Posts Tagged ‘BBC 2’

Robohunter: 2000 AD’s Warning about Crazed Robots?

December 29, 2017

Now for something a bit lighter. What struck me watching Six Robots and Us on BBC 2 last night, was how similar the real robots given to the six families to help them with their problems resembled the demented machines drawn by art robot Ian Gibson for 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. Written by script droid John Wagner, who was Pat Mills’ partner in crime behind Judge Dredd, ‘Robohunter’ was about a future private detective, Sam Slade, who specialised in hunting down rogue robots. In his first adventure, Slade is sent to Verdus, a planet colonised by robots ready for eventual human occupation. But the robots have developed so rapidly, that they now exceed humans in strength and intelligence. Programmed to regard humans as their superiors, they simply don’t recognise the inferior organic beings that turn up as humans, and so incarcerate as experimental animals in concentration camps.

‘Robohunter’ was one of my favourite strips in 2000 AD. It was Science Fiction, but had the wit and style of an old-fashioned hardboiled detective thriller from the thirties or forties. Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ was something like a futuristic Sam Spade. Which meant that he was frequently being beaten up by the villains, before fighting his way out with a few laconic witticisms. And the robots drawn by Gibson were imaginative and convincing, with the same type of cartoony features as the robots used in Six Robots and Us.

And like very many of the other strips in 2000 AD, ‘Robohunter’ was also sharply satirical. Here’s Wagner’s and Gibson’s take on the British parliament, from the collected strips Robo-Hunter: Verdus, by John Wagner, Ian Gibson, Jose Luis Ferrer and Jose Casanovas, published by Rebellion/ 2000 AD.

Okay, so the robots sent to the families weren’t demented killing machines intent on enslaving us. In fact the Shopbot sent to a supermarket in Glasgow offered people hugs. One of the store workers observed shrewdly that he had nothing against the machine, as long as it didn’t put human employees out of a job. Quite.

And some of them actually didn’t work very well. The Carebot sent in to look after a lady with MS, thus allowing her husband some time away from looking after her, actually couldn’t physically help her. It could only remind her and her husband when she needed to take her medicine and to call him on the mobile if there was something wrong. Unfortunately, it used the internet, and so the moment the husband was out of wifi range, the connection went down and it was more or less useless.

So they’re not quite like the robots in ‘Robohunter’ just yet. But we have been warned!

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Share and Enjoy! The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Predicted the Tutorbot

December 28, 2017

‘Share and enjoy’ is the company motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, a massive robotics conglomerate best known for its incompetence and shoddy workmanship in Douglas Adams’ Science Fiction classic, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The company and its products are so substandard, that its complaints division now occupies the major landmasses of three whole planets.

And while, according to Adams, the great Encyclopedia Galactica defined a robot as a machine designed to do the work of a man, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘your plastic pal who’s fun to be with’.

And we’re coming closer to that reality every day. Yesterday and today, BBC 2 have been running a short documentary series, Six Robots and Us, in which six families and other groups of people take care of six robots designed to help them with their particular problems. One of these is Fitbot, a robotic fitness instructor, which was given to a group of people trying to get fit. In tonight’s episode, the people of a shop take custody of Shopbot, are robotic store worker, to see how they get on. And there are two children with learning difficulties, one of whom is autistic, who are given Tutorbot, to see if it can help them overcome their difficulties at school.

Douglas Adams predicted something very similar in the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy way back in the ’70s-80s. In the second series of the radio version of Hitch-Hiker, there’s a device called an autoteach, a kind of computer teacher. It gives the student facts, and then starts asking questions to get the student to think through the issues. If the student gets an answer right, they get to press a button on the autoteach, which stimulates their pleasure centres. And at the end of the lesson, after the students has laughed and screamed with pleasure when they get the answers right, the autoteach asks them to press the other button. This give the autoteach itself a dose of pure pleasure, so that part of the story ends with the autoteach laughing like a maniac.

Ok, so Tutorbot, with its humanoid shape isn’t quite like that, and it doesn’t electronically stimulate the pleasure centres, mercifully. But the idea’s more or less the same: an intelligent machine to teach children.

As for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy defined them as ‘a bunch of mindless jerks, who will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.’

I didn’t see all of yesterday’s edition, because I went to bed early due to this cold. The next programme is on tonight, 28th December 2017, at 8.30. Aside from the cold, what went through my mind while watching the programme was all the jokes in Hitch-Hiker about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

Here’s a clip from YouTube from the 80s TV version of Hitch-Hiker, where the Book talks about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and robots.

