Posts Tagged ‘Philip K. Dick’

Chinese Companies Creating Robot Cats

January 8, 2020

Yesterday’s I for 7th January 2020 carried this article, ‘Chinese companies unveil robotic cats’ by Rhiannon Williams, which ran

Dogs may be man’s best friends but cats are stealing a march on them at the world’s largest technology fair, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Elephant Robotics, a Chinese firm, is showcasing MarsCat, a robot feline with artificial intelligence that recognises objects and responds to being stroked. It has created six different characters for the robot: enthusiastic, aloof, energetic, lazy, social and shy. Its personality develops according to how it is treated: ignoring MarsCat will make it ignore you, while paying it attention makes it more likely to respond to humans. Elephant Robotics is crowdfunding to develop the project, with the aim of selling MarsCat as both a toy-like robot and programmable device for education institutions.

Another Chinese firm, PuduTech, has created a robotic cat designed to deliver plates of food in a restaurant to diners.

Okay, humans have had automatons replicating animals since one of the Greek philosophers or engineers designed a singing bird operated by steam. The pressure of the steam caused its wings to stretch and operated a whistle in its throat. The Chinese had a mechanical waitress in the 9th Century, which trundled along bringing the assembled aristos their tea at banquets. During the Middle Ages, some nobles decorated their estates with a whole menagerie of mechanical animals, often clad in real fur or feathers to make them even closer in appearance to the real animals. These machines have become increasingly sophisticated with the march of computer technology. There was the Tamagotchi and Furbies robotic pets in the 1990s. But this comes close to the world of Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner, in which real animals are so rare and endangered after World War Terminus that humans own robotic simulations instead. Which leads us to the question posed by the title of the book on which the film was based. As AI advances and people dream of creating humanoid robots, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’

Prof Simon on the Technology of Blade Runner that Exists Today

November 7, 2019

This is another fascinating video from Professor Simon Holland. As I said in an earlier blog piece, November 2019 is the date Ridley Scott’s SF classic Blade Runner is set, based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Prof Simon here examines some of the technology that has now been developed, which is similar to that of the movie. This includes robots, flying cars and ‘a polaroid which allows you to see round corners’.

He begins with robots, stating that most of them have been developed by the pornography industry. These are the Real Dolls, androids which have been designed to look like real women. There’s a few photographs of these, shown with their owners or manufacturers. Mercifully, both have their clothes on. But some have also been developed by the military, and these, Prof Simon says, comparing them to Blade Runner’s replicants, are scarier. The robots shown at this point are the humanoid – roughly – and quadrupedal machines developed by the American firm, Boston Dynamics. A gun-toting humanoid robot shows its shooting skills in a range out in the deserts. Despite being repeatedly struck and pushed over by a man with a hockey stick, the robot manages to hit its target. When the pistol it’s using runs out of ammo, they throw it a rifle, which it catches with both hands and then proceeds to use. Another humanoid robot is shown carefully walking along a stony path simulating rough terrain, while one is also shown trying to pick up a box while another man with a hockey stick knocks the box away and tries to knock the robot over.  The quadrupedal robots include the Big Dog machine and related robots, which got their name because they look somewhat like headless mechanical dogs. Big Dog was designed for carrying equipment, and one is shown with four saddlebags walking around trying not to be forced over. Two lines of similar machines are shown pulling a truck.

The ‘polaroid that sees round corners’ is also shown, and it appears to be a mobile app. He also shows photographs of a number of flying cars that have been developed. As for the taxis on demand that appear in the movie, he quips that he’ll just call Uber.

But he also raises the important point about why our expectations of the future are inaccurate. He argues that it’s because we’ve forgotten how very different the world was back in the 1960s when the book was written. This is shown through another set of photographs of the fashion of the period, though I think they come more from the 1970s. Certain the pic of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John from Saturday Night Fever does. He goes on to point out how we have technology that was unknown when he was growing up – computers are everywhere and cursive handwriting a thing of the past. We evolve into the future, rather than making quantum leaps into it. He also cheerfully observes that he shares a Blade Runner obsession with his younger, near-lookalike, Adam Savage.

