Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Warwick’

Video of Three Military Robots

October 23, 2018

This is another video I round on robots that are currently under development on YouTube, put up by the channel Inventions World. Of the three, one is Russian and the other two are American.

The first robot is shown is the Russian, Fyodor, now being developed by Rogozin. It’s anthropomorphic, and is shown firing two guns simultaneously from its hands on a shooting range, driving a car and performing a variety of very human-style exercises, like press-ups. The company says that it was taught to fire guns to give it instant decision-making skills. And how to drive a car to make it autonomous. Although it can move and act on its own, it can also mirror the movements of a human operator wearing a mechanical suit. The company states that people shouldn’t be alarmed, as they are building AI, not the Terminator.

The next is CART, a tracked robot which looks like nothing so much as a gun and other equipment, possibly sensors, on top of a tank’s chassis and caterpillar tracks. It seems to be one of a series of such robots, designed for the American Marine corps. The explanatory text on the screen is flashed up a little too quickly to read everything, but it seems intended to provide support for the human troopers by providing extra power and also carrying their equipment for them. Among the other, similar robots which appear is a much smaller unit about the size of a human foot, seen trundling about.

The final robot is another designed by Boston Dynamics, which has already built a man-like robot and a series of very dog-like, four-legged robots, if I remember correctly. This machine is roughly humanoid. Very roughly. It has four limbs, roughly corresponding to arms and legs. Except the legs end in wheels and the arms in rubber grips, or end effectors. Instead of a head, it has a square box and the limbs look like they’ve been put on backwards. It’s shown picking up a crate in a say which reminds me of a human doing it backward, bending over to pick it up behind him. But if his legs were also put on back to front. It’s also shown spinning around, leaping into the area and scooting across the test area with one wheel on the ground and another going up a ramp.

Actually, what the Fyodor robot brings to my mind isn’t so much Schwarzenegger and the Terminator movies, but Hammerstein and his military robots from 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’ strip. The operation of the machine by a human wearing a special suite also reminds me of a story in the ‘Hulk’ comic strip waaaay back in the 1970s. In this story, the Hulk’s alter ego, Banner, found himself inside a secret military base in which robots very similar to Fyodor were being developed. They were also controlled by human operators. Masquerading as the base’s psychiatrist, Banner meets one squaddie, who comes in for a session. The man is a robot operator, and tells Banner how he feels dehumanized through operating the robot. Banner’s appalled and decides to sabotage the robots to prevent further psychological damage. He’s discovered, of course, threatened or attacked, made angry, and the Hulk and mayhem inevitably follow.

That story is very definitely a product of the ’70s and the period of liberal self-doubt and criticism following the Vietnam War, Nixon and possibly the CIA’s murky actions around the world, like the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. The Hulk always was something of a countercultural hero. He was born when Banner, a nuclear scientist, got caught with the full force of the gamma radiation coming off a nuclear test saving Rick, a teenager, who had strayed into the test zone. Rick was an alienated, nihilistic youth, who seems to have been modelled on James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Banner pulls him out of his car, and throws him into the safety trench, but gets caught by the explosion before he himself could get in. Banner himself was very much a square. He was one of the scientists running the nuclear tests, and his girlfriend was the daughter of the army commander in charge of them. But the Hulk was very firmly in the sights of the commander, and the strip was based around Banner trying to run away from him while finding a cure for his new condition. Thus the Hulk would find himself fighting a series of running battles against the army, complete with tanks. The Ang Lee film of the Hulk that came out in the 1990s was a flop, and it did take liberties with the Hulk’s origin, as big screen adaptations often do with their source material. But it did get right the antagonism between the great green one and the army. The battles between the two reminded me very much of their depictions in the strip. The battle between the Hulk and his father, who now had the power to take on the properties of whatever he was in contact with was also staged and shot very much like similar fights also appeared in the comic, so that watching the film I felt once again a bit like I had when I was a boy reading it.

As for the CART and related robots, they remind me of the tracked robot the army sends in to defuse bombs. And research on autonomous killing vehicles like them were begun a very long time ago. The Germans in the Second World War developed small robots, remotely operated which also moved on caterpillar tracks. These carried bombs, and the operators were supposed to send them against Allied troops, who would then be killed when they exploded. Also, according to the robotics scientist Kevin Warwick of Reading University, the Americans developed an automatic killer robot consisting of a jeep with a machine gun in the 1950s. See his book, March of the Machines.

Despite the Russians’ assurances that they aren’t building the Terminator, Warwick is genuinely afraid that the robots will eventually take over and subjugate humanity. And he’s not alone. When one company a few years ago somewhere said that they were considering making war robots, there was an outcry from scientists around the world very much concerned about the immense dangers of such machines.

Hammerstein and his metallic mates in ‘ABC Warriors’ have personalities and a conscience, with the exception of two: Blackblood and Mekquake. These robots have none of the intelligence and humanity of their fictional counterparts. And without them, the fears of the opponents of such machines are entirely justified. Critics have made the point that humans are needed on the battle to make ethical decisions that robots can’t or find difficult. Like not killing civilians, although you wouldn’t guess that from the horrific atrocities committed by real, biological flesh and blood troopers.

The robots shown here are very impressive technologically, but I’d rather have their fictional counterparts created by Mills and O’Neill. They were fighting machines, but they had a higher purpose behind their violence and havoc:

Increase the peace!

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Science Fiction Becomes Chilling Science Fact: Plans for Autonomous Drones

May 7, 2018

Last week, the I carried a story reporting the debate over the development of truly autonomous military drones. At the moment these killing machines require a human operator, but there are plans to give them AI and autonomy, so that they can fly and kill independently. I’m afraid I didn’t read the article, so can’t really tell you much about it, except what leapt out at me.

And what did leap out of me was that this is very dangerous. The I itself reported that there was a controversy over the proposals. Some scientists and other people have argued that it’s dangerous to remove humans from war, and leave to it cold, dispassionate machines. This is a valid point. A decade or so ago, one tech company announced it was planning to build war robots to be used in combat. There was immediately a storm of protest as people feared the consequences of sending robots out to kill. The fear is that these machines would continue killing in situations where a humane response is required.

whistleblowers on the American drone programme have also talked about its dehumanising effects. The human operator is miles, perhaps even an entire continent away from the drone itself, and this creates a sense of unreality about the mission. The deaths are only seen on a screen, and so the operator can forget that he is actually killing real human being. After one trainee drone operator continued killing long after he had completed his mission, he was reportedly hauled from his chair by the instructor, who told him sternly, ‘This is not a video game’. Similarly soldiers and pilots in combat may also become dehumanised and enjoy killing. One of the volumes I read against the Iraq War included a letter from a veteran American Air Force pilot to his son, entitled ‘Don’t Lose Your Humanity’. The father was concerned that this would happen to his lad, after seeing it happen to some of the men he’d served with. He wrote of a case where a man continued to shoot at the enemy from his plane, simply because he enjoyed the chaos and carnage he was creating.

Already humans can lose their own moral compass while controlling these machines, but the situation could become much worse if these machines became completely autonomous. They could continue to kill regardless of circumstance or morality, simply through the requirement to obey their programming.

There is also another danger: that the rise of these machines will eventually lead to the extinction and enslavement of the human race. The idea of the robot’s revolt has haunted Science Fiction since Mary Shelley first wrote Frankenstein at the beginning of the 19th century. It’s one of the clichéd themes of SF, but some scientists fear it the danger is all too real. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, included it among the dangers to the survival of humanity in his book, Our Final Minute?, in the 1990s. Kevin Warwick, professor of robotics at Reading University and former cyborg, also sees it as a real possibility. His 1990s book, March of the Machines, opens with a chilling description of a world ruled by robots. Humanity has been decimated. The few survivors are enslaved, and used by the machines to hunt down the remaining free humans living wild in places which are inaccessible to the robots. Warwick was deeply troubled by the prospect of the machines eventually taking over and leaving humanity far behind. He turned to cyborgisation as a possible solution to the problem and a way for humanity to retain its superiority and survival against its creations.