George Galloway Interviews on China and Tax Dodging by the Rich

December 6, 2017

This is a very interesting edition of Sputnik, one of the programmes on RT, hosted by media bete noir George Galloway, and a young Asian lady simply called Gayatri. Sputnik was, of course, the first satellite put into Earth orbit by the Russians. The name means ‘fellow traveller’ in Russian, and has come to mean an artificial satellite ever since.

In the first half of the programme, Galloway and Gayatri interview Jeanne-Marie Gescher, a British sinologist, who has been studying China ever since the notorious Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Gescher has written a book about the country and its transformation, and describes how she was just about the only western person flying into China after the massacre, when all the other westerners were trying to get out. This, however, gave her a head start of a couple of years over the other academics researching China, when she was one of the very few westerners actually in the country. Galloway talks about President Xi’s party congress, and makes the point that most of it was about ‘socialism with a Chinese face’, rather than economics. He and Gescher also discuss the role of a strong central authority in governing and forming China, ever since its foundation all those millennia ago. They make the point that the role of a strong central authority is so much at the core of the country’s character and government, that it has been said that without it China is like sand. Gescher states that ever since the ancient shamans led the earliest ancestors of the Chinese to settle down, there has been a tension between two philosophies towards government and the natural order. One is that the natural world is too complex for people to understand, and so government is best carried out by a single ‘son of Heaven’ – the official title of the Chinese emperor – who governs autocratically. The other recommends instead that the world be subject to a structured investigation. This is not democratic, but it is wider than the concentration of power in a single autocratic figure. Gescher also describes the way China has repeatedly fragmented over the ages, only to come back together as a single, unitary empire again, with a quote from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the great classics of Chinese literature. To people of a certain age, the book is best known as the basis for the Chinese swashbuckling tale broadcast by the Beeb in the ’70s, The Water Margin.

They also discuss Donald Trump’s apparent volte-face last week. Before he went to China, he was full of anger at the Chinese and there was much resentment in the American media about perceived Chinese mistreatment. Trump was going to tear them off a strip about it. After he got there, however, and met the President, he ended up praising the country. Gescher states that this has shown the Chinese that Trump ‘flip-flops’. This will worry them, as there is nothing more dangerous than a leader, who so capriciously changes position.

Next on the show is Professor Steve Keen, who has also written a book demolishing economics. Keen’s a former economics professor at Kingston University, though at the end of the interview he states that he has left academia to go his own way via Patreon. Keen, Gayatri and Galloway discuss the infamous Paradise Papers and the tax dodging by the very rich. Keen himself isn’t shocked by the way the super-rich like Bono, Lewis Hamilton and the Queen have deprived the treasury of their taxes. He seems to accept that it’s just part of the pathology of the very rich. He states that they’re terrified of anyone else getting their hands on their money, and so pay enormous fees to people, who tell them how they can legally avoid paying cash.

Galloway is shocked, however, and makes the ironic point that the Queen, in her case, is actually avoiding paying tax to herself. Which is true. He also wonders about the mentality of the rich, who will spend their money on colossally expensive items like luxury super-yachts. Keen states he knows someone, who has actually bought one. This man had a 120-ft yacht, but turned it in for a 140 foot vessel, complete with space for a grand piano. He states that this comes from the sheer greed and sense of entitlement of the rich.

He then talks about the various fake holding companies and offshore accounts that the rich use in order to avoid paying tax in the country where they really make their money. He’s actually been to the Cayman Islands, and seen the office block, where so many multinational companies legally have their headquarters. He states that he read so many of the brass plaques on the building’s walls before he gave up. But it was all a scam. There was no-one in the building. It was all very much a legal fiction.

Keen himself has recommended his own way to stop this. At the moment, the tax on profits allows the rich to dodge paying tax by allowing them to cast their companies as subsidiaries working for a parent organisation somewhere else in the world. To stop them doing that, Keen recommends that there should be a tax on transactions instead, which would bring money back into the treasury and which couldn’t be avoided by setting up fake parent companies.

He also has a very different view of taxation than other economists. He argues that the point of taxation isn’t to pay for government services. Governments, by their nature, create money. They pump it into the economy. What taxation does is take it out of the economy, so you don’t have runaway inflation.