At the end of the video he examines an interesting photo he’s been sent by a viewer. This is a photo of the Earth from space, with a mark that looks like a UFO. But it isn’t. Unlike today’s digital cameras, those used by the astronauts used photosensitive film, which could get marked and spoiled by dust. This is what’s happened to the photo here.

Prof Simon is a genial, entertaining host, and it’s fascinating that some of the technology featured in Blade Runner is being developed. Scientists and engineers have been working on the flying cars since the 1990s, and one of the tech firms has said that they intend to put them into service as flying taxis next year. This seems unlikely. Critics have pointed out that the noise generated by their engines would be colossal, making their use very unpopular. Living in a city in which they were in general operation would be like living in an airport. The SF artist and book illustrator, Jim Burns, also comments on one of his paintings, which show such cars in use, that there are prohibitive safety aspects. What about accidents? Nobody would like to be around when it starts raining bits of aircar and body parts.

The robots we’ve developed are different from Blade Runner’s replicants, which are artificial, genetically engineered creatures, and therefore biological rather than simply technological. We’re nowhere near creating anything that complex. The military robots instead remind me of the machines from Robocop and the ABC Warrior from the ’90s movie, Judge Dredd, in which Megacity 1’s toughest lawman was played by Sylvester Stallone, as well as the robots in Chappie, which came out a few years ago. Despite the very impressive sophistication of these machines, however, they mercifully aren’t as intelligent as humans. This means we don’t have to worry about the world of 2000 AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’ or the Terminator movies becoming reality quite yet. But even so, watching these machines walk, move and shoot is disturbing, demonstrating their lethal potential and efficiency as fighting machines. Looking at them, I think the fears many scientists and members of the lay public have about them as a potential threat to the human race are justified.

Radio 3 Programme Monday to Friday Next Week on Blade Runner

November 2, 2019

It’s November 2019, the time when Ridley Scott’s SF classic, Blade Runner, is set. Radio 3’s programme, The Essay is running a series of programmes next week entitled The Essay: The Year of Blade Runner, looking at the film and the issues it raised. The programmes are all on at 10.45 pm. The first installment, ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’, is on Monday, 4th November. The blurb for this in the Radio Times runs

Ridley Scott’s 1982 Sci-fi classic film Blade Runner, based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is set in November 2019. Five writers reflect on the futuristic elements of the film and what it is to be human or a machine starting with Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London. He considers Ridley’s depiction of Los Angeles and its life beyond the screen as its influence bled into architecture and design.

There’s another little piece in a sidebar on the same page by Tom Goulding, that says

Like Kubrick’s vision of 2001, or 2015 as depicted in Back to the Future Part II, in November 2019 we have finally caught up with the future envisaged in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The classic sci-fi noir, an adaptation of of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is often touted as a benchmark of the genre. This week the Essay’s presenters offer their thoughts on the film’s grandiose themes, starting with how its dystopian versio of LA compares to cities of today. Let’s hope things have improved by the time we reach Blade Runner 2049.

Tuesday’s installment is entitled ‘The Year of Blade Runner 2: Sounds of the Future Past’. The Radio Times says

Frances Morgan, writer and researcher into electronic music, explores the sonic landscape of Blade Runner, with a Bafta-nominated score by Vangelis, and how the film shaped perceptions of how the future will sound.

Wednesday: ‘More Human than Human – Ken Hollings’

Writer Ken Hollings takes the film’s Voight Kampf test as he examines the ethical barriers between humans and machines.

Thursday: ‘Zhora and the Snake – Beth Singler’

Dr Beth Singler, junior research fellow in artificial intelligence at Homerton College, Cambridge, is inspired by Zhora the snake-charming replicant to ask what is real and fake when it comes to AI love.

Friday: ‘Fiery the Angels Fell – David Thomson’

Writer on Film David Thomas takes a look back at Ridley Scott’s rain-soaked mash-up of existential noir and artificial souls, released in 1982 and set in November 2019.

Blade Runner is definitely one of the classic, and most influential Science Fiction films, and it’ll be very interesting what they have to say about it.

And just to remind you how awesome the film was, here’s the opening titles from Guillermo St’s channel on YouTube.

Examining Jeanette Winterson’s Ideas on AI and Literature

June 4, 2019

Last Saturday’s I for 1-2 June 2019 carried an interview in its ‘Culture’ section with the literary novelist, Jeanette Winterson, about her latest work, Frankissstein. This is another take on Frankenstein, with one strand of the book set in the contemporary world and exploring AI, the downloading of the human mind into computers and literature. Winterson’s the second literary novelist, following Ian McEwan, to turn to the world of robotics for their subject matter. I’ve critiqued both of them, based on reviews in the papers, because this comes across to me very much of another instance of ‘literary’ novelists appropriating Science Fiction subjects and issues, while disdaining and ignoring the genre itself.

Winterson’s interview with Max Liu was also very interesting in other respects, and worth reading. While I am not remotely inclined to read her book, and have real objections to some of her statements on philosophical grounds, I also found that there was much that she said, which I agreed with. Particularly about the exploitation of British communities under Brexit.

The Interview

The article, on page 49, was prefaced with the statement Jeanette Winterson talks to Max Liu about AI and why the novel could die if it doesn’t reinvent itself’. It ran

Jeanette Winterson would like to upload her brain to a computer. “It were possibl, I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to find out what it’s like to live without a body,” she says when we meet to discuss Frankissstein, her new novel about artificial intelligence. “I had a very religious upbringing, so to me, the idea that the body is just a house is normal.”

The 59-year-old wrote about her Pentecostal childhood in her semi-autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). For the past couple of years, she has been reading about AI and robotics at the same time as thinking about Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein. In her latest novel, the young Shelley appears as a character.

“I started writing about Mary in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century then worked my way to the present,” says Winterson. “There was no point setting a novel about AI in the future, because I wanted readers to realise the future is here. We don’t know how far big money has gone in developing AI, but I suspect it’s much further than we think.”

Winterson believes “we’re living in an ahistorical world where people don’t know how we got here”, the pace of change since the Industrial Revolution leaving us bewildered. “By its nature, reading slows us down,” she says,”so I’m pushing against the acceleration of modern life, creating imaginative space for readers to inhabit. Anybody who can imagine something is in control.”

Her new novel’s present-day characters include Ry, a transgender doctor, and Winterson says: “One of my godchildren identifies as transgender and I’ve been reading a lot about that because I thought I needed to understand. The idea of identity being provisional fed into this novel. Much Western thought rests upon the idea that there is a core self that we can know and perfect, but probably there isn’t.

Ray falls in love with Ron, who is trying to make his fortune by designing sex dolls. Ron plans to exploit post-Brexit tax breaks by opening a factory in Wales. “I hate to see how my class has been manipulated by people who have no thought and no care for them,” says Winterson. “I’m ashamed of my country for turning its back on a European project and choosing nationalism.”

Were she to live for another 100 years, Winterson says she would retrain as a scientist. Does this mean she doesn’t see a future for the novel?

“The novel is only on its way out if it doesn’t change,” she says. “In the 80s, it was too middle-class and too male. Then Angela Carter came along and was so fresh, but she had a terrible time initially. The example of English literature’s conservatism that kills me is when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984 and Carter’s Nights at the Circus wasn’t even shortlisted. It was the year before I published Oranges and I just thought: “This is so dull.”

In Frankissstein, one character says the urge to write comes from vanity, but Mary counters that it’s about hope. Which is it from Winterson? “My writing is a message in a bottle. I won’t be here long enough to get my brain uploaded, so I’m chucking this message overboard in the hope it will move the conversation on.”

Moravec, Transhumanism and Max Headroom

It would be interesting to find out what Winterson had been reading as her research for her book. My guess it would almost certainly include Hans Moravec and the downloaders and transhumanists. They aim to upload their minds into machines. A little while ago they held a party at which they avowed their intention to meet each other on the other side of the Galaxy in a million years’ time. Which is some ambition. I think Moravec himself believes that by this middle of this century the technology should have been perfected that will allow a human brain to be read in such minute detail that its functions can be reproduced on computer. This was the premise behind the Max Headroom pilot, 20 Minutes into the Future. In this tale, broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality, is created when his human original, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future London, knocks himself unconscious going through a crash barrier to escape the villains. The journo’s body is retrieved, and used by a teenage computer whizzkid, Brice, who seems to spend his whole life in the bath, to create Headroom as an experiment. The character takes his name from the last thing his original sees before he goes through the barrier: a sign saying ‘Max Headroom’.

Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

I also wonder if she read any of the SF literature about downloading and cyberspace, including one of the first novels to tackle the subject, John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect, published in 1970. This is about Bob Shairp, a man reduced to date and stored on computer tape. I haven’t read it, but according to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree,

it is a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its target, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley. (p. 307).

Future Shock and the Global Rate of Change

Winterson’s comment that it was useless to set the book in the future, as the future is already here, is very similar to the remarks I heard about two decades ago by William Gibson, one of the founders of the Cyberpunk SF genre. Speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of literature, Gibson said that the future was already here, it was just wasn’t spread out the same everywhere, so there were parts of the world, such as the developing countries, where it wasn’t present to the same extent as the more advanced West. As for her comments about living in an ahistorical age, where people don’t know how we got here, and the pace of change is accelerating, this sounds very close to Alvin Toffler and his idea of future shock, where societal change is now so advanced and rapid that it is profoundly disorienting. But it is possible to exaggerate the speed of such changes. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, that argued that the impact of modern technology is vastly overestimated. The internet, for example, it was claimed, isn’t half as revolutionary as it is made out as it is only a development of earlier technologies, like the telegram. It’s a contentious claim, but in many ways the most rapid technological, social and economic changes were in the century following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1937. That was when Britain was transformed from an agricultural, almost feudal country into a modern, industrial society. Britain’s empire expanded massively, communications improved allowed the rapid movement of information, goods and people across the globe. It was the period when new transport technologies like the railway, the automobile, the electric tram, dirigible balloons, aeroplanes and the rocket were created, along with inventions like the X-Ray, electric light, the telegram, telephone, radio and the first experiments in television, and, of course, sound recording and the cinema. Contemporary technological advances can be seen as refinements or improvements on these, rather than completely new inventions.

Transgender People and the Question of Core Personality

I also have objections to her comments about whether or not there is a core, human personality. I’ve no doubt that one argument against it is that many people would be very different if they had had a different upbringing. If they’d been born into a different class, or allowed to study a particular subject at school or university, or if they’d decided to pursue a different career. And, obviously, if they’d been born a different gender. But twin studies suggest that people do have some aspects of their character determined by their biology rather than their upbringing. And I don’t think she makes her argument by pointing to transpeople. As I understand it, many transpeople believe very strongly that they have a core personality or nature. It’s just that this is at opposition to their biological gender. Hence their desire to change. It isn’t simply that they simply decide at some point that they want to change their sex, which would be the case if it was simply the case that they had no core personality. But perhaps Winterson’s godchild is different.

Computers and the Existence of Self 

I’m also suspicious of the idea, as it sounds rather close to the ideas of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmoore that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is simply a meat machine for running memes, discrete units of culture like genes are discrete units of biological information. On the other hand, when she says that existing as a disembodied entity on a computer doesn’t seem strange to her because of her religious background, she’s in agreement with Paul Davies. In his book, God and the New Physics, he stated that he’s prepared to accept that life can exist outside the body because of the way computers could be used to simulate human personalities. I can remember reading that the wife of one of the leading downloaders was a Methodist minister. He commented about this apparent contradiction between their two disciplines by saying that they were both trying to do the same thing, but by different methods.

The Manipulation of the Working Class

I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with Winterson’s comments about how her class is being manipulated by people, who give them no thought and no care for them. The idea that the creation of tax breaks for businesses after Brexit would allow an amoral entrepreneur to build a factor for sex robots in Wales is all too credible. Just as I agree with her about Britain turning it’s back on the EU, though I also have strong criticisms of the European Union. But Brexit has been and is being used by the Tory extreme right and its related movements, like UKIP and Farage’s noxious Brexit people, to manipulate the working class and exploit them. If you look at what Boris Johnson and Farage want, the privatisation of the NHS to American private healthcare firms is very much on the table.