These plans for the drones also remind very strongly of an SF story I read way back when I was a teenager, ‘Flying Dutchman’, by Ward Moore, in Tony Boardman, ed., Science Fiction Stories, illustrated by David Mitchell, Paul Desmond, and Graham Townsend (London: Octopus 1979). In this story, a bomber comes back to base to be refuelled and loaded up once again with bombs, to fly away again on another mission. This is all done automatically. There are no humans whatever in the story. It is implied that humanity has finally killed itself, leaving just its machines continuing to function, flying and bombing in an endless cycle, forever.

Many of the other stories in the volume were first published in the SF pulp magazines. I don’t know when Moore’s story was written, but the use of bombers, rather than missiles, suggests it was around the time of the Second World War or perhaps the Korean. Not that bombers have been entirely superseded by modern missiles and combat aircraft. The Americans used the old B54s against the Serbs during the war in Yugoslavia. These plans to create autonomous drones brings the world of Moore’s story closer to horrifying reality.

SF has often been the literature of warning. Quite often its predictions are hilariously wrong. But this is one instance where we need to pay very serious attention indeed.

India Unveils Their Robocop

January 7, 2018

And it’s less than impressive. In Paul Verhoeven’s violent and satirical film, the Robocop of the title was a cop, Murphy, who had been set up by the company now owning the Detroit police force, Omni-Consumer Products, to be gunned down by hoodlums so that he could be re-engineered into a ruthless crime-fighting cyborgs. Of course, Murphy then rediscovered his true, human identity through a dream his human handlers were too slow to suppress. Furious, he then went off to wage his war to bring the men, who attacked him to justice and overthrow the corrupt and ambitious corporate intriguer, who had authorised the whole illegal programme and was now trying to overthrow the wise and kindly paternalistic company head.

It was violent and like Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, sharply satirical, with fake adverts for slickly insincere medical companies and sadistic home and car security devices running alongside a depiction of a city rapidly running out of control, overrun by gangs and terrorists. An exaggerated image of Reagan’s America.

This robot, by contrast, is much more staid and limited. The first part of this video starts more or less like a rock promo, with the machine trundling forward to a pop soundtrack. It has now legs, and consists of a human-like torso with arms and a head, supported on a pillar-like extension, widening at the base. There are clearly wheels inside, allowing it to move. It’s Indian inventors are clearly proud of it, as well they should, but its applications are strictly limited. It’s to help in only certain types of crime, and, er, traffic direction. But it does have a touchscreen and keypad to get you in touch with real cops for more serious offences. The company spokesman states that it’s not intended to put real people out of work. Which is a relief, given the grinding poverty in India itself, and over here.

However, this whole invention does remind of yet another story from the hallowed pages of 2000 AD. Remember Abelard Snazz, the Man With the High-Rise Head? The Double-Decker Dome genius problem solver, with two sets of eyes, one above the other on his enormous forehead? Snazz was an interstellar problem-solver, called upon by planets to find solutions for pressing issues. And whatever he did, always made the situation worse. Much worse. In his first outing, he was called upon by the authorities of a world suffering a massive crimewave. He solved that by building an arm of police robots. Who were too successful. Not only did they eradicate crime by arresting all the criminals, they start arresting ordinary people for completely imaginary offences. Like wearing brown shoes as a crime against fashion.

How do you deal with out of control robot cops? Easy. Snazz then builds an army of robotic crooks, to keep the robot cops occupied solving real crimes. These have the stereotyped striped jumpers, masks and hats, worn by all thieves in comics of a certain vintage.

However, there’s a problem with this. Human bystanders are being injured in the conflict between the robo-crims and the robocops. So how does Snazz solve this conundrum? He has another drink of his favourite tipple, the Syrian sentient milkshake, before designing an army of robotic innocent bystanders, who cry out electronically for the cops’ help as the robo-crims commit their skullduggery.

At which point, the whole situation is well out of anyone’s control, the maniac machines have well and truly taken over. Thanks to them the planet is absolutely uninhabitable for sane, humanoid life, and the planet and its inhabitants are forced to leave in an exodus of spacecraft. All the while blaming Snazz, who they manage to get rid of.

Every one of Snazz’s adventures ended this way, with his irate former clients shoving him out of an airlock, or forcing him down a giant Jacuzzi, or stranding him on top of a giant rubic’s cube, which it then takes him six million years to solve. Or falling into a Black Hole. The tales were hilarious, and written by Alan Moore when he could still write ha-ha, rather than turn to the serious issues, which have made him one of the foremost figures in British and American popular literature.

It’ll be a very long time before we have police robots anywhere near as efficient, or even as autonomous, as those of Robocop and Snazz. But there are serious issues. There’s a video by The Young Turks about how the authorities in one American city are using robots to harass rough sleepers. And a few years ago scientists around the world were alarmed by plans to develop automatic robot soldiers, which would kill a programmed, without conscience or mercy. Kevin Warwick, the head of robotics at Reading University, warns about such machines in his book, March of the Machines. On the top floor of his building, they’ve got a robot firefighter. It’s armed with a fire-extinguisher, and a neural net to help it recognise fires. But he points out, that all you need to do is replace the extinguisher with a gun, and programme it to recognise and kill people with blue eyes, and it will go off and execute its murderous work remorselessly. The threat is there, and genuine.

As was shown in the original Robocop movie. In that film, OCP turns to using cyborgs because the wholly robotic law enforcement machine suffers from a series of severe computer flaws. Most obviously when it fails to recognise that the board member, who has been waving a gun at it as part of a demonstration has actually complied with its wishes and put the gun down. It then shoots him multiple times before leaving him for dead.

We haven’t got there just yet, and the Indian robotic policeman ain’t heading in that direction. But the threat is there, nonetheless.

Counterpunch on the Dangers of the Driverless Car

July 1, 2017

Ralph Nader in an article posted on Tuesday’s Counterpunch took to task the current hype about driverless cars following a day long conference on them at Washington University’s law school.

Driverless cars are being promoted because sales are cars are expected to flatten out due to car-sharing, or even fall as the younger generation are less inclined to buy them. Rather than actually investing in public transport, the car industry is promoting driverless automobiles as a way of stimulating sales again.

Nader is rightly sceptical about how well such vehicles will perform in the real world. There are 250 million motor vehicles in the US. This means that real driving conditions are way more complicated than the simple routes on which these vehicles are developed and tested. And while the car industry claims that they will be safer than human-driven vehicles, the reality is most people won’t want a car that they can’t control, whose guiding computer can malfunction or which could be hacked into, whether by the manufacturers or others. Along with such vehicles come increased pressure from the manufacturers for less protective regulation for their drivers, passengers and the general American public.

As for developing a driverless car, which can be taken over by its human occupant in an emergency, researchers at MIT have already shown that this won’t work. Instead of producing driverless cars, we’d be better of concentrating on creating vehicles that are safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

He concludes

The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades in favor of a technological will-o’-the-wisp.

He also links to a report by Harvey Rosenfeld into the dangers posed by driverless cars. It’s quite long – 36 pages. This makes it very clear, however, that driverless cars are disastrous. They’re literally a car crash waiting to happen. The report also claims that much of promotion of such vehicles comes from the insurance. Although driverless cars are likely to be much less safe than ordinary cars, the claims that they will be less liable to accidents will allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for those driving ordinary vehicles.

Driverless cars have been under development since the 1980s, but I can’t see them becoming a viable reality any time soon. Last year the industry proudly announced two types of driverless car, one of which was called the Tesla, after the great Serbian physicist and inventor of Alternative Current. These were withdrawn after accidents in which people were killed.

I have to say, I don’t know anybody who wants one. The various pieces I’ve read about them say that for their owners, using them will actually be quite boring. This is despite the claims that people will be able to read, work or relax instead of driving. But you can do all of that anyway by simply travelling by bus, rail or tube.