Talking about his decision to leave academia, Keen states that it was forced on him by the government’s effective privatisation of higher education. This has turned students into ‘informed consumers of higher education’. However, the league tables concentrate on the Russell Group, and so the new universities that were created post 1992 are starved of funding. This has led him to break with the university, and start crowdfunding his work. He states that he has a great bunch of people funding him through Patreon, and that he’s learned a lot from them. He is also critical of university tenure, because it creates a very conformist mindset. It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to do the opposite, but he states that by the time professors have done all the things needed to gain tenure, they are afraid of stepping out of line.

The programme ends with Galloway and Gayatri reading out some of the Tweets they have received on the shows contents. Several people remark that, whatever Trump says, America very much needs China to avoid collapsing. And others are about the Queen and the rest of the rich dodging tax.

This is interesting, as it shows that Galloway is a very good interviewer. I also find it quite a nostalgic experience, as it reminds me of what quality television on BBC 2 used to be like in the 1970s and 1980s. No fancy graphics, just the programme’s host or hosts in the studio and his or her guests, talking. You can see the same approach used by Tariq Ali on his TV show. And while it is talk, it’s very much informed talk by experts, that isn’t dumbed down and reduced to soundbites by programme editors afraid that too much pop videos have left people with an attention-span no longer than a gnat’s.

Keen’s perspective on the rich and their sheer avarice is interesting, as is his proposed solution. I’m also struck by his innovative attitude to taxation. I’ve read similar things like it on Mike’s blog, where he has reblogged material from the Mainly Macro economist. As has the Angry Yorkshireman, Tom Clarke. This looks like a positive approach to the dismal science that will break the Tory orthodoxy about taxation and paying for the welfare state.

BBC 2 Programme Next Week on British Forces in Ukraine and Estonia

October 20, 2017

On Wednesday, BBC 2 launched a new documentary series looking at the British army as it’s stationed around the world, Army: Behind the New Frontlines. In next weeks edition, subtitled ‘The New Cold War’, to be shown at 9.00 O’clock pm on 25th October 2017, the programme will look at British forces stationed in Estonia and Ukraine. The blurb for the programme on page 94 of the Radio Times runs

Tensions between the West and Russia have been heightened since 2014, when Russia seized the Ukrainian region of Crimea and also began secretly arming pro-Russian separatists fighting in Eastern Ukraine. But as Ukraine is not part of Nato, no western troops have been deployed to fight. Instead, British soldiers from the Mercia regiment are sent to train Ukrainian soldiers to defend their country, helping Nato and Britain avoid direct involvement while offering a cost-effective way to learn how the Russians fight. Meanwhile, the Baltic states, which are members of Nato, fear that an attack from Russia is a very real threat, so soldiers from 5 Rifles battalion travel to Estonia as part of a major operation to deter invasion.

There’s a further couple of paragraphs about the programme on page 93 by Jack Seale. These state

Just as the British Army is undergoing an existential crisis due to a slowdown in active operations, so this documentary about soldiers not firing their guns struggles to find an impetus. Not that you’d wish for war as a remedy, of course.

The liveliest threat is in eastern Europe, where Russia has encroached in Ukraine and massed troops on Estonia’s border. This week we follow Brits quietly training Ukrainians and openly allying with Estonians, since the latter is in Nato. The memorable stories are of the awfully young local fighters who hope the wolf next door won’t come in, but say they’re ready to die if it does.

I don’t know, but reading those pieces about the programme makes me strongly suspect that it won’t tell you the whole truth about what’s really going on in those countries, and why we’re really there. And we’ve certainly been fed a pack of lies about the Ukraine already.

If you believe the lamestream media, the present government in Ukraine is an entirely democratic regime, which gained power through a power revolution in Kyiv’s Maidan Square. Tired of the misrule of their government present and his pro-Russian policies, the people of Ukraine spontaneously rose up and toppled him. The ousted president then ran off to Putin for aid to get back into power. Putin then responded by sending Russian troops into the east of the country, where there is a sizable ethnic Russian, and Russian-speaking Ukrainian population.

Comparisons have been made with Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia shortly before World War II. These are completely wrong.

