have secretly converted from Islam. They too are under immense persecution as apostates. I’ve heard that the situation has go to the point, where the government is posting guards at the Armenian Christian churches to try and keep the Iranians away. If America invades, it will result in the same ethnic conflict and civil war that has turned neighbouring Iraq into a bloodbath. And just as the Christian populations of the Middle East are being massacred and cleansed from the regions by the Islamists, along with other, non-Muslim religions like the Yezidis and moderate Muslims, who want tolerance and peaceful coexistence, so my fear is that if the West attacks Iran, it will intensify the brutal persecution of Christians there.

Apart from this, Iran is a modern, relatively developed and sophisticated country. It was the most developed economy in the Middle East during the Shah’s reign. He tried to industrialise the country. One of his aims was for Iran to equal France as a producer of cars. The Iranians had their own car, the Payhan, and he very nearly pulled this off. Even now Iran is significantly involved in scientific research. I was surprised looking at some of the videos on YouTube on robotics to find that, alongside Britain, America, Japan and China, the Iranians have also developed a humanoid machine. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. The Middle East was the homeland of the Banu Musa brothers, who in the 11th century created a hundred or more automata and other ‘ingenious desires’. The country is also far more tolerant artistically than Saudi Arabia. More than a decade and a half ago, about the turn of the century, the Iranian government staged an exhibition of the works of the YBAs, including Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Just as the invasion of Iraq wasn’t about liberating the Iraqi people and giving them democracy, this isn’t about bringing peace and freedom to the beleaguered people of Iran. This is just another, cynical excuse for us to grab their oil. We did it before. In the 1950s Mossadeq, the last democratically elected Iranian prime minister, nationalised the country’s oil industry, which had previously been in the hands of foreigners, principally us, the British. BP used to be Anglo-Persian Oil, and was set up to exploit the Iranian oil fields. And we did exploit them and the Iranian workers. They were paid less than British workers, and worked in appalling conditions. After Mossadeq nationalised the oil companies, America organised a coup, which we also backed, to overthrow him. I think Mossadeq was a Baha’i, and this was used to mobilise suspicion against him. His removal from power resulted in the Shah assuming total, autocratic control, complete with a secret police, SAVAK, who were brutal thugs. This in turn created rising discontent, which eventually culminated in the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The regime renationalise the oil industry, the date of which is now an official state holiday.

Bush and his fellow Neocons deluded themselves that they would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq. They weren’t. Corinne de Souza, one of Lobster’s contributors, whose father was Iraqi, made the point that one of the consequences of the invasion was that there were fewer Iraqis willing to cooperate with the British intelligence services. This was for a simple reason: they were like everyone else, and loved their country. They were prepared to help us, as they believed that we would liberate them from Saddam Hussein. But they did not want to collaborate with an occupying force. I’ve no doubt that the same will be true of the Iranians, if Trump goes ahead and appoints this idiot as head of state.

A few years ago, before Obama’s election, Bush and his circle of mass-murderers were indeed considering invading Iran. Shirin Ebadi’s book, Iran on the Brink, which describes rising discontent in Iran against the mullahs, strongly argued against her country’s invasion. Protest groups were also being formed. There was one organising meetings in Clifton in Bristol, as I recall. For a few years, that threat seemed to pass. Now it is come back.

There are now so many wars being fought by America and its allies in the Middle East, that one of the ghastly monsters from Bush’s cabinet actually lost count when he was asked that very question in an interview on American television. And the disgusting so-and-so even had the gall to laugh it off and chuckle about it, as if the murder of whole nations was some kind of joke.

And this comes just as NATO is moving more troops and missiles into Estonia, just in case Putin invades. Killary looked all set to start a war with Russia by stoking tensions there up to levels where some feared we were at the same point the great powers were just before the First World War. I think that threat receded slightly when Trump became president. Trump is a disgusting monster, but he does seem to be friends with Putin, and I’m sure that has helped defuse some of the tensions.

Now we have this despicable moron demanding more carnage. I do wonder where it will all end. How many countries have to be invaded, how many millions murdered, how many people forced out of their homes, to live in camps as refugees? How many of our brave young men and women have be sacrificed to the greed of the oil companies before this all stops? Is there really no end to these politicos’ lust for others’ blood?

This is a situation that will have to be watched very carefully. And I’ll keep an eye out also for any groups being formed to stop war with Iran.

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot Being Put Through Its Paces

February 24, 2016

This is a fascinating piece of footage showing Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot being tested. It’s a bipedal robot, with two arms, and the video shows it walking about, picking up boxes and placing them on shelves, It can also follow the boxes when they’re moved out of its way or reach, and right itself when its pushed over. It’s an impressive display of robot engineering.

From the look of it, Boston Dynamics were the manufacturers of the ‘Big Dog’ robot, which was supposed to help carry loads for the US military. This ended up being cancelled because its electric motors were too noisy for the covert missions for which the machine was intended to be used. I’m sure Atlas has been designed with a military role or disaster relief in mind, very much like Hammerstein, Rojaws, Mek-Quake and their metal pals in Robusters and ABC Warriors. We’re not quite there yet, and I have real qualms about the use of this technology. Not so much in the fears about Terminator-style robots running amok to exterminate humanity, but simply of the process of mechanisation replacing human workers. I’ve noticed that in shops and cinemas, the self-service machines are being used to replace human staff, and this process is likely to continue until about 1/3 of service sector jobs are lost in the next 20 years. Or at least, they will according to current projections. The end result will be Mega-City One, sprawling conurbations with a 95% unemployment rate due to robots replacing humans in just about all areas of employment.

One of the reasons historians and sociologists have put forward to explain why modern science did not arise in ancient Greece, the Islamic world and China, is that despite the immense inventiveness of these cultures, they only made limited use of the technological advances made by their natural philosophers and artisans. Both the Chinese and Islamic engineers produced automata. In China, there was an automaton serving girl constructed in the 9th century AD, which went round filling people’s tea bowls. The ancient Greeks invented a toy mechanical theatre, singing mechanical birds, and an automatic hand cleaner to allow visitors to the temples to wash their hands. In Islam, al-Jazari and the Banu Musa brothers similarly produced automata. These systems were, with exceptions, not applied to industry, but used as toys to amuse the upper classes. I think at certain times a brake was deliberately applied, because they feared the social disruption such developments might bring. It’s a Luddite attitude, but as the world faces mass unemployment through mechanisation, one that we should possibly appreciate as wiser than it appears.