Posts Tagged ‘Stanislaw Lem’

Hyper Evolution – The Rise of the Robots Part 2

August 5, 2017

Wednesday evening I sat down to watch the second part of the BBC 4 documentary, Hyperevolution: the Rise of the Robots, in which the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod and the electronics engineer Prof. Danielle George trace the development of robots from the beginning of the 20th century to today. I blogged about the first part of the show on Tuesday in a post about another forthcoming programme on the negative consequences of IT and automation, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The tone of Hyperevolution is optimistic and enthusiastic, with one or two qualms from Garrod, who fears that robots may pose a threat to humanity. The programme states that robots are an evolving species, and that we are well on the way to developing true Artificial Intelligence.

Last week, Garrod went off to meet a Japanese robotics engineer, whose creation had been sent up to keep a Japanese astronaut company of the International Space Station. Rocket launches are notoriously expensive, and space is a very, very expensive premium. So it was no surprise that the robot was only about four inches tall. It’s been designed as a device to keep people company, which the programme explained was a growing problem in Japan. Japan has a falling birthrate and thus an aging population. The robot is programmed to ask and respond to questions, and to look at the person, who’s speaking to it. It doesn’t really understand what is being said, but simply gives an answer according to its programming. Nevertheless, it gives the impression of being able to follow and respond intelligently to conversation. It also has the very ‘cute’ look that characterizes much Japanese technology, and which I think comes from the conventions of Manga art. Garrod noted how it was like baby animals in having a large head and eyes, which made the parents love them.

It’s extremely clever, but it struck me as being a development of the Tamagotchi, the robotic ‘pet’ which was all over the place a few years ago. As for companionship, I could help thinking of a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris, based on the novel by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. The film follow the cosmonaut, Kris, on his mission to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet’s vast ocean is alive, and has attempted to establish contact with the station’s crew by dredging their memories, and sending them replicas of people they know. The planet does this to Kris, creating a replica of a former girlfriend. At one point, pondering the human condition in a vast, incomprehensible cosmos, Kris states ‘There are only four billion of us…a mere handful. We don’t need spaceships, aliens…What man needs is man.’ Or words to that effect. I forget the exact quote. I dare say robots will have their uses caring for and providing mental stimulation for the elderly, but this can’t replace real, human contact.

George went to America to NASA, where the space agency is building Valkyrie to help with the future exploration of Mars in 2030. Valkyrie is certainly not small and cute. She’s six foot, and built very much like the police machines in Andrew Blomkamp’s Chappie. George stated that they were trying to teach the robot how to walk through a door using trial and error. But each time the machine stumbled. The computer scientists then went through the robot’s programming trying to find and correct the error. After they thought they had solved it, they tried again. And again the machine stumbled.

George, however, remained optimistic. She told ‘those of you, who think this experiment is a failure’, that this was precisely what the learning process entailed, as the machine was meant to learn from its mistakes, just like her own toddler now learning to walk. She’s right, and I don’t doubt that the robot will eventually learn to walk upright, like the humanoid robots devised by their competitors over at DARPA. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. People do learn from their mistakes, but if mistakes keep being made and can’t be correctly, then it’s fair to say that a person has failed to learn from them. And if a robot fails to learn from its mistakes, then it would also be fair to say that the experiment has failed.

Holy Joe Smith! I was also a reminded of another piece of classic SF in this segment. Not film, but 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. In its debut story, the aged robohunter, Sam Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ – his robometer, Kewtie and pilot, Kidd, are sent to Verdus to investigate what has happened to the human colonists. Verdus is so far away, that robots have been despatched to prepare it for human colonization, and a special hyperdrive has to be used to get Slade there. This rejuvenates him from an old man in his seventies to an energetic guy in his thirties. Kidd, his foul mouthed, obnoxious pilot, who is in his 30s, is transformed into a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, gun-toting baby.

The robot pioneers have indeed prepared Verdus for human habitation. They’ve built vast, sophisticated cities, with shops and apartments just waiting to be occupied, along with a plethora of entertainment channels, all of whose hosts and performers are robotic. However, their evolution has outpaced that of humanity, so that they are now superior, both physically and mentally. They continue to expect humans to be the superiors, and so when humans have come to Verdus, they’ve imprisoned, killed and experimented on them as ‘Sims’ – simulated humans, not realizing that these are the very beings they were created to serve. In which case, Martian colonists should beware. And carry a good blaster, just in case.