Conservatism, Sexism, Literature and Literary Snobbishness

She was also right about the conservatism and sexism of the literary world in the 1980s. Private Eye’s literary column attacked Hotel du Lac for its snobbishness at the time. And the Orange Prize for literature was set up because it was felt that women were being unfairly excluded from the main literary prizes. However, the remarkable success of women writers in winning the mainstream awards has also, in the view of Private Eye a few years ago, also called into question the reason for Orange Prize. Why have a separate prize for women when that year the lists were dominated by female writers? And as for Angela Carter, I wonder if some of the problems she had didn’t just come from her writing feminist magic realist tales and fairy stories, but also because the genre SF/Fantasy crowd liked her. Flicking through an old SF anthology I found in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a piece by her about literary theory along with pieces by other, firmly genre figures. A few years ago Terry Pratchett commented that the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival looked at him as if he was going to talk to his fans about motorcycle maintenance, and he was certainly subject to appalling snobbery by the literary critics when he started out. I think it’s therefore quite possible that Carter was disdained by those who considered themselves the guardians of serious literature because she was too genre. But I also wonder if Winterson herself, despite her deep love of Carter’s work, doesn’t also have the same attitude that sees genre fiction as somehow not proper literature, as she, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the others write.

I have to say that I don’t see the death of novel being anywhere near imminent. Not from looking along the shelves at Waterstone’s, and particularly not in the genre fiction, crime, horror, and SF. But it says something about the apparent lack of inspiration in literary fiction that it is turning to SF for its subjects. Winterson said some fascinating things in her interview, but to me, genre SF still did AI, robots and downloading first and better than the mainstream novelists now writing about it.

 

Woohoo! Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams Is Coming Back!

February 24, 2018

More good news for fans of mature SF. The bad news is that the new set of programmes, which continue from last year, is on Channel 4 at 10 O’clock in the evening, bang opposite the X-Files, which is on channel at the same time. Grrr! Better set your videos, peeps.

The new set of programmes begins with ‘The Father Thing’. The blurb for this on page 67 of the Radio Times runs

The sci-fi anthology series inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short stories returns. In this episode, the world is under attack as aliens quietly invade people’s homes young hero Charlie must make difficult decisions to protect his mother on the human race.

Another small article about it on page 65 states

The sci-fi anthology returns with a version of Philip K. Dick’s The Father Thing. That was published in 1954, the same year as the serialisation of the novel that inspired the movie version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-and it you’ve seen that, or just know the premise of it, you can skip this.

Jack Gore and Greg Kinnear are both excellent as ayoung boy and his dad, shadowed by the threat of marital strife until the kid starts to have more serious concerns.

A possible theme about children fearing the loss of a divorcing parent never coalesces. Instead, as the boy’s mates get involved, we veer into a half-cocked Stranger Things homage. A well-performed, nicle shot dud.

I’ve noticed that one of the perennial themes in Dick’s work is that the hero is always in a rocky marriage, and the wife, or one of the female characters, is always bitch queen from hell, to use the words of Arnie Rimmer. Dick’s was married several times, but he comes across as something of a misgynist.

Despite the Radio Time’s critic’s sniffs, The Father Thing is one of the pieces that’s been republished recently, and I look forward to seeing it. But we’ll decide whether it’s a dud or not, thank you.

Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams’ Begin Channel 4 Next Sunday

September 12, 2017

Good news for SF fans. Next Sunday, 17th September 2017, Channel 4 start their anthology series of ten standalone stories adapted from the tales of Philip K. Dick. Dick’s famous as the writer of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which the film Blade Runner is based on, and which inspired the series’ title. Apparently, the show will be screened in chunks, with Channel 4 showing the first block of six episodes. These begin with ‘The Hood Maker’, at 9 pm. The blurb for this in the Radio Times reads

In the aftermath of a catastrophic meteor shower, war brews between surviving humans and telepathic mutants. (p. 65).

The description of the programme’s contents on page 62 also adds the following information

A series of dystopian one-offs aims to fill the hole left when Black Mirror moved to Netflix. Channel 4 has specialized in this sort of disquieting Sci-Fi (Utopia and Humans were in roughly the same vein), and Electric Dreams begins with The Hood Maker, the kind of dark fable that leaves you longing for a gasp of fresh air and the real world.

Adapted from one of Philip K. Dick’s visionary short stories, it takes us to a future that feels like the past. We’re in a low-tech city of slums, concrete and 1970s cars, where tension is growing between Normals and Teeps – the latter a race of mutant telepaths whose grapevine acts as a kind of human internet.