Then there’s the threat of unemployment. Two-thirds of all jobs are expected to be lost to automation in the next decade. There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. That’s 40,000 people, who may lose their jobs if driverless lorries are every produced. And they have been trying to develop them. I can remember Clarkson nearly bursting with excitement while riding in one during an episode of Top Gear a few years ago.

My guess is that the reasons behind their development is far more sinister, and almost certainly connected to the military. For years the military has been trying to develop autonomous, robotic weaponry. I’ve blogged about some of the war robots that have been created and which were featured a few years ago in the popular science magazine, Frontiers. These included various types of jeep, which had been altered so that they carried guns. Such machines have been under development for a very long time. Kevin Warwick, a robotics scientist at Reading University, describes how the US army created a robotic jeep equipped with a machine gun way back in the 1950s. This looks like another step along the way to producing the type of autonomous war robots, which Warwick and some other robotics scientists fear may pose a very real threat to the human race as they become more advanced and their intelligence greater. We are creating war machines very close to the Daleks of Dr. Who or The Terminator franchise.

It also seems to me that the navigation software and computer hardware needed for driverless cars will also find a major general applications in other types of robot. Despite claims by some neuroscientists that the human brain is a load of inefficient ‘kluge’ created by blind evolutionary forces that select for survival, rather than particular skill, cyberneticists have found it very difficult in practice to replicate the way living things, from insects all the way up to humans, actually navigate their way around the world.

Think about the way robots have to work their way around objects. They have to estimate exactly how far away the obstacle is, then work out a path around it, all done using maths. A human, meanwhile, rather than estimating how many steps it takes to the object, and then planning a path of some many steps, precisely laid out, are needed to walk around it, simply does it.

An example of how difficult robots actually find such navigation in practise was given by Warwick when he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Science over a decade ago. There’s been a kind of robot Olympics held in Reading. The various competing teams had tried to produce robots that could navigate their own way around the town. Warwick’s team had created a robot with an infrared detector, which would simply follow the light source planted on the back of the human running in front of it. Which to me sounds very much like cheating.

All went swimmingly, until suddenly the robot veered off the road and started shooting off somewhere else entirely, before it collided with something, fell over and stopped. Warwick and his team wondered what happened until it finally occurred to them that the robot had fixed on that big, infrared light source in the sky, the Sun, and ran off trying to pursue that.

This was a decade or so ago. I’ve no doubt that things have improved since, but I doubt that they’ve improved quite so much that driverless cars, or completely autonomous robots, are going to be appearing in the next few years.

And until they do, I shall be very suspicious of the hype.

Who Really Wants Driverless Cars and Further Automation

March 30, 2017

This follows on from my last article, where I commented on a piece by Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski about a report produced by the accountancy firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers. This predicted that by 2030, a third of all jobs in Britain, Germany, and America would be lost to automation. Japan would also be affected, losing roughly a fifth of all jobs. Kulinski in his piece quoted a report by the BBC. This came out about a year ago, and the issue was the subject of a documentary, possibly on Panorama. I think it’s very likely to come true. One of my friends watched it, and was really frightened.

This is an issue I feel passionately about, but don’t think it’s really being taken at all seriously. And I’m very much unimpressed by some of the reports, which uncritically hail every new development in automation as a benefit, without taking cognisance of the possible drawbacks.

One example of this is the issue of driverless cars. The car industry has been trying to create one of these since the late seventies. They’re mentioned in the Usborne Book of the Future, a children’s book about the possible developments in technology and space I can remember reading as far back as 1979. More recently, the companies developing them have been testing them on the road. These have had disastrous results. Several of the driverless vehicles have crashed, and there has been at least one fatality.

I don’t know a single person, who actually wants one of these. And certainly there are no end of people, who feel that these machines would actually be less safe than those driven by a real, flesh and blood human being. But nevertheless, whenever they’re mentioned, it’s always in terms of how wonderful they’re going to be. A few months ago Points West, the local BBC news programme here in Bristol, did a little piece on research into these cars at UWE, complete with a brief interview with Tassi, one of the scientists working on the project. This annoyed me, because there was absolutely no suggestion at any point of the possible down side to the project.

There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. These are the people, who are most likely to lose their jobs to driverless vehicles, as haulage companies introduce them to cut labour costs. Other professional drivers likely to be affected will include taxi and bus drivers, possibly ambulance men and women. Thus we’re looking at 40,000 plus losing their jobs, for the profit of their companies. And if other areas of the economy are also losing jobs to automation, it’s unlikely that they’ll find other employment. But no hint of that from the Beeb.

Also a month or so back, Points West also did a piece about James Dyson’s decision to set up a centre for technical innovation in an old army base in Wiltshire. This was hailed as good news. The programme and the presenter on this segment, Will Glennon, also reported the establishment of a place where inventors and businessmen could meet to make deals in one of the old engine sheds in Bristol’s Temple Meads Station, and similarly celebrated the technological advances being made at the city’s university. They also talked to the head of the Institute of Directors, or a similar organisation. In actual fact, this captain of industry really didn’t say anything controversial. What I found infuriating was the complete absence of any kind of awareness that this could have a massive detrimental effect on the employment of ordinary people in the city and beyond. Glennon simply took the line that this was all wonderful, and something we should look forward to and be proud of.

But clearly, if it leads to nothing but one third of the working population being thrown out of their jobs, with no means of support except Jobseekers Allowance – and what a farce that is, if there are no jobs – this isn’t. And I found it actually insulting that the team at Points West should think it was.

Now I’m not a luddite. I can see how the scientists working on these projects are interested in them as scientific problems. But they have social consequences. Kevin Warwick, the cyberneticist and quondam cyborg at Reading University, actually states in his book The March of the Machines that one of the five reasons he lists for automation is to save on labour costs. Which means employing fewer people. In the current social arrangement, this means more poor unemployed people, with the benefits going to the rich and the technicians and engineers responsible for producing these machines.

And if that’s the case, ordinary working people have absolutely no reason to welcome or celebrate these advances. They may lead to cheaper products, but if you don’t have a job that will pay you enough to purchase them, then there’s no point.

But this seems lost on the producers of the programme in question, and a media and corporate environment which sees these very much as benefiting the rich middle class to the exclusion of everyone else.

As I said in my last post, welcome to the nightmare world of Megacity 1.

Kevin Logan’s Pick of Alex Jones Ranting Insanity for 2016

January 3, 2017

The New Year is a time when the commercial channels look back over the events of the previous year. For example, in sport the Beeb broadcasts the Sports Personality of the Year, ITV has Jimmy Carr fronting the comedy quiz, Big Fat Quiz of the Year, Charlie Brooker casts his jaundiced eye over the years’ events in a special edition of Screenwipe. In its prime, News Quiz on Radio 4 did much the same with a special, Christmas edition of the show looking back over the previous year. So it’s in this spirit that I’m reblogging Kevin Logan’s compilation of his favourite bits of sheer ranting lunacy from Infowars’ Alex Jones for 2016.

Jones is a conspiracy theorist, who really does seem to believe that the world is being run by a secret cabal of Satanists determined to destroy everything good and noble, including and especially America. He appeared a few years ago on Jon Ronson’s documentary series, Secret Rulers of the World, in which he claimed that the global elite meeting at Bohemian Grove every year had sacrificed a baby in a Devil-worshipping ceremony. He has his own internet show, Infowars. His broadcasting style is completely unrestrained. He’ll go off on long, splenetic tirades against the ‘globalists’ he believes are wrecking the planet and enslaving its citizens. He’s also done it on British TV. On Jon Ronson’s programme, he went off on a rant about how Americans wouldn’t stand for the globalists’ Satanic shenanigans as this was the Land of the Free, and they were serfs tugging their forelocks to the landlords, like Europe. Andrew Neil had him on his show over here, in which, sure enough, Jones starting ranting again. This ended with camera cutting away from the infowarrior to show Neil making circular motions with his finger around his head in the internationally recognised sign for ‘nutter’. Piers Morgan also had him on his show for an intelligent, informed conversation about the issue of gun rights in America after another mass shooting. Of course, he didn’t get any such thing. Instead, Jones took great umbrage at the question, no matter how mildly Morgan tried phrasing and rephrasing it, and ended up, once again, ranting and threatening the former Mirror editor with dire retribution if he turned up on the other side of the Atlantic to try to take the American people’s guns away.