Firstly, Putin is corrupt, is a dictatorial thug, and his regime is acute nationalistic, xenophobic and militaristic. This week his government proposed legislation that would penalise parents and educators taking part in political protests if they took their children with them. And as Simon Reeve showed in his programme about European Russia last week, when he covered the case of a woman campaigning to keep her Khrushchev era flat in Moscow against a Putin-backed development scheme, Russian law means that protests of more than one person have to be registered first with the police. And if there’s only you there, you will be still be carted off to chokey by the stern minions of Putin’s police force. Putin’s party has a youth wing, Nashi, a Russian word which means ‘Ours’, which is ultra-patriotic, picketing and threatening those it regards as insufficiently patriotic. It also serves to encourage young men to do their National Service. This is despite the fact that the Russian army is even more brutal, and bullying more rife and horrific under the ‘rule of the grandfathers’ than in the British army. New squaddies, and especially Pentecostal Christians, are beaten up, sometimes to the point where they need hospital treatment. Comparisons have been made with the Nazis’ Hitler Youth.

As for Putin himself, recent documentaries have shown how he’s supposedly funnel hundreds of thousands of roubles to his own personal account. And his former chums in the judo clubs in which he trained have similarly done very well indeed. They’ve all risen to become heads of companies. A friend of mine told me once that the pop band, Clean Bandit, took their name from a Russian idiom which means a criminal, who doesn’t pretend to be anything other than he is. And it’s very commonly applied to Putin. So you could fairly describe him as an ‘arkhiplut’, a Russian word meaning arch-criminal or scoundrel.

But the impression I have is that Putin is justified in his intervention in Ukraine. The Crimea historically belonged to Russia. It was only given to Ukraine in the 1950s by Khrushchev, who was Ukrainian. As for the Maidan Revolution, it was categorically not a popular revolution. It was a very cleverly crafted piece of American-sponsored regime change by the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as George Soros’ pro-democracy foundation. It was organised by Ukrainian oligarchs with the aid of the US state department, Victoria Nuland and Hillary Clinton.

The composition of the new, entirely democratic government, honest guv’, is deeply suspect. I’ve blogged before about how it contains thugs from the Fascist Pravy Sektor. These are real, unreconstructed Nazis. They dress in the uniform and regalia of the auxiliary SS regiments that invaded the country during Operation Barbarossa in World War II. They are anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and extremely violent. During the Maidan Revolution, they chased a group of trade unionists into one of the buildings, caught and savagely beat them. And just as Putin’s regime has cracked down on journalists, who have published material against the Russian president, so the Ukrainian regime is persecuting and intimidating opposition journalists. I’ve got a feeling several have been murdered, just like they have in Putin’s Russia. The various characters in Trump’s government backing and urging support for the Ukrainian regime all have connections to Ukrainian Fascists, who were recruited after the War to provide anti-Communist propaganda to their homeland. And no surprise there, as Reagan gave expatriate Ukrainian nationalists considerable support under their leader, Vladimir Stetso, during the new Cold War of the 1980s.

I’ve seen Russian programmes on YouTube, which claimed very strongly that Russia intervened and invaded because the Russian and Russian-speaking minority in the east of the country was being persecuted and was being prevented from voting. I know this is all dubious considering that Putin does make sure that the media broadcasts his propaganda, but I think that this is very likely to be true. A government that has seized power through secret deals with the Americans and which contains outright Nazis, is not going to have any qualms about persecuting an ethnic group some of them probably see as their invaders and oppressors.

I know much less about Estonia, but it seems to me that we’re probably not being told the whole truth about what’s going on there. The Baltic states were, at various times, part of the Swedish empires and Germany, before they were conquered by Russia. They had a brief, 20 year period of autonomy from the end of the First World War to the 1930s, when Stalin invaded to reclaim them under the deal made with Nazi Germany in Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact. One third of the population are ethnic Russians. During the Communist era, the Baltic States were determined to gain their independence. This may have been partly because they were the some of the most industrially developed parts of the Soviet Union, and were afraid that Russian immigration would swamp them, so that they would become minorities in their own countries.

Since they gained their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians have claimed that the Russian minority in those states have been persecuted. I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but even under Communism Russians performed the lowest-paid, dirtiest and most menial jobs. And there are real Nazis goose-stepping about there as well. Colin Thubron in his 1980s travel book, Among the Russians, describes a nationalist demonstration in Lithuania, whose participants screamed ‘Lithuania for the Lithuanians! Russians to Russia! Poles to Poland! And Jews to the cemetery!’ Veterans from the SS auxiliary regiments that fought – and butchered the Jewish population – in the Baltic States have been allowed to take part in the independence day parades in Lithuania or Latvia. Or perhaps both. Possibly the governments of these countries also include their own, very real Nazis, like that of Ukraine. I don’t know.