Agent Ross (Richard Madden) is assigned to work with a Teep called Honor (Holliday Grainger) to trace the origin of some dangerous new contraband: linen hoods that block telepathy. Form there we follow a moody parable about trust, prejudice and surveillance, skillfully adapted by Matthew Graham of
Life on Mars fame.
There’s also a feature about Bryan Cranston, one of the stars of the series, and its producer, The Dream Life of Bryan, on pages 22-25, with a brief synopsis of the first 6 episodes on page 25.

These include episode 1, The Hood Maker, Episode 2, Impossible Planet, Episode 3, The Communter, Episode 4, Real Life, Episode 5, Crazy Diamond and Episode 6, Human Is.

Black Mirror never appealed to me, but from what I’ve read and the trailers for it, this looks really promising and I’m looking forward to it.

Another Trailer for Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

August 31, 2017

Channel 4 have put up another trailer for their forthcoming SF anthology series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, based on ten of his short stories. This definitely looks like one to watch.

New SF Series Coming to Channel 4: Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

August 28, 2017

Last Sunday I caught this trailer on Channel 4 for a new science fiction series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.

The title is obviously an homage to Dick’s most famous work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became one of the great, classic SF films of all time, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The series will consist of ten, self-contained episodes, each based on a different Dick short story, starring some of film and TV’s top actors. These include Timothy Spall, Steve Buscemi, Jack Raynor, Benedict Wong, Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Greg Kinnear, Anna Paquin, Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger, Anneika Rose, Mel Rodriguez, Vera Formiga, Annalisa Basso, Maura Tierney, Juno Temple and Janelle Monae.

One of the executive producers is Ronald D. Moore, who worked on the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyage, as well as Battlestar Galactica and Outlander.

More information, including plot summaries, can be found on Channel 4’s website at http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/philip-k-dicks-electric-dreams And Den of Geek, http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/tv/philip-k-dick-s-electric-dreams/50380/philip-k-dicks-electric-dreams-7-reasons-to-get-excited.

This looks really promising. Den of Geek say in their article that the anthology format already recalls Channel 4’s Black Mirror, and The Twilight Zone. I have to say I wasn’t drawn to watch Black Mirror. It was created by Charlie Brooker, and was an intelligent, dark examination of the dystopian elements of our media-saturated modern culture and its increasing reliance on information technology. However, it just wasn’t weird enough for me. Near future SF is great, but I also like spacecraft, aliens, ray guns and robots. And this promises to have some of them, at least.

Channel 4 have also produced another intelligent, critically SF series, Humans, based on the Swedish series, Real Humans. With Black Mirror, it seems Channel 4 is one of the leading broadcasters for creating intelligent, mature Science Fiction.

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.

Boston Dynamics’ Robotic Reindeer Pull a Santa Sleigh

December 24, 2015

This is a fascinating video from Boston Dynamics, the robotics division of Google. I found it through the over 18 site, 1000 Natural Shocks. It’s very seasonal, showing one of their young female employees driving around dressed as Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by robotic reindeer.

The machines look like variations of the ‘Big Dog’ robot now being developed as pack creatures for the American military. I can remember way back in the 1980s 2000 AD ran a strip, Metalzoic, set in a far future Earth in which the entire ecology was dominated by machine animals. The few humans that survived did so as primitive tribesmen, dependent on cultivating the shape-shifting, carnivorous trafids. This displays brings robotic animals just a little bit closer.

Metalzoic Cast

And with the world currently in a dire ecological crisis with thousands of species already extinct or threatened with extinction, it also raises the spectre of the world of Philip D. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book on which the classic SF film, Blade Runner was based, where the people of a devastated future world keep robot animals as pets, because the real, organic creatures are either extinct or too rare, and hence too expensive.

I’ve got some misgivings and reservations about robot research, because of the way so many jobs are being automated out of extinction. The Beeb broadcast a programme earlier this year on the subject. It’s estimated that about 1/3 of the jobs in the retail sector will be lost, thanks to humans being replaced by machines. So such devices aren’t the unalloyed good they are frequently claimed to be. But this is fun, and the science behind it ingenious and impressive.