This short piece by Kevin Logan, who makes vlogs attacking the Alt Right and the disgusting denizens of the Men’s Rights movement, who are frequently part and parcel of the former, contains some fine examples of unbridled lunacy from Jones.
He starts off attacking James Randi, the notorious Skeptic, who specialised in debunking fraudulent mediums and psychics, before going on to claim that the world really is run by Satanists. He also rants about how men are being told that they’re redundant, but there will be a spiritual uprising of real men against the machine Satanist overlords. He also rants about how it’s now hip to fail and be a slacker, have pus and dead babies all over your face, smoke weed and worship Satan. There’s also moments where he mocks liberals, prancing around with exaggeratedly effeminate hand motions, while ranting about how liberals claim their nice and fluffy but really want to kill and enslave everyone. But they look caring and hip while doing so. He also mixes in with his ranting his personal, family history. In his diatribe against Piers Morgan, Jones screams about how patriotic his family has been, as they fought on both sides during the Texas revolution against Mexico. Which as Logan points out, would make Jones a traitor if he personally had done so. He quotes the Japanese WW II admiral, Yamamoto, as saying that they had ‘awoken a sleeping giant’ with their attack on America. He then claims that Oklahoma, and, by implication, the rest of the US, would have caved in without a shot if the Japanese had turned up in pink uniforms claiming to be ‘trannies’. There’s also a scene where he shouts at someone to shut up, and calls them an ‘authoritarian’, which is definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black. He also rants about how he is being maligned as sexist and racist, and that Fox News will run a hit piece about a serial stalker of women. They will then show his face, turning red.

This is all highly amusing, but there is a deeply serious side to these rants. Jones was and is a very vocal supporter of Donald Trump. He had him on his show several times during the presidential election campaign and the nominations for the presidency. He claimed that Trump was just the man to stand against the globalists, and is still doing so, despite the glaringly obvious fact that Trump is stuffing his entire cabinet with them. I don’t know how many people take Jones or his show seriously. I suspect a large portion of Jones’ ranting is just theatre. He’s got an outrageous image, which he deliberately plays up to as he knows this will get the rubes watching. It’s the same attitude the great actor and drunk Oliver Reed adopted. Reed was notorious for his drinking, but said in an interview once a few years ago that he presented this persona because this is what the public wanted. They didn’t want to see Oliver Reed the actor, he opined. They wanted to see Oliver Reed the hellraiser. And the same’s true, I think, for Jones.

And his rants do show, in a grotesquely distorted form, many of the issues that do haunt the American Right, as well as wider society. When he talks about the threat of the machines taking over, he’s actually addressing a genuine problem that has been discussed by serious scientists. Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Reading University begins his book, March of the Machines, with a scenario set 33 years from now, in which intelligent machines have taken over and enslaved humanity. He has said in interviews that at one time he was very depressed by this prospect, before he turned to exploring cyborgisation. Way back in the 1990s, the Astronomer Royal, Dr. Martin Rees, also discussed the possibility of robots taking over in a book he wrote, Our Final Minute, on possible threats to the future of humanity. And this is quite apart from the threat of massive job losses – about 2/3 are expected to go – from widespread automation during this century.

Since at least the 1990s, and going back even further to the 1960s, if not long before, there have been conspiracy theories about Satanists running the American government. This became particularly strong with the Gulf War and George Bush senior’s comments about a ‘new world order’. This conspiracy theory draws partly on older theories, in which America is being secretly run by the Freemasons and the Illuminati, following 19th century reactionaries, who tried to explain the American and French Revolutions as the actions of clandestine groups trying to destroy the monarchical, aristocratic order of the ancien regime. These theories were later revived by the Nazi and Fascist theorists in the 20th century, like Nesta Webster, and then entered the UFO milieu in the 1980s and ’90s with the emergence of the Abduction myth. This produced another conspiracy theory that the US government were allowing aliens to abduct and experiment on humans, and even create hybrid human-alien children, in return for technological secrets. Several of the people pushing this myth declared that the aliens’ human agents were the ‘Illuminati’, and tried to support this using passages from the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now, I’ve seen no evidence that Jones is racist or anti-Semitic. It’s clear from some of the videos he’s posted that he has Black employees on his show. But there is a profoundly racist aspect to the UFO conspiracy theories he espouses.

As for the homophobia, very many people, particularly amongst the older generation in Britain and America are unhappy with gay rights. They’re also deeply concerned about feminism and changing attitudes to gender roles. This has left many men feeling emasculated. And this has been an issue in American politics with strongly anti-feminist activists like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and Anne Coulter, to name just a few. And while Jones’ statement that the new, Satanic order wishes to make men obsolete is farcically grotesque, masculine obsolescence was the stuff of journalistic discussion back in the 1990s. Some of the female journalists in the 1990s did write articles wondering what was the point of men, now that women had shown they could do their jobs, and in vitro fertilisation made them unnecessary for procreation. A number of feminist SF writers published novels about worlds, in which women prospered after the men had all been wiped out by a disease. Now this was an extreme view. Most women, I think, see feminism as being pro-woman, but not anti-man. As for the newspaper articles about men being obsolete, this was a favourite topic of the chattering classes generally. Will Self and J.G. Ballard had the same discussion in one of the literature periodicals at the same time. There is a genuine issue there, but Jones is probably taking far more seriously than many of the hacks, who wrote opinion pieces about it in the ’90s. Apart from that, Science Fiction has been exploring the topics of sex and gender roles since it first emerged as a genre in the 19th century. One pioneering American feminist depicted a future feminist utopia in Herland, while Theodore Sturgeon described a secret community of hermaphrodites in Venus Plus X in the ’50s or ’60s.

There’s also a section of American society that equates masculinity with militarism and firearms. Not only has Jones ranted against gun control, he’s also spouted weird diatribes about the UN coming to castrate every male. This latter seems to be a skewed misinterpretation of the Indian sterilisation programme of the 1970s. Years ago Magonia, a sceptical UFO magazine, commented on how closely guns and masculinity seemed to be linked in part of the American far Right in an article on the spoof space conspiracy, Alternative 3. This was an April Fool’s Day hoax by ITV, in which a fake science programme, Science Report, uncovered the fact that the Earth was dying. In order to preserve the human race, the Russians and Americans were co-operating secretly to colonise Mars. Selected intellectuals were being sent to the Red Planet to serve as the ruling caste. Beneath them were a class of slave ‘batch consignments’, who were deprived of independent will and ‘de-sexed’ through surgery. The producers of the programme also brought out a book. In the American version, the ‘de-sexing’ of the batch consignments was replaced with a statement about them being deprived of the ability to carry weapons. Which seemed to show how at least some in the American conspiracy fringe equated the loss of gun rights with castration.

As for the ranting about liberals wanting to promote failure as being hip, this seems very much to be a product of the Social Darwinist casts of American politics. The 19th century belief that helping the poor through welfare provision was a waste of resources because the poor were clearly biologically unfit, while businessmen deserved their power and status because they had proved their biological superiority in the competitive world of business, comparable to the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’, is clearly very much alive and well. This also found expression in an SF short story. This described the racial deterioration of humanity following the decision of an American president not to follow the dictates of healthy ‘winner take all’ competitiveness. The result of this was that, millions of years in the future, humanity had degenerated to an unintelligent animal kept as a pet by the new dominant species, a form of Newfoundland dog.

And Jones’ hatred of globalism is clearly a product of American exceptionalism, which sees America as far more virtuous than any other country. As a result, America cannot allow itself to be bound by the rules it imposes on other nations. Hence the reluctance of the Americans to sign up to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, and the long diatribes by the Republicans and particularly the Neocons against the UN. Again, much of Jones’ bizarre ranting seems to be based on conspiracies theories going back to the 1970s which saw the UN as being set up to produce an oppressive ‘one world’ government. This is a government which the American Christian Right sees as Satanic. This will result in everyone in the world being marked by barcodes at birth, and the institutional persecution of Christians.

Jones’ ranting and his bizarre conspiracy theories and political views are grotesquely funny, but they’re fears shared by a large number of people in America and beyond. A significant number of people are alienated from a political system that seems intent on ignoring and marginalising them, and to some these malign conspiracy theories provide a convincing explanation for the perceived hostility and indifference of the government, or for the shifts in sexual morality and official attitudes towards gender roles during the past decades. Not only are these fears and the issues that inspire them problems in themselves, they are also partly responsible for the rise of Trump and the Alt Right. In that sense, Jones and his ranting need to be taken very seriously indeed, even if what he says is stupid, farcical nonsense.

Robots at the Philippe Plein Fashion Show in Milan

December 27, 2016

And Courtney Love, always assuming that she isn’t an android, of course.

I’ve got zero interest in fashion, but this is interesting as it’s stuff of Science Fiction today. I found this video of a fashion show in Milan for the designer Philippe Plein. This was based very much around robots. As you can see, Courtney Love and the models don’t come down a catwalk, but instead move along a conveyor. The music is provided by the German robot heavy metal band, Compressorhead, as well as a recording of Kraftwerk’s The Model, appropriately enough. Kraftwerk saw themselves as engineers of sound, and have performed with robots on stage themselves, or rather, with robotic versions of themselves, as well as cultivating a very robotic image themselves personally. A few years ago one of them published his autobiography, entitled I Was a Cyborg. As well as the robots of Compressorhead, there are big industrial robots moving about the stage filming the proceedings.

The Italian Futurists of the early 20th century would have really dug all of this. They were a militant artistic movement which celebrated war, masculinity, the new machine age and the speed of modern mass communication, like cinema newsreels, newspapers and radio. Their founder, the poet Marinetti, celebrated the motor car as ‘more beautiful than the Battle of the Samothrace’ in his Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, and declared that his movement ‘looked for the union of man and machine’. They dreamed of creating a world of biomechanical toys, designed ‘noise machines’ to be used in their musical concerts, and wrote pieces like The Agony of the Machine. One of their plays was about the love of locomotive for its driver. Plein’s fashion show clearly isn’t about aggressive masculinity, but feminine style. Nevertheless, the performance by the machines does take part in the spirit of Futurism as the art of the modern, industrial, machine age.

This fascinates me, as I think that there is room for the use of robots in serious art. Indeed, a feel that artists, musicians and choreographers have made all too little use of these devices in their performances. I know that at a time there was a vogue for people performing dances using forklift trucks to music. Many of these used to appear on children’s programmes, like the awesome Vision On. But this also shows that the artistic potential offered by machines really isn’t taken that seriously. These were amusing diversions for children, rather than serious art. But the potential to use them for high art is there, as the performance art and explorer of cyborgisation, Stelarc, has shown. His performances are, however, a bit too avant-garde for most people. I think, however, that it’s possible to use robots and cybernetics in traditional artistic forms, like music, drama and dance. A little while ago I blogged about a performance of Karel Capek’s robot play, R.U.R. in Prague, by an artistic group dedicated to exploring the implications of robots, using Lego robots. There are already machines like the British Robothespian, which act as guides in science museums. It should be possible to use robots like these in more serious artistic works. The only real problem with this, however, is the cost. These robots at the moment cost tens of thousands of pounds, which makes the use of more than two of them prohibitively expensive.

While I appreciate Plein’s artistic use of robots in his show, I also found them very slightly frightening. This points to a future, perhaps only a decade or so away, in which humans share the world with increasingly sophisticated machines with a great degree of autonomy. It is no longer a wholly human world, and people have to make their way amongst these sophisticated, and physically powerful devices. I don’t believe we’ll ever see a robot revolution, like R.U.R. or The Terminator, despite the pessimistic forecasts of Kevin Warwick in his March of the Machines. But this does seem to prefigure a future in which humanity has to share the planet with its mechanical creations, who have surpassed it in physical power.

Pro-NHS Political Comment in Paul McAuley’s ‘Something Coming Through’

December 27, 2016

something-coming-pic

One of the books I’ve been reading this Christmas is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through (London: Gollancz 2015). McAuley’s a former scientist as well as an SF writer. Apart from novels, he also reviewed books and contributed short stories to the veteran British SF magazine, Interzone. He was one of the writers who created the gene punk genre, sometimes also called ‘ribofunk’. This was the genetic engineering counterpart to Cyberpunk, where, instead of using computers, individuals, criminals and corporations used genetic engineering to redesign new forms of life, or spread invasive memes throughout the population to control the way people thought. Back in the 1990s he was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 3 series, Grave New Worlds, in which computer scientists, writers and artists talked about the transhuman condition. This was back when everyone was talking about cyborgisation, and the potential of contemporary technology to produce new varieties of humanity. Apart from McAuley, the guests also included J.G. Ballard and the performance artist Stelarc, who has personally explored the implications of cybernetics for the human body in a series of performances. In one of these he had a mechanical third arm, operated through electrical signals picked up through the stomach muscles. He also gave a modern music performance, in which he was wired up to the internet via galvanic stimulators. A search engine then went about finding images of body parts on the Net. When it found one, that part of the body was electronically stimulated so that it moved. There were also booths in three cities around the world, where participants could also press buttons to move Stelarc via electric impulses. Apart from Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Warwick university, is the person who’s come the closest to being Star Trek’s Borg.

McAuley’s Something Coming Through and its sequel, Into Everywhere, follow the fictional universe he created in a series of magazine short stories about the alien Jackaroo and their impact on humanity. Following a short period of warfare, including the destruction of part of London with a nuclear bomb by terrorists, the Jackaroo turned up and declared that they wish to help. These aliens bring with them 15 artificial wormholes, which act as gateways to 15 worlds, which the Jackaroo give to humanity. Humanity isn’t the only race that the aliens have helped, and the worlds they give to humanity are covered with the ruins and artefacts of previous alien civilisations, now vanished. The Jackaroo themselves are never seen. They interact with humanity through avatars, artificial beings that look like human men. These have golden skin and features modelled on a number of contemporary celebrities. They’re also bald, wear shades, and dress in black track suits. Their motives for helping humanity are unclear. They claim they just want to help, and that it is up to humanity themselves how they use the worlds they have given them. But they are widely suspected of having their own agenda, and despite the protestations of non-interference they are suspected of subtly manipulating humanity.

Accompanying the Jackaroo are the !cho, another alien race, who are equally mysterious. They move about the world in opaque tanks supported on three skeletal legs. Nobody has ever managed to open one up, or scan the tanks using X-rays or ultrasound. It is, however, widely believed that the !cho are sentient colonies of shrimp. Their motives, and their relationship with the Jackaroo, are also unknown.

Something Coming Through follows the adventures of Chloe Millar, a researcher for a company, Disruption Theory, in London, and Vic Gayle, a cop on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo gift worlds. The objects and ruins left from the Jackaroo’s previous client civilisations can be highly dangerous. Some of them are still active, despite the many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of years of abandonment and decay. These can infect humans with memes, algorithms that alter psychology and behaviour. The strongest, most intact of these become eidolons, artificial entities that can take possession of their human hosts. Disruption Theory is a company specialising in researching the effects of these memes as they break out to infect people in Britain. This often takes the form of small sects, whose leaders speak in tongues, uttering nonsense as they try to put in human terms the alien concepts running their consciousness. Millar, the heroine, is investigating a couple of orphaned Pakistani children, who have apparently been infected by an eidolon from one of the gift worlds. Out on Mangala, Vic Gayle is also investigating the murder of a man, who has recently arrived aboard one of the Jackaroo’s shuttles.