As for the British army facing an existential threat because of a lack of operations abroad, I thought it faced an existential threat because of serious underfunding by the previous governments, and a crisis in recruitment with young men and women deciding that they want to do something better with their lives than be killed or mutilated just to let the big oil companies plunder nations like Iraq in the Middle East.

When Communism fell, we signed a deal with Russia promising that Nato would not expand up to their borders. The Russians have been paranoid about Western encirclement since before the Communist seizure of power. This was broken when the Baltic States joined NATO. I supported that move, as I thought that there was a real possibility that the Russians would invade, based on Stalin’s invasion shortly before the Nazis invaded Russia.

Now I think that perhaps the better option would have been to let the Baltic states remain neutral. Both NATO and Russia could have been signatories guaranteeing the countries’ neutrality. They could have been given the ‘Finnish option’. Meaning that, like Finland, they were neutral and enjoyed certain privileges, like relatively unrestricted access to Russia. It could have preserved peace and their independence, while not provoking the Russians.

Now we have had an increase in tensions on these countries’ borders. Tensions which Killary seems determined to stoke, not least by claiming that Trump is somehow being blackmailed by Putin. She, the Democrats and the Republicans in America are creating a new Cold War, part of the purpose of which is, in Killary’s case, to distract everyone from her own corruption and very dubious dealings with Russian capital.

We are not being told the truth about the nature of the regimes in Ukraine or the Baltic. And it seems to me very much that our brave women and men are not there to defend their freedom, but simply as part of America’s campaign of global imperialism for its multinational corporations.

‘Horizon’ with Mark Gatiss on a Crewed Mission to Mars

September 6, 2017

After the programme with Drs. Stephen Hawking, Danielle George and Christophe Galfand on BBC 2 next Monday, 11th September, discussing the colonization of Proxima B, the Beeb are also dedicating an edition of the long-running science documentary programme, Horizon, to the issue of sending humans to a nearer planet, Mars. The programme’s called ‘Mars – A Traveller’s Guide, and will be screened at 9 pm on Tuesday, 12th September 2017.. The blurb for this on page 82 of the Radio Times runs as follows

The reality of sending humans to Mars is getting so close that certain scientists think that somebody who is alive today will be the first person to set foot on the Red Planet. But where should the first explorers visit when they get there? Experts on the planet take their pick from extraordinary Martian landscapes ranging from vast plains and towering volcanos to deep valleys and underground caverns. They also consider what people will need to survive, the best place to land, how to live and even where to hunt for traces of extraterrestrial life.

There’s also another section giving more information about the programme on page by David Buthcer. This says

The first person to walk on Mars is probably alive today. And they might watch Horizon. So here’s a rough guide to Mars, the even lonelier planet, with a rundown of its finest sights, drily narrated by Mark Gatiss.

Visitors should certainly look out for the Valles Marineris, he tells us, the grandest canyon in the solar system at 10 km deep and long enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Or there’s Olympus Mons, a volcano 100 times higher than any on Earth.

But getting to see them won’t be easy. One scene where an engineer describes what’s involved in landing on the planet puts the challenges in perspective. And the weather’s not great either.’

Mark Gatiss is, of course, one of the League of Gentlemen. Having escaped from Royston Vesey, a year or so ago he presented a programme on the great master of the British ghost story, M.R. James, and was one of the presenters of a series of programmes marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain a month or so ago. He is also no stranger to outer space, if only in fiction, as he’s also one of the writers of the relaunched Dr. Who.

BBC 2 Programme on ’21st Century Race for Space’ Next Tuesday

August 30, 2017

Here’s news of yet another BBC programme on space exploration and science. Next Tuesday, 5th September 2017, physicist, broadcaster and massive Carl Sagan fan Dr. Brian Cox will present a programme, The 21st Century Race for Space, on BBC 2 at 9.00 in the evening, on the private companies planning to take humanity into the High Frontier. Among the scientists and engineers he interviews in the programme are Richard Branson and the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

As a new age of interplanetary exploration dawns, it is private companies and their maverick owners who are planning to finance space tourism, asteroid mining and even colonies on Mars. Professor Brian Cox investigates the technical challenges that could stop these billionaires achieving their dreams and also finds out how they hope to overcome the daunting obstacles to human space travel. Sir Richard Branson is among the stargazers explaining how they plan to fly through the heavens. (p. 76).

Another piece about the programme on the previous page, page 75, by David Butcher, also adds the following

When the likes of Richard Branson or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos enthuse about space travel it’s easy to be skeptical. But when Brian Cox meets both billionaires for this engaging look at “the prospect of us becoming a space-faring civilization” he comes away convinced by their vision, their desire to push boundaries and to make sci-fi stuff happen.

And for us, it’s hard to see the various hangars and labs and prototypes and launches and not get the feeling that space tourism, mining on asteroids and trips to Mars really aren’t that far off.

Cox is a good guide, leaning towards the deeper questions implicit in the subject. Ultimate, one designer argues, space travel is about “building life insurance for the species.” Though you hope we won’t need it.

That snippet also has a photo of Cox and with the space scientist, Brian Lillo, in space suits outside a Mars Society Research Station in Utah, ‘exploring the Red Planet’.

I went to a symposium 17 years ago on space tourism at the British Interplanetary Society’s headquarters in London. There are no end of really great ideas, and very motivate, intelligent people out there planning and discussing ways to take people up into the Deep Black for their holidays. One of the scientists, reviewing previous spacecraft designs going back to the early days of spaceflight, showed how sophisticated some of these were. He made the case that we’re actually decades behind schedule in our ability to explore and commercially exploit space and its resources.

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.

History Book on Working Class Gardens

July 2, 2017

Gardening is one of Britain’s favourite pastimes, with programmes like Gardener’s World one of the long-running staples of BBC 2. The Beeb also devotes week-long coverage to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. A few years ago, one of the gardening programmes told a bit of the history behind popular gardening in Britain. It was deliberately started by the Victorians, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves as the patrons, as a way of encouraging the labouring poor to be respectable. Among the other virtues gardening would foster in them was neatness, from what I remember of the programme.

Looking through a copy of the Oxbow Book Catalogue for autumn 2015, I found a blurb for a book, The Gardens of the Working Class, by Margaret Willes, published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300212358. The price of it in paperback was £12.99. The blurb ran

This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the labouring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes’ research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers’ cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive, and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for their workforces, the fashionable rich stealing the gardening ideas of the poor, alehouse syndicates and fierce rivalries between vegetable growers, flower-fanciers cultivating exotic blooms on their city windowsills, and the rich lore handed down from gardener to gardener through generations.

Garden history is taught in some universities in their archaeology departments, and the archaeology of gardens is also part of the wider field of landscape archaeology. Much of what is known about gardens in history comes from those of the rich, the great parks and gardens of royalty and the aristocracy, and the work of the great landscape gardeners like Inigo Jones and Capability Brown. They were also an important part of the lodges constructed by the medieval and early modern mercantile elite just outside town limits, to which they went at weekends to escape the cares of weekday, working life.

This book looks like it attempts to complete this picture, by showing that the working class were also keen gardeners. And its particularly interesting that the rich were nicking ideas from them.

TYT Interviews Young Nazi at Trump Rally

November 3, 2016

In my last piece, I discussed a documentary on the daft conspiracy theories Trump believes in, or at least has promoted, on BBC 2 tonight, 9.00 pm, 3rd November 2016. In this clip from The Young Turks, their reporter Eric Byler interviews a young man leaving one of Trump’s rallies, who believes in one of the oldest and nastiest conspiracy theories of all: that the world is secretly run by the Jews. The young man says he’s very impressed with Trump, as he will end immigration and ‘Zionism’. He wants immigration from the Middle East stopped, as its bringing radical Islam and crime into America. He goes on to claim that Zionism is the ‘biggest problem in this country, and around the globe’. When asked to explain what Zionism is, he states its all about ‘a certain group of people’ amassing the world’s wealth for themselves, and controlling everyone through the education system. When Byler asks him whether Zionism is just religious, he replies that it’s not just religious, but also a political ideology. ‘It’s when a few people at the top, from a certain religious group, control the masses.’ He then says that he is not talking about Judaism, but Zionism. He states that he is also against a Christian or Muslim trying to take over the world, but returns to his comments about ‘them’ controlling all the money, all the businesses and the politicians, who do not look out for the people’s interests. But Trump will save them from all this, as he represents the people and the Constitution, and so will bring about America’s freedom.

When asked if he has any final comments, he states that the truth lies with Alex Jones’ Infowars programme, and David Duke, and urges people to follow them.