Garrod and George then went to another lab, where the robot unnerved Garrod by looking at him, and following him around with its eye. George really couldn’t understand why this should upset him. Talking about it afterwards, Garrod said that he was worried about the threat robots pose to humanity. George replied by stating her belief that they also promise to bring immense benefits, and that this was worth any possible danger. And that was the end of that conversation before they went on to the next adventure.

George’s reply isn’t entirely convincing. This is what opponents of nuclear power were told back in the ’50s and ’60s, however. Through nuclear energy we were going to have ships and planes that could span the globe in a couple of minutes, and electricity was going to be so plentiful and cheap that it would barely be metered. This failed, because the scientists and politicians advocating nuclear energy hadn’t really worked out what would need to be done to isolate and protect against the toxic waste products. Hence nearly six decades later, nuclear power and the real health and environmental problems it poses are still very much controversial issues. And there’s also that quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was a very staunch member of CND. When he was asked why he opposed nuclear weapons, he stated that it was because they threatened to destroy humanity. ‘And some of us think that would be a very great pity’.

Back in America, George went to a bar to meet Alpha, a robot created by a British inventor/showman in 1932. Alpha was claimed to be an autonomous robot, answering questions by choosing appropriate answers from recordings on wax cylinders. George noted that this was extremely advanced for the time, if true. Finding the machine resting in a display case, filled with other bizarre items like bongo drums, she took an access plate off the machine to examine its innards. She was disappointed. Although there were wires to work the machine’s limbs, there were no wax cylinders or any other similar devices. She concluded that the robot was probably worked by a human operator hiding behind a curtain.

Then it was off to Japan again, to see another robot, which, like Valkyrie, was learning for itself. This was to be a robot shop assistant. In order to teach it to be shop assistant, its creators had built an entire replica camera shop, and employed real shop workers to play out their roles, surrounded by various cameras recording the proceedings. So Garrod also entered the scenario, where he pretended to be interested in buying a camera, asking questions about shutter speeds and such like. The robot duly answered his questions, and moved about the shop showing him various cameras at different prices. Like the robotic companion, the machine didn’t really know or understand what it was saying or doing. It was just following the motions it had learned from its human counterparts.

I was left wondering how realistic the role-playing had actually been. The way it was presented on camera, everything was very polite and straightforward, with the customer politely asking the price, thanking the assistant and moving on to ask to see the next of their wares. I wondered if they had ever played at being a difficult customer in front of it. Someone who came in and, when asked what they were looking for, sucked their teeth and said, ‘I dunno really,’ or who got angry at the prices being asked, or otherwise got irate at not being able to find something suitable.

Through the programme, Japanese society is held up as being admirably progressive and accepting of robots. Earlier in that edition, Garrod finished a piece on one Japanese robot by asking why it was that a car manufacturer was turning to robotics. The answer’s simple. The market for Japanese cars and motorcycles is more or less glutted, and they’re facing competition from other countries, like Indonesia and Tokyo. So the manufacturers are turning to electronics.

The positive attitude the Japanese have to computers and robots is also questionable. The Japanese are very interested in developing these machines, but actually don’t like using them themselves. The number of robots in Japan can easily be exaggerated, as they include any machine tool as a robot. And while many British shops and businesses will use a computer, the Japanese prefer to do things the old way by hand. For example, if you go to a post office in Japan, the assistant, rather than look something up on computer, will pull out a ledger. Way back in the 1990s someone worked out that if the Japanese were to mechanise their industry to the same extent as the West, they’d throw half their population out of work.

As for using robots, there’s a racist and sexist dimension to this. The Japanese birthrate it falling, and so there is real fear of a labour shortage. Robots are being developed to fill it. But Japanese society is also extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. Only people, whose parents are both Japanese, are properly Japanese citizens with full civil rights. There are third-generation Koreans, constituting an underclass, who, despite having lived there for three generations, are still a discriminated against underclass. The Japanese are developing robