Posts Tagged ‘Czech’

West World and the Original Robots of R.U.R.

October 23, 2016

A few weeks ago H.B.O. launched the latest SF blockbuster show, West World. It’s a TV series based on the 1970s film of the same name, written by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton’s Jurassic Park nearly twenty years or so later, West World is about a fantasy amusement, presided over by a sinister inventor played by Anthony Hopkins, the man who scared audiences witless as the cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs and its sequel, Hannibal. While Jurassic Park was about scientific attempts to recreate the dinosaurs for popular amusement, in West World the amusement park was a resort which attempted to recreate past eras for fun. This included the Middle Ages, and a section devoted to the old West. Like Jurassic Park, things go disastrously wrong. A computer malfunction makes the robots break the inbuilt restrictions on their behaviour, so that they gain autonomy and independence. In the medieval part of the resort, a man, who is used to getting his way with the female androids has his advances rebuffed with the curt answer, ‘Methinks Sir forgets himself’. But the real action of the story is the attempts by the movie’s hero over in the West World part of the resort to overcome the black-garbed, robot gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner. Like Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films, the gunslinger is an implacable, unstoppable killing machine, and the hero has to destroy it before it kills him, just like it gunned down his friend.

The TV series has adapted and altered the story. The gunman is now human, rather than robotic, and the focus seems to have shifted more to the robots than the humans. They are the victims of the humans enjoying the resort, who come to act out terrible fantasies of rape and killing that they would never dare consider doing in the real world to other human beings. The robot hosts they use – and abuse – are repaired and have their memories wiped ready for the next set of visitors to do the same, all over again. But attempts to give the machines consciousness have had an effect. The machines are beginning to remember. The press releases to the series state that its premise is not about machines developing consciousness and intelligence, but what they will make of us when they do.

The artificial humans in West World are less robots in the sense of mechanical people, than artificial humans. The titles show artificial tendons and muscles being placed on synthetic skeletons by robotic arms in a more developed version of 3D printing.

This conception of artificial humans shows the influence of Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film changed Dick’s androids to ‘replicants’, artificial men and women created through sophisticated genetic engineering for use as slave soldiers and sex workers. Produced by the Tyrell Corporation under the slogan ‘More Human Than Human’, these genetic constructs have a desire for freedom and longevity. In order to stop them overthrowing humanity, they only have a lifespan of six years or so. They are also becoming increasingly sophisticated psychologically and emotionally. In the book and film, they can only be distinguished from natural people through the Voight-Comp Test. This is a complex psychological test in which the subjects have to answer a series of questions. Part of this is to measure their capacity for empathy. Replicants generally are unable to sympathise or understand others’ suffering. The test asks those undergoing its questions to imagine their in a desert. They see a tortoise lying on its back, dying in the hot sun. The animal is clearly in pain and dying, but they don’t help it. Why not? At the end of the movie, Deckard, the film’s hero, a Blade Runner – the special policemen charged with catching and ‘retiring’ replicants that have made it down to Earth, is in serious danger. In his battle with Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader and now their only survivor after he has tracked them all down, Deckard has failed to make a jump across two of the buried skyscrapers underneath the sprawling future LA. He is hanging from a girder, about to fall to his death. Until Batty, before his own programmed obsolescence kills him, pulls him to safety. Batty has developed genuine sympathy for another stricken creature. He has triumphantly passed the Voight-Comp test, and shown more humanity than the humans who made him and who enslave his kind.

It’s a very old theme, which goes all the way back to one of the very first Science Fiction plays, if not the very first SF play, to deal with a robot revolt, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Written by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, this was the play that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. The word comes from the Czech for ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. It’s set in a company producing these artificial people, which are used for everything from factory workers to domestic servants. They have also been stripped of complex emotional responses to make them suitable servants. But as with the synthetic hosts of West World, this is breaking down. Instead of simply performing their tasks, the robots are increasingly stopping and refusing to work. They simply stand there, grinding their teeth. Eventually their growing dissatisfaction turns from simple recalcitrance to outright revolt. The machines rebel, exterminating humanity and leaving the company’s accountant, Alquist, as the only survivor.

Like Blade Runner’s replicants and the synthetic hosts of West World, Capek’s robots were not machine so much as creatures produced through a kind of artificial biology. In the first act, the company’s general manager, Domain, explains the origins of the robots in the biological researches of the biologist, Rossum, to Helena Glory, the daughter of an Oxbridge prof.

‘It was in the year 1922’, informs Domain, ‘that old Rossum the great physiologist, who was then quite a young scientist, betook himself to this distant island for the purpose of studying the ocean fauna, full stop. On this occasion he attempted by chemical synthesis to imitate the living matter known as protoplasm, until he suddenly discovered a substance which behaved exactly like living matter, although its chemical composition was different; that was in the year 1932, exactly four hundred years after the discovery of America, whew!’ (The Brothers Capek, R.U.R. and The Insect Play(Oxford: OUP 1961) p. 5). Later Domain tells Helena a little about the industrial processes in which the robots are manufactured:

Domain: … Midday. The Robots don’t know when to stop work. In two hours I’ll show you the kneading-trough.

Helena: What kneading-trough?

Domain. [Dryly] The pestles and mortar as it were for beating up the paste. In each one we mix the ingredients for a thousand Robots at one operation. Then there are the vats for the preparation of liver, brains, and so on. They you’ll see the bone factory. After that I’ll show you the spinning-mill.

Helena: What spinning-mill?

Domain: For weaving nerves and veins. Miles and miles of digestive tubes pass through it at a stretch. Then there’s the fitting shed, where all the parts are put together, like motor-cars. Next comes the drying-kiln and the warehouse in which the new products work. (p. 15).

Like Blade Runner, the robots of R.U.R. end by becoming human emotionally. Just as the replicants in Blade Runner have a severely limited lifetime, so Capek’s Robots, as beings created purely for work, are sterile. After their victory, they approach Alquist requesting that more of them be created as their numbers of falling. Despite their entreaties, Alquist can’t. He is not a scientist, and the last of the company’s management destroyed the manuscript describing how they were made before they themselves were killed. Radius, the leader of the robots, requests Alquist to find out by dissecting living robots. When Primus, one of the male robots, and Helena, a female robot, each defend the other, refusing to let Alquist take them for experimentation, the old accountant realises that the mystery of their reproduction has been solved. The play ends with him reciting the text of Genesis describing God’s creation of Man. The last lines are him reciting the Nunc Dimissit : ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy will, for mine eye have seen Thy salvation.’

This last marks the major difference between R.U.R. and modern treatments of the rise of robots and their possible replacement of humanity: R.U.R. is explicitly Christian in its underlying tone. It’s stated very clearly that Rossum was a militant atheist, who wanted to play God in order to show that God is unnecessary for the emergence of life. The ending, however, is ambiguous. Rossum was an anti-theist, but his artificial creations, which are based on a chemistry not found in nature, clearly work, and in turn become genuine, self-perpetuating, authentic men and women with intelligence, emotions and morality.

Some critics have said that R.U.R. really isn’t SF so much as a technological parable about the threat of Communism. It was written in 1920, a few years after the Russian Revolution and similar outbreaks of working class militancy across Europe, including Germany, Austria and Hungary. But other works, that are undoubtedly considered Science Fiction, are also veiled comments on events and issues of the time. Much of the SF of the former Soviet Union, like that of the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote the classic Stalker, was written in the ‘Aesopian Mode’. They were intended as parables to say in veiled form truths and comments that could not be overtly made under Soviet censorship.

And the conception of robots as a form of genuine artificial life does seem to be based on some of the scientific speculation of the time. Russian scientists, such as Oparin, were acutely interested in the emergence of life on the prehistoric Earth, and devised several experiments to suggest how the chemicals necessary for life may have been formed. And the Communists, as militant atheists, were keen supporters of Darwinian evolution, though I think they viewed it as proceeding through a form of dialectal materialism, and so bearing that theory out, rather than some of the more sophisticated, non-Marxist conceptions that have occurred later. Russian Cosmists, like the Transhumanists today, wished to develop scientific methods of resurrecting the dead and then colonising space as a suitable habitat for the new, perfected humanity.

Furthermore, some experiments and speculation in robotics has moved away from simple, mechanical processes. Human muscles operate biochemically. Messages from nerves changes the shape of the molecules composing muscles, which in turn makes those same muscles contract or expand, moving the organism’s limbs. Some scientists have therefore worked on trying to mimic this process of movement using artificial substances, rather than existing electrical or petrol-driven motors. This brings the construction of robots very close the type of 3D printing shown in West World’s titles.

My own feeling is that it will be a very long time, if ever, before humanity produces anything like the sentient robots of SF. As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the scientists interviewed by the science magazine, Frontiers, in 1998 stated that he didn’t think we’d see genuinely conscious, intelligent robots in his lifetime. Anthony Hopkins in an interview in this week’s Radio Times makes the same point, stating that we haven’t created anything as simply as a single cell. This does not mean that humanity won’t, or detract from stories about robots as entertainment, or as the means by which philosophical issues about creation, the nature of life and humanity, consciousness and intelligence, can be explored. West World in this sense is part of a trend in recent screen SF attempting to explore these issues intelligently, such as Automata and The Machine. These new treatments are far more secular, but as philosophical treatments of the underlying issues, rather than simple stories about warfare between humanity and its creations, like the Terminator, they also follow in a long line that goes all the way back to Capek.

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The Immense Popularity of the Beveridge Report, and its Reception by Labour and the Tories

March 11, 2016

A week or so ago I had a debate on here with a critic, who objected to my crediting Aneurin Bevan with the creation of the NHS. He asserted that the Beveridge Report, on which the NHS is based, was a policy of the wartime National Government, and also had Conservative support.

This is true. However, the Beveridge Report was based on the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb and the Socialist Medical Association, who had been demanding a free medical service for decades. Indeed, a free health service had been Labour party policy since the 1930s. And while the Tories in the Coalition government also supported Beveridge’s outline of the welfare state, it had particularly strong support in the Labour party.

Pauline Gregg in her book, The Welfare State, describes the massive popularity the Beveridge Report enjoyed with just about all parts of the British population on pages 19-20.

On November 20, 1942, only seventeen months after the appointment of the Committee, it was ready and signed. On December 2, it was made available to the public, and seen at once to go even beyond the expectations of The Times. Though called, simply, Social Insurance and Allied Services, it was an eloquent cry to end poverty, disease, and unemployment, and purported to supply the means of doing so. Its appeal was instantaneous. Queues besieged the Stationary Office in Kingsway. Not only the Press but BBC news bulletins summarized the Report. Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, needed only a few hours in which to perceive its enormous propaganda value, and soon it was being trumpeted across the world in many languages. At the cost of 2s, the then normal price of a government White Paper, it immediately became a best-seller at home and abroad, the subject of leading articles, letters to the Press, speeches and discussions at every level of society. Beveridge himself explained his Plan to millions on the radio and on the cinema screen, as well as addressing countless meetings. In twelve months 256,000 copies of the full Report were sold, 369,000 copies of an abridged edition, 40,000 copies of an American edition. Permission was given for translation into Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Translations were published in Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, and Switzerland. Parts 1 and VI were translated into Czech, the abridgement into Italian and Chinese.

The Trades Union Congress and the Co-operative Party gave it their blessing. the National Council of Labour, representing all the bodies of organized Labour, called for the legislation necessary to implement the Report at an early date. The Liberal Party supported it, and through Geoffrey Mander welcomed the general principles of “that momentous report”. A group of young Tories tabled a motion in the House of Commons requiring the Government “to set up forthwith the proposed Ministry of Social Security for the purpose of giving effect to the principles of the Report”. “We believe”, said Quintin Hogg, who sponsored this motion, “the keynote of the restatement of political controversy after the war to be practical idealism.” The Beveridge scheme, said another Tory Member of Parliament, “touches the individual life of every man, woman and child in the country and reaches deep down into the homes of the people”. The Labour Party made the Report peculiarly its own. “It expresses”, said Sydney Silverman at its Conference in 1943, “the basic principle of this Party, the only thing which entitled us at the beginning and entitles us now to regard ourselves as fundamentally different from all other parties.” The Report, wrote The Times, had changed the phrase “freedom from want” from a vague though deeply felt aspiration into a plainly realizable project of national endeavour. “Sir William Beveridge and his colleagues have put the nation deeply in their debt, not mere for a confident assurance that the poor need not always be with us, but far a masterly exposition of the ways and means whereby the fact and the fear of involuntary poverty can be speedily abolished altogether.” The Report, it concluded, “is a momentous document which should and must exercise a profound and immediate influence on the direction of social changes in Britain.

Gregg notes on page 23 that in the House of Commons, when it came to a vote only a minority voted for the immediate implementation of the policy. In the end the Labour Party tabled an amendment calling for the early implementation of Beveridge’s plan as a test of Parliament’s sincerity. She also notes on page 25 that many Tory MPs voted against the motion as a reaction against the Plan’s support by Labour.