Unlike much SF, the book doesn’t indicate how far in the future the story’s set. This is, however, very much a world not too far from the early 21st century of the present. The political structures are much the same, with the exception that the gift worlds are under the control of the UN. People still work in recognisable jobs, and shop and purchase the same brands of clothing. Complicating relations with the Jackaroo is a British politician, Robin Mountjoy and the Human Decency League. The League objects to contact with the Jackaroo as a danger to the dignity of the human race. Their leader, Robin Mountjoy, is described as being ‘in his mid-fifties, a burly man with thinning blond hair and a florid complexion, dressed in an off-the-peg suit. Although he was a multimillionaire, having made his fortune constructing and servicing displaced-persons camps, his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster village’. (p. 51). The League isn’t strong enough to form a government of its own, and so has gone into a coalition with the Conservatives. While Mountjoy is clearly fictional, he does seem to be inspired by Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Britain attempting to gain independence from smooth talking mysterious aliens rather than the EU.

One of the other characters is Adam Nevers, a cop with the Technology Control Unit. This is the branch of the British police tasked with protecting the country from dangerous alien technology. Nevers is described as coming from the entitled upper ranks of society, who go straight from university into high ranking jobs. Which looks to me very much like a comment on the privileged upbringing and expectations of absolute deference and entitlement from certain members of the British upper classes.

Apart from the social and psychological disruption caused by alien contact, this is also a world wear the NHS has finally been privatised. McAuley shows the practical impact this has people’s lives. Without the safety net of state healthcare, people are dependent on their employers to help pay their medical bills, or borrowing money from friends. In his acknowledgements, as well as the many other people who helped him with the book, McAuley also thanks ‘the NHS for life support’. (p. 375). Which suggests that he’s also suffered a period of illness, and is very much aware how much he and everyone else in the country needs the NHS.

I liked the book for its convincing portrayal of the world after sort-of personal contact with an alien civilisation, and the frontier societies that have emerged as Mangala and the other gift worlds have been settled and colonised. I was also fascinated by McAuley’s description of the alien life-forms, and the archaeological exploration of the remains of the planets’ previous civilisations for the technological advances these artifacts offer. I was also drawn to it as it offered a different take on the old SF trope of alien contact. The appearance of the Jackaroo is described as an ‘invasion’, but it’s not really that. The aliens have a ‘hands off’ approach. They haven’t conquered the Earth militarily, and political power is still exercised through traditional human institutions and parties, like the UN and the Tories. Nor are they more or less at our technological level, like many of the alien races in Star Trek, for example. We don’t form an interplanetary federation with them, as they are clearly extremely far in advance of humanity, which is very much the junior partner in this relationship.

It’s not really a political book, and really doesn’t make any overt party political statements. With the exception that rightwing xenophobes would probably form a party like UKIP to join the Conservatives against pernicious alien influence, just like the Kippers under Farage came very much from the right wing, Eurosceptic section of the Tories. But its comments on the class nature of British society does bring a wry smile, and its advocacy of the NHS is very welcome. It doesn’t preach, but simply shows the fear the characters have of sickness or injury in its absence.

And with all too real terrestrial morons like Daniel Hannan, Jeremy Hunt, Dave Cameron, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and the rest of the right-wing politicos, who have done and still are doing their best to undermine the health service, such comments are badly needed throughout the British media.

Vaucanson and the First Strike against Automation

October 12, 2015

Living Dolls Cover

The week before last the BBC’s Panorama current affairs programme, amongst others, discussed the possible threat posed to jobs in Britain by further automation. There were extensive trailers for it, and the programme was plugged on that Monday’s six O’clock news. The usual opinions pro and contra were offered. One talking head for the automobile industry announced that there wouldn’t be massive job losses due to automation in the coming decades. They had already automated several of their factories, and as a result had to taken on hundreds, if not a thousand more people.

Well good luck to them.

For the rest of us, the news did not seem to be so bright and rosy. Panorama predicted that about a third of all jobs could go in the coming decades, particularly in the customer service industries. This meant, basically, that shop workers could look forward to losing their jobs due to the introduction of further machines like the self-service tills that have already been set up in libraries, shops and supermarkets. I got slightly irritated with this part of the news, due to bright and cheery way the presenter broke this piece of highly ominous forecasting. It was as if the spectre of millions more low paid workers being slung out of their jobs was just another piece of light, airy, and ultimately inconsequential pieces they usually put at the end of programmes, like the stories about surfing dogs and snails that enjoyed a pint.

There’s nothing new in this issue. It’s been around since the days of Ned Ludd in the Industrial Revolution, when craft workers facing unemployment rioted against the introduction of the new machines, which either replaced them, or reduced the need for their skills to mere ‘knacks’. Marx and Engels themselves protested against this in the Communist Manifesto.

Gaby Wood, in her book, Living Dolls, describes how the first modern strike against the replacement of human beings with machines occurred in 18th century France. The silk weavers struck against the invention of a new loom by Vaucanson, which made their skills obsolete by allowing almost anyone to operate it. Vaucanson was one of the leading makers of automata, creating mechanical people and creatures so lifelike that they raised and still raise disturbing questions about the nature of humanity and human uniqueness. Wood’s discussion of the strike is noteworthy for the way she takes the side of the workers, rather than castigate them for holding up the march of progress, as others have done. She writes

In his funerary tribute to Vaucanson, the Enlightenment mathematician and philosopher Condorcet defined a mechanician as one who ‘sometimes applies a new motor to machines, and sometimes makes machines perform operations which were previously forced to be reliant on the intelligence of men; or he is one who knows how to obtain from machines the most perfect and abundant products’. This, according to the silk workers of Lyon, was precisely Vaucanson’s wrongdoing. They rebelled against his automatic loom by pelting him with stones in the street; they insisted that their skills were needed, that no machine could replace them. In retaliation, Vaucanson built a loom manned by a donkey, from which a baroque floral fabric was produced, in order to prove, as he said, that ‘a horse, an ox or an ass can make cloth more beautiful and much more perfect than the most able silk workers’. This spiteful performance, surprising in the son of a craftsman, was the reverse of his golden duck: instead of producing excrement from a precious metal, he made luxurious silk emerge from the end of a live animal. The first was designed for man’s entertainment; the second was meant to show man that he was dispensable.

The biographers Doyon and Liaigre blame the silk workers for stalling the march of progress, for France’s Industrial Revolution lagging behind England’s; and Condorcet comments melodramatically that ‘whoever wishes to bring new enlightenment to men must expect to be persecuted’. The point of view of the workers seems to have been sidelined altogether in favour of the grant Enlightenment project. The Encyclopedie devoted sixteen pages (not including illustrations) to the making of silk and other stockings. ‘In what systems of metaphysics’, it reads, ‘does one find more of intelligence, wisdom, consequence, than in machines for spinning gold or making stockings? … What demonstration of Mathematics is more complicated than the mechanism of certain clocks?’ In the Encyclopedie’s illustrations, the men are secondary to the machinery. Vaucanson and his contemporaries contributed to a widespread sleight of hand: like wine into vinegar or base metal into gold, men were turned into machines. The new automata were not replicas, but real humans transformed. throughout the next century, factory workers came to feel they had been reduced to the mechanical pieces they were in charge of producing, hour after hour and day after day.

Gaby Wood, Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (London: Faber and Faber 2002) 38.

There’s been that tension in process of mechanisation ever since, between deskilling and obsolescence, and industrial and scientific expansion, improvement and the emergence of new technical skills and industries. Kevin Warwick, the professor of cybernetics at Reading University, makes that very clear in his book, March of the Machines. Among the reasons he lists for automation are ‘reduction of labour costs’ – in other words, replacing expensive human labour with cheap machine production. I’ve a friend, who takes a very keen interest in these issues. He told me that we may well be at the end of the process, in which mechanisation creates new jobs as it replaces old. The traditional example is that of the mechanical digger. The number of people made unemployed through mechanical diggers, goes the saying, are made up for by the people taken on at the factory making them. Except with the mechanisation of the production of machines, this may now not be true. And so the kind of future predicted by some Science Fiction writers, of a society where there is mass unemployment and despair caused by mechanisation, may be about to become reality.

Welcome to the Megacity One of Judge Dredd, where nearly all the work is performed by robots, so that there is a 95 per cent unemployment rate.