Remember the fuss the other year when some emancipated women and male supporters went around wearing T-shirts saying ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’? Watching this I felt that the lad ought to have a sign round him saying, ‘This Is What A Real Anti-Semite Looks Like’. Yes, I realise that he makes a distinction between Jews and ‘Zionists’, but it’s a hollow one the real Nazis have been making for at least a couple of decades in order to try to hide their anti-Semitism. I even heard Ernst Zundl, a Canadian Nazi, being interviewed on Channel 4, claiming not to be an anti-Semite, and to have Jewish friends. This doesn’t stop Zundl himself being a Nazi, purveyor of Third Reich paraphernalia, and Holocaust Denier. Alex Jones is the very well-known conspiracy theorist, who believes that the globalist elites are in control of everything and doing what they can to enslave the world and America. And David Duke is a notorious high ranking member of the KKK. Who will also claim he’s not anti-Semitic, and then in his next breath denounce the Jews for all manner of stupid conspiracies which really exist only in his mind and those of his fellow Klansmen and White supremacists.

But I also felt this needed to be put up to show the difference between a genuine anti-Semite, even if he claims not to be such, and the people, who have been smeared as such in the Labour party. This young fellow uses the term ‘Zionism’ to cover the old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have been at the heart of Nazism the world over ever since the Tsar’s Okhrana concocted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In Britain this was taken up and printed by Arnold Leese’s The Britons extreme nationalist group.

The people, who’ve been smeared as anti-Semites in the Labour party, by contrast, did not use the term as a code word or euphemism for these poisonous conspiracy theories. When they discussed Zionism, they meant precisely that – Israeli nationalism and the crimes that Israel has perpetrated against the Palestinians, including a decades-long campaign of massacre, oppression and dispossession. These are very real offences, not the diseased imaginings of hate-filled minds. The people campaigning against this in the Labour party are not racists, anti-Semites or self-hating Jews, despite the slanders hurled at them from the Israel lobby. They include Jews and non-Jews, who have personal histories of standing up against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, as a couple of recent articles in some of the papers have shown. Those campaigning against the brutal maltreatment of the Palestinians also include very many immensely courageous Israelis, including rabbis, who risk vilification and death threats for doing so. These have included members of the armed forces, who have refused to continue serving because they feel the missions they are required to fight are unjust and too brutal. I don’t know, but I feel sure that these men and women probably don’t think they’re anti-patriotic. I think they probably feel that they’re patriotic Israelis trying to put into practice the concerns for the poor and social justice that lies in much of the Bible, and which has motivated many religious Jews elsewhere around the world to join similar campaign in solidarity with the Palestinians.

So if there’s anyone who’s confused about how you can tell a real anti-Semite, who tries to cloak their Jew-hatred in rhetoric about Zionism, and genuine anti-racists, who attack Zionism or simply the Israeli state, listen to what this young fellow is saying and note the difference.

As for the young man speaking here, he is young and so I hope there’s still time for him to learn better, and see through the poisonous lies peddled by Duke and Jones. Yes, the world’s elites are nasty and corrupt, but that’s because of the corrupt nature of society and the global economy, and the personal character of the members of the elite themselves. It’s not because they’re Jews, or members of any other religious or ethnic group.

BBC 2 Show Tonight Attacking Trump’s Conspiracy Theories

November 3, 2016

BBC 2 at 9.00 pm this evening, 3rd November 2016, are screening a documentary criticising and refuting the daft conspiracy theories the orange Nazi believes in. It’s entitled Conspiracy Files: The Trump Dossier, and the entry for it in the Radio Times runs

With the US presidential election just a few days away, this documentary explores how Donald Trump has made use of conspiracy theories to further his campaign. Should he lose the election, many believe he will cite a collusion between the media and the establishment, but he has also given credence to the “birther” conspiracy theory about Barack Obama – a claim he has since disowned – and made insinuations about the Clintons’ political careers and Ted Cruz’s father. (p.112).

There’s another brief description of the show on the previous page, 111. This states

The occasional series that does admirable work dismantling rusty conspiracy theories finds a basement full of them in Trump Towers.

Donald Trump has stoked paranoia among his more extreme followers, publicly repeating claims that Barack Obama was ineligible to be president because he had faked his birth certificate – the notorious “birther” conspiracy was at one stage believed by 60 per cent of Trump voters.

Most shamefully, he claims the current elections are being rigged, which is why he might lose. These and other theories are given longer shrift than they deserve – in order to be blown apart.