Meanwhile the Labour amendment was put to the House of Commons. “The Beveridge Plan”, said James Griffiths, moving it, “has become in the minds of the people and the nation both a symbol and a test. It has become, first of all symbol of the kind of Britain we are determined to build when the victory is won, a Britain in which the mass of the people shall ensured security from preventable want. Almost … every comment that has been made in the Press and on the platform since the Report was issued, the widespread interest taken in it and in its proposals, and the almost universal support given to it, are clear indications that the Report and the plan meet a deep-felt need in the minds and hearts of our people.”

But the effect of calling upon a Labour amendment was to unite the Tories against it, in spite of their own speeches, and Griffiths’ amendment was lost by 335 votes to 119, leaving the original non-committal motion to stand. It was a regrettable position. After the welcome and the publicity given to Beveridge’s proposals, and the high hopes raised, the Report was accepted by then sent to another Committee at Whitehall, who spent nearly two years considering it. Further consideration of details had, indeed, been assumed by its author. But the impression given was of shelving the Report, of wriggling out of the proposals. “This”, said Griffiths after the counting of the votes in the House of Commons,” makes the return of the Labour Party to power at the next election an absolute certainty.”

(My emphasis).

The commenter also found my story, about how the pharmacist father of one of my mother’s friends declared he was going to vote Labour because so many people needed the NHS ‘absurd’. This was presumably because he couldn’t accept the idea of a true-blue Tory businessman ever voting Labour. But this paragraph shows this was pretty much what did happen, and the government knew it the moment the Tories voted against the Labour motion.

As for Sydney Silverman’s statement that support for the welfare state is what makes the Labour party fundamentally different from all other parties, it’s a pity that this wasn’t taken on board by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they decided to continue Thatcher’s programme of dismantling the welfare state and privatising the NHS. And it’s a pit that it isn’t recognised by Bliar’s successors – Liz Kendall and now Dan Jarvis.

Minister’s Mock Funeral in 1848 – Time for a Revival for Iain Duncan Smith?

June 12, 2014

1848 Book

I’ve been reading Mike Rapport’s book, 1848 – Year of Revolution (London: Little, Brown & Co 2008). This is about the ‘year of revolutions’, which saw uprisings against the old, Conservative orders and empires break out across Europe, in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt, Milan, Venice, Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Galicia. Liberals and Democrats rose up in the hope of establishing more representative electoral systems, a wider franchise, or the abolition of the monarchies altogether. German and Italian Nationalists attempted to create a united Germany and Italy out of the various independent states in which their nations were separated, while Polish, Czech, Slovak, Magyar, Romanian, Serb and Croat nationalists attempted to forge their own states with a greater or lesser degree of autonomy and independence. This was also the year of the publication of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, when Europe was indeed haunted by workers’ protests and uprisings against the grinding poverty and squalor of the new, industrial age. These revolutions ultimately failed because of the contradictory demands and aspirations of the various groups involved, which then clashed with each other, allowing the conservatives to reassert themselves. It’s a gripping book, and I intend to give it a fuller review when I’ve read it.

I found an interesting piece of political theatre in the description of the workers’ protests against the return of the Emperor Ferdinand to Vienna on the 21st August 1848. The city, like many of the other revolutionary centres elsewhere, was suffering from economic depression, and a programme of public works had been put into practice to provide jobs for the unemployed. There was, however, pressure on the government to close them down in order to save money. The government chose instead to cut wages for those employed on them. The result was a workers’ demonstration through the suburbs on the 21st. The next day, the workers built an effigy of the minister for public works, and held a mock funeral for it. They declared that he had choked to death on the money he had taken from the unemployed. This unrest finally culminated in armed conflict between the workers and the National Guard on the 23rd, which saw the protest quashed.

The bitterly ironic declaration that the minister had choked to death on the money extracted from the unemployed could equally be applied to Iain Duncan Smith and the rest of the Tory and Tory Democrat coalition. After all, IDS and his fellows, Mike Penning and Esther McVey, have similarly provided over a system of public works, though one intended to give the illusion only of providing work. The wages for those on workfare is similarly smaller than that for ordinary work: it’s simply the claimant’s jobseekers’ allowance. And all this has been inflicted on the unemployed partly under the rationale that it is sound fiscal policy and balancing the budget.

So I think that the next time there’s a demonstration against IDS, Osbo, Cameron and the rest of them, it would be more than fitting for a mock funeral to be held for them. There is, however, one difference: IDS may not have choked to death on the money he’s extracted from the unemployed, the poor, and disabled, but too many of them have been killed for the governments’ savings. About 220 per week, or three every four hours. This should be more than enough to bury him politically.