I did wonder if some of the managers and engineers, confidently working on replacing their human workforce with machines would be quite so complacent about the process if they were faced with the same threat. Instead with retiring with plaudits, patents, and a generous pension, they had to look forward to joining the dole queue tomorrow, to be harangued by their job coach about how they were only being prevented from getting a job through their laziness. Then perhaps a few perspectives might change, and a few presenters on the Beeb might not be so jolly and complacent about millions more facing the dole.

Simon Pegg and SF and Comic Book Infantilism

May 23, 2015

I was on holiday last week, which was why I haven’t put anything up for a few days. Never mind – I’m back now, and ready to pour more scorn, criticism and bile on the Tory government and the establishment sycophants and global corporate exploiters that support it.

But before I do, I’d like to tackle one issue that’s been bothering me, ever since I read about it in the papers and Radio Times last week. Simon Pegg got in the news for claiming that contemporary culture was being infantilised through Science Fiction, comic books, and the movies that were based on them.

As Pegg himself admitted, this is deeply ironic comic from him. He’s made his name as an SF and comic book nerd. In Spaced, the comedy he co-wrote, he played a struggling comic book artist/writer, who worked behind the counter at his local SF and comic shop. As well as the zombie rom-com, Shaun of the Dead, he also wrote Paul, his homage to science fiction geekdom, in which he and Nick Frost play a pair of SF geeks, who stumble upon the real alien that the US government has kept secret ever since the Roswell crash. The interview in the Radio Times, in which he made the comments, begins with a discussion of his role as Scotty and one of the writers on the new Star Trek movie.

Pegg made his comments about the infantilising effects of comics and SF when talking about how he was trying to smarten up and not be a ‘slobby husband’ for his wife, Maureen. As part of which, he had stopped drinking, turned to living a healthier life style, and stopped dressing as a teenager. The Radio Times then went to state how this new, adult perspective had changed his view of Science Fiction and comics. It said

This new grown-up perspective chimes with Pegg’s views on the culture in which he made his name and plies his trade. As Mark Gatiss said in Radio Times last month, “The geeks have indeed inherited the Earth.” On the other hand, this empowers the fanboy who wrote an autobiography called Nerd Do Well.

But on the other… “Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.

Now, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things comic books, superheroes … Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

It is a kind of dumbing down in a way, “he continues. “Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

Now Pegg hasn’t said anything that a multitude of other, SF writers haven’t said before. Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles, famously said that the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction was thirteen. Brian Aldiss, who amongst his various works wrote the short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, on which the Kubrick/ Spielberg film A.I. was based, was highly unimpressed by Star Wars. In his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, he made the sneering observation of its massive fan popularity that ‘a thousand throats thirsting for escapism must be slaked (if not cut)’. Many SF authors moved away from writing SF over their careers, such as Christopher Priest. Priest denies that he was ever an SF writer, but does not despise the genre or its fans. He’s said that he still has affection for the genre. Michael Moorcock, the editor of the SF magazine, New Worlds, leader of the SF ‘New Wave’, and author of the cult Elric novels, in the edition of the 1979 series on SF writers, Time Out of Mind, also stated that Science Fiction was essentially an immature form of literature. Moorcock then considered that the reason why so many SF writers had stopped and gone on to other forms of literature was simply that they’d grown up.

The great Polish writer, Stanislaus Lem, made pretty much the same point from his own personal experience in his book on Science Fiction, Microworlds. Lem’s an extremely highbrow Polish writer, who amongst his various works wrote Solaris, which was later filmed by the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem has been very strongly influenced by the South American ‘magic realist’ writer, Borges, and was deeply impressed by Philip K. Dick. In Microworlds, he talks about the ‘transformation of trash’, in which the shop-worn props of Science Fiction – robots, aliens, mutants and spaceships – were transformed into a new kind of serious literature by Dick. He hoped, through his own writing and literary criticism, to make a similar contribution and raise the literary standards of the genre so that it could take its place as serious literature. He abandoned this, and the genre itself, as impossible.

Moorcock also began his career keen to raise the literary standard of Science Fiction. He was keen to import the experimental styles explored by William S. Burroughs and other, contemporary, literary writers. Again, in Time Out Of Mind, he talks about how he find his attempts to do so rejected and condemned by the SF old guard, particularly Frederick Pohl.

Now it’s fair to say that much Science Fiction is escapist fantasy, as is much literature generally. Nevertheless, much Science Fiction literature and cinema has tried to tackle serious issues. SF at times has been the ‘literature of warning’, exploring the terrible consequences that could arise if a particular political, social or technological course is pursued now. It’s also been used to critique and criticise existing society. This was particularly true of SF in the former Soviet Union, where writers like the Strugatsky brothers wrote in the ‘Aesopian mode’, to present Science Fictional fables to say obliquely observations about the true state of Soviet society, that could not be said openly.

It’s possible to draw up a list of Science Fiction novels, films and short stories, that have made serious points about human existence and the state of society. Most fans of the genre undoubtedly have their own favourites, or can think of others, that also do this. This is just happens to be the list I’ve drawn up at the moment.

1. War of the Worlds.

H.G. Wells’ novel of the devastation of Earth by Martian invaders had its origins in a discussion between Wells and his brother about the destruction of indigenous, primitive societies, by European colonialism. Wells wondered what it would be like, if a similarly technologically superior invader came and did the same to Great Britain, the leading imperialist power of the late 19th century.

The book remains relevant to contemporary society even today, more than a century after its publication. Stanislas Lem has praised the book for its depiction of the nature of total war, and what it feels like to be the victim of an invader determined to wipe you out utterly. Lem lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation of his home country. Apart from their aim of exterminating the Jews in the Holocaust, the Nazis also saw Poles, along with Russians, Ukrainians and the other Slavic peoples as ‘subhuman’, who were to be worked to death as slave labour. Their treatment of the Poles was similarly brutal. Lem felt that Wells’ novel of alien invasion gave a far better depiction of what the Nazi occupation was actually like, than many purely factual accounts of this dark period in his country’s history, to the point where he got annoyed with them and discarded them.

2. Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel of the dehumanising effects of biotechnology, in which humans are artificially gestated in hatcheries. In this technocratic, hedonistic society, real culture has withered away and society itself grown static because of the concentration on the purely sensual.

3. Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Karel Capek’s stage play introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. It was one of the very first to explore the possibility that humans could one day be overthrown by their mechanical creations. The robots in the play aren’t mechanical so much as artificially created humans, very much like the Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Capek was writing at the time working class, radical Socialist and Communist revolutions had broken out in central and eastern Europe, and the play can also be read as a parable about their threat to the bourgeois European order.

If anything, the book has become even more relevant today, as scientists and social activists have become increasingly alarmed at the threat that robots might shortly do exactly as described in the book. Kevin Warwick, the Reader in Cybernetics at Reading University and former cyborg, begins his pop-science book on robots, March of the Machines, with a chilling depiction of the world of 2050. In this world, the machines have very definitely taken over. The mass of humanity have been exterminated, with those few remaining either living wild, if lucky, or enslaved as domesticated animals by their mechanical masters.

Some international agencies share this alarm. There is a pressure group actively campaigning against the construction of killer robots. A few years ago the international authorities were so alarmed that they actively forbade the use of such robots on the battlefield after one country made the suggestion that such machines should be used today, based on existing technology.

4. Silent Running

After working on 2001, Doug Trumbull wanted to produce a less coldly-intellectual, more emotional SF film than Stanley Kubrick’s epic. This was film is one of the first with a ‘green’ message, about humanity’s destruction of the environment. It’s about one astronaut’s quest to save the last green spaces from Earth, now preserved on spaceships, from destruction. He disobeys the command to scupper his ship and return to Earth, and takes them to safety in the rings of Saturn.

Other films exploring similar themses include Zero Population Growth and Soylent Green. In Zero Population Growth, the world is massively overpopulated to the point where most animal and plant species, including domestic pets, have become extinct. The government therefore mandates a total cessation of reproduction for a generation. The film tells the story of a couple’s attempts to preserve the life of their child after the wife finds out she’s pregnant. The husband and father is played by Oliver Reed, who was a brilliant actor as well as notorious drunk.

Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, and based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room! Make Room!, was the first SF book to explore the possible consequences of the global population explosion and mass starvation.

5. Solaris

Based on Lem’s novel of the same name, Tarkovsky’s novel explores the problem of communicating with a genuinely alien intelligence, and what this would say in turn about human nature. The story follows the attempt of an astronaut to find out just what is happening aboard a space station orbiting the eponymous world. The planet itself is one vast organism, which creates replicas drawn from the human explorers’ own minds to try and work out what they are. One of these replicas takes the form of the hero’s ex-lover, with whom he begins a second, doomed romance.

Among its comments on space and humanity’s place in the universe are the lines ‘There are only a few billion of us. A mere handful. We don’t need spaceships. What man needs is man.’

The film was remade about a decade or so ago by Steven Soderbergh. His version is shorter, but apart from adding a sex scene and making Snow, the physicist, a Black woman rather than White man, there really isn’t much difference between the two, to the point where in some places they’re shot for shot the same. I prefer Tarkovsky’s original version, but you may feel differently.

6. Stalker

This is another movie by Tarkovsky, based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers. The stalker of the title is an outlaw, who makes his money taking people into, and retrieving objects from, a mysterious, forbidden zone. In the book, the normal laws of nature do not apply within the zone, and its hinted that it is due to the crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. In Tarkovsky’s version, the zone is result of some kind of disaster. Tarkovsky’s film explores the nature of guilty and responsibility as the various characters attempt to venture further into the zone. The highly polluted, dangerous environment has a destructive effect on the biology of those entering into it. The Stalker himself has a disabled daughter, Monkey. Some hope for humanity is indicated by the fact that, although she cannot walk, Monkey nevertheless has developed psychokinesis.

Although this is another classic of Soviet, and indeed SF cinema generally, I think it’s seriously flawed. Tarkovsky cut out most of the special effects sequences from the books on which Stalker and Solaris were based, in order to concentrate on the human characters. As a result, the film suffers from a lack of genuine, shown menace, and instead is verbose and actually rather boring. Also, the central character in the book is far nastier. In the final scene in the novel, he wilfully sacrifices his accomplice to one of the Zone’s traps, so that he can retrieve the central, alien object coveted by everyone venturing into the zone – a golden ball that grants wishes. This is a film, which in my view does need to be remade by a director like Ridley Scott.

7. Blade Runner.

Apart from its sheer immense style, and the beauty of some of the scenes, this is another film that attempts to explore human nature through the mirror of its artificial, bio-mechanical opposite. Although it’s told from Deckard’s perspective, in many ways he’s actually the villain. The Replicants he hunts are bio-engineered slaves, who have escaped their bondage and come to Earth in the hope of extending their extremely short, artificial lifespans. They can’t, but in the process grow and develop in psychological depth and as moral beings. To the point where they are morally superior to their human creators. The penultimate scene where Batty saves Deckard from falling shows that he has passed the Voight-Comp test, which judges a subject’s a humanity according to their empathy and desire to save a trapped, struggling animal. It also has one of the most quoted poems in SF cinema – I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, ships on fire off the shores of Orion…’

8. They Live.

This alien invasion drama is also a sharp satire on modern, global capitalism. A homeless construction worker discovers that the world is secretly dominated and exploited by skeletal aliens, who are at the heart of global capitalism. While it’s a low-budget action piece, Carpenter has said in interviews that he intended to give it an extra element by using it to criticise contemporary politics and economics. In the film, humanity’s exploitation by the interplanetary corporate business elite and their human shills and partners is responsibility for mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness – all to boost profits. If you cut out the aliens, this is pretty much what the bankers and global corporate elite have done and are still doing today. And it’s got the classic line, ‘I’ve come to do two things: kick ass and chew gum. And I’m all out of gum.’

9. V For Vendetta

This is another film, which has been denounced by the author of the work on which it’s based, in this case the SF strip of the same name by Alan Moore, which first appeared in the British anthology comic, Warrior before being published by DC in their Vertigo imprint. The strip was very much a product of its time – Thatcher’s Britain, and the new Cold War with the former Soviet Union. The strip envisaged the emergence of a Fascist Britain following a nuclear war between the US and the Eastern bloc. Moore has said in interviews that the strip attempted to explore the moral ambiguities of violence, whether it can be justified against innocents as part of a wider campaign against an unjust system. He also wanted to make the point that many of the supporters of the Fascist regime could be considered otherwise good people, just as many otherwise decent Germans supported the horrific Nazi regime.

It’s a superhero movie, which does nevertheless accurately show the realities of life in a Fascist dictatorship – the mass internment of political prisoners, arbitrary censorship, and experimentation on those considered subhuman or ‘dysgenic’ – in the language of eugenics – by the authorities. It lacks the contemporary relevance of the original strip, as Margaret Thatcher and the Tories did have strong links to the far right. Thatcher was an admirer of Pinochet, for example. The strip explored many of the issues thrown up by contemporary stories of corruption in the political, social and religious establishment, like paedophile clergy. Despite Moore’s rejection of the movie, it’s still a piece of genre, comic book cinema that does try to make an extremely serious point about Fascism and intolerance by placing it in modern, 21st century Britain.

10. Children of Men

Based on the book by P.D. James, and starring Clive Owen and Thandie Newton, this is another dystopian yarn. This time it takes a completely different view of the future and its perils from Soylent Green and Z.P.G. In this future, humanity has been afflicted with mass sterility. No children have been born for 18 years. Owen plays a policeman, charged with protecting an immigrant woman – Newton – who carries the only child to be conceived for over a decade. As a consequence of the sterility, society in volatile and unstable. Only Britain has a relatively stable system thanks to the establishment of a Fascist-style dictatorship.

Although fiction, James’ book nevertheless explores a genuine social issue. Globally, populations are falling, to the extent that some demographers have predicted a population crash sometime in the middle of this century. In Britain and much of Europe, they’re below population replacement level. This is particularly acute in Japan, and is one of the causes of that country’s massive investment in the development of robot workers. Much of the fall in birth rates is due simply to people limiting the number of children they have in order raise their quality of life. There is, however, the additional problem in that the sperm counts of western men is falling, to the point that during this century a significant number will be considered medically sterile. Children of Men is another dystopian work that is chillingly plausible.

It’s possible to go on, and add further works of serious SF cinema, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and The Zero Theorem and Gattaca, with its depiction of a stratified society ruled by the genetically enhanced. Now I have to say that I agree with Pegg that an awful lot of SF films since Star Wars has been escapist fantasy, and can see his point about some of it having an infantilising effect. This is by no means true of all of it, as I’ve attempted to show.

Even films like Star Wars that are pure, or mostly spectacle can be worth serious discussion and consideration, if they’re done well. For all its escapism, Star Wars was astonishing because it showed a detailed, convincingly realised series of alien worlds, machines and space craft. Moreover, the second movie – The Empire Strikes Back – did present Luke Skywalker with a genuine moral dilemma. His friends Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids have been captured and are being tortured by Vader and the imperials. Skywalker is faced with the choice of trying to help them, and in so doing losing his soul, or preserving his moral integrity by letting them suffer and die. His confrontation with Vader present him further with another, particularly acute moral dilemma. Vader reveals himself to be his father, and so if he kills him, he commits parricide, a particularly abhorrent crime. This also has literary antecedents. In one of the medieval Romances, the hero is faced with the revelation that the leader of the foreign army devastating his lord’s realm is his father, and so he is confronted with the terrible dilemma of having to kill him.

Now I don’t think that the potential of Science Fiction to explore mature issues and genuinely relevant problems has been fully explored in the cinema. One of the solutions to the problem is for fans of genre cinema to try and support the more intelligent SF movies that are released, such as Moon, which came out a few years ago. This would show producers and directors that there’s a ready audience for genuine, thought-provoking, intelligent SF as well as the gung-ho, action escapism.