Posts Tagged ‘Prague’

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.

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Poppy: 3D Printed Open Source Robot

October 27, 2016

I’ve put up several posts this week about robots and robotics, discussing the ultimate origins of H.B.O.’s WestWorld in Karel Capek’s 1920 play about a robot revolt, R.U.R. This has been performed using real, lego robots, and a short speech about the play given by a British robot, Robothespian, by Café Neu Romance at the National Technical Library in Prague. Robothespian also appeared on the BBC’s Breakfast TV show a couple of years ago in 2014.

The humanoids in WestWorld are less like today’s industrial machines and far more like the Replicants in Blade Runner or Capek’s original robots. They’re a kind of artificial biology created through synthetic chemistry, and produced through something like 3D printing, rather than today’s mechanical devices. Scientists are, however, exploring various synthetic materials, which would expand and contract similar to the way animal muscles move, which gives WestWorld’s humanoids a grounding in scientific fact, even if we are still a very, very long way away from such complex, truly intelligent and self-aware artificial beings.

Looking through some of the videos on robots on YouTube, I found the short video below for a small, humanoid robot, Poppy, created by a group of French scientists and engineers. This is interesting, as it shows how far robot technology has come, including their manufacturing methods, and how close we are to a true age of popular robotics. The machine is bipedal, and designed to be used as a research tool by scientists. It’s also open source and can be made at home using a 3D printer. It’s creators state that it’s a robot for everyone, and so while it can be used for serious research – the video shows the machine walking along a treadmill, for example – it is not solely for professional robotics scientists, but aimed at a popular market.

This brings the world of R.U.R. and other, similar works of SF, where everyone owns a robot, just that bit closer. Along with Star Trek’s universe, in which anything can be produced using a replicator, an idea which the late Arthur C. Clarke explored in his book, Profiles of the Future, some decades ago. Robots pose serious problems in the mass redundancies that have occurred and are threatening to become worse through their adoption in industry, as well as the possibility that they will overthrow and replace humanity as the dominant beings when their intelligence eventually exceeds ours. 3D printing also has its drawbacks and problems for the economy. One of these is how people will be able to make a living from manufacturing, when nearly anything at all can be made cheaply by anyone at home with a printer. We haven’t reached that stage yet, and possibly never will. Nevertheless, it’s a serious issue that needs careful consideration and debate.

Poppy isn’t the only open source robot available that can be created through 3D printing. A glance through some of the other videos available on this subject on YouTube shows that there are a number of them. No doubt this will grow as the technology improves and costs drop so that the technology becomes more affordable. Assuming that everyone isn’t put out of work by then as more firms decide its cheaper to employ machines than people.

Here’s the video for the Poppy robot:

RUR Performed by Lego Robots in Prague

October 24, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece discussing the similarities between the humanoids in H.B.O.’s WestWorld SF TV series, based on the 1970s film of the same name by Michael Crichton, and R.U.R., the 1920’s play by Czech writer, Karel Capek, which introduced the word ‘robot’ to the English language. In both WestWorld and RUR, the robots are actually closer to the replicants of Blade Runner, in that rather than being machines, they’re biological constructs produced artificially through the processes of industrial manufacturing. Capek’s play has been produced many times, and its theme of a robot rebellion against humanity has been one of the dominant themes in Science Fiction. It’s most famous treatment has been in the Terminator films, in which a virus infects the Skynet computer system, causing it to revolt against humanity, unleashing an army of killer drones and humanoid robotic soldiers.

I found this short video on YouTube. It’s about a production of R.U.R. staged last year, 2015, at the Czech republic’s national gallery in Prague by Café Neu Romance, and directed by Christian Gjorret. Gjorret is a member of the group, Vive Les Robots, which has been set up to get the public interested in robots and robotics. The theatre company took the unusual step of performing the play entirely with robots, made out of the commercially available lego kits available in toy shops.

It’s an interesting approach, even if it means that the physical scale of the performance is rather small. I think there’s an opportunity to stage the play on a much grander scale, using life-size animatronic robots. There is, after all, a robot band called Compressorhead, which plays cover versions of various Rock and Heavy Metal tracks. The ABC Warrior, which appeared in the 1995 Judge Dredd film was also genuinely robotic. It also looked to me very much like a real robot was used to show C3PO’s mechanical nature, when R2D2’s metal mate made his first appearance being built by Anakin Skywalker in the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. The problem with staging such a production would be the immense cost. Animatronics aren’t cheap. The operators of the Ry’gel puppet in the SF series Farscape said in an interview that the portable version of the character cost as much as a car, while the studio version was even more expense, and cost the equivalent of a house. Nevertheless, I think if it could be staged, it would be a fascinating and genuinely thought-provoking experiment. If nothing else, it would show how near we are to creating some of these machines, and how pressing and prescient some of the SF stories dealing with the issues of Artificial Intelligence, freedom, and the survival of humanity faced with machines, which may be its superior, are.

Here’s the video:

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

June 12, 2014

1848 Book

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

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

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

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

The Overthrow of the French Parliament by the Workers in the 1848 Revolution

April 20, 2014

1848 Book pic

Peter Jones in his book The 1848 Revolutions (Harlow: Longman 1981) describes the events of February 1848 in Paris, which culminated in a mob of workers storming the French Chamber of Deputies to overthrow the government and the monarchy:

On 20 February 1848 the reformers and the opposition to Guizot’s government in France made plans to hold a political banquet in Paris. the banquet was banned by the government and, as a result, the common people of Paris held a procession through the streets in protest against the decision. Their leaders presented a petition to the Chamber of Deputies demanding Guizot’s resignation.

The discontent against the government, and against Guizot in particular, had been growing during 1847 but then it had largely been a campaign of middle-class politicians. Now it was the cause of the common people of Paris and on 22 February 1848 the police had to clear an unruly crowd in the Place de la Madeleine. The next day the King, Louis Philippe, dismissed Guizot and called on Mole to lead the government. But this concession had come too late, because on the same evening a great throng of people had made their way along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only to find their passage blocked by a troop of cavalry and infantry. According to Victor Hugo, the people at the head of the procession tried to stop and turn aside, ‘but the irresistible pressure of the huge crowd weighed on the front ranks’. A shot rang out, and in the panic that followed a whole volley was fired. At least forty people were killed. The victims were piled on a cart lit with torches and within a few hours the city was blocked with barricades.

On the following morning, 24 February, Alexis de Tocqueville, a prominent member of the Chamber of Deputies, left his house feeling that he could ‘scent revolution in the air’. A group of men gathered round him and asked for news, and he warned them that the only real danger to the government was if they themselves got too excited and took matters to extremes. ‘”That’s all very well, sir,” they said, “the government has got itself into this fix by its own fault; so let it get itself out as best it can …”‘ Louis Philippe had done just that – he had abdicated that same afternoon and a Provisional Government had been set up.

The Provisional Government would probably have decided in favour of a Regency but the invasion of the Chamber of Deputies by a crowd of workers on the afternoon of 24 February pushed the Provisional Government towards a republic. Paris was now in the hands of the workers and the ‘dangerous classes’. Earlier that day they had invaded the Tuileries Palace and dumped Louis Philippe’s empty throne in the courtyard. According to Flaubert the ‘common herd ironically wrapped up in laces and cashmeres … Hats with ostrich feathers adorned blacksmiths’ heads, and ribbons of the Legion of Honour supplied waistbands for the prostitutes’. Lamartine, who was popular with the people, nevertheless witnessed the invasion of the Chamber of Deputies with fear:

‘They crowded the corridors, and rushed with their cries of mortal combat into the spectators’ galleries. Their clothes torn, their shirts open, their arms bare, their fists clenched and resembling muscular clubs, their hair wildly dishevelled, and singed with cartridges, their countenances maddened with the delirium of revolution, their eyes smitten with the spectacle, so novel to them, presented by the Chamber … all revealed them as desperadoes, who were come to make the last assault on the last refuge of royalty.’

They were armed with pikes, bayonets, and sabres. ‘Down with the Regency!’ they shouted, ‘The Republic forever’. Their demonstration meant that the new Provisional Government was forced to include the Socialists Louis Blanc and Flocon, as well as a solitary but symbolic worker, Albert. (pp. 1-2).

From France, the revolutionary movement spread to Bavaria, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Milan and Palermo. It did not last. They soon fizzled out and were brutally suppressed. In France the forces of the Right regrouped, the Revolution was suppressed and the Provisional Government was replaced by the new monarchy of Napoleon III.

The Workers’ Uprising in the ‘June Days’

The workers rose up again in June in protest at the closure of the National Workshops providing work for the unemployed. Alexis de Tocqueville, the nobleman, whose book on Democracy in America is still one of the great texts of political science, states that they were motivated from hunger.

In that city there were a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, without work and dying of hunger. Society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy; those who had anything united in common terror. There were no longer ties of sympathy linking these two great classes, and a struggle was everywhere assumed to be inevitable soon… (De Tocqueville, Recollections, in Jones, p. 83).

We Need a Campaign, Not Revolution, to Put Workers and Socialists in Government Today

We don’t need a revolution in this country, with violence and bloodshed. What we do need are more mass demonstrations and pressure on the government and the political parties to change their policies. Now as then, people are starving. Mike over at Vox Political and the other bloggers has estimated that about 55,000 people are dying per year due to government sanctions. The rate could be as high as 78,000. This is massively unreported. Stilloaks over on his blog gives the names and the stories of some of the victims.

Furthermore, the working class are massively under-represented in government and parliament. All the parties are eager to chase the votes of the aspiring middle class, and while there is in itself nothing wrong with this, it has been done at the expense of the working class. Earlier generations of Labour politicians included people from the working class, who made their way into parliament from the trade unions. One of the earliest Labour politicians to be elected to Westminster was an agricultural worker, and gave his autobiography, I believe, the title of ‘From Plough to Parliament’. Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Foreign Minister under Clement Atlee, was a dock worker and founder, with Harry Gosling, of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Tony Blair and Ed Milliband have tried to loosen the Party’s links with the unions. And many of the modern ranks of politicians across the political spectrum come from very middle class backgrounds. Instead of trade union activism, they frequently come from a more academic background, having read of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Uni. The Tory and Tory Cabinet are a demonstration of this middle and upper class domination of politics and parliament. They are nearly all toffs with connections to banking and finance.

And the class composition of parliament and the parties shows in the parties’ economic and welfare policies. Any kind of nationalisation is considered unacceptable as they have adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, Thatcherite Neoliberalism. The government’s welfare policies, rather than address problems with the economy as the cause of poverty, blame the workers themselves for being too lazy or ill-prepared to find a job themselves. The result is a policy of punitive sanctions and highly coercive measures forcing the unemployed to work for their benefits to enrich private industry.

It’s time this stopped. We need proper, Socialist economic measures and the members and representatives of the working class back in parliament. The 1848 Revolution put, at least for a time, the Socialists Louis Blanc and Flocon in government, along with Albert, a worker. This was celebrated and praised as an example of what universal suffrage could achieve by the great German Socialist leader, Ferdinand Lassalle. The time is long overdue when a British government also included Socialists and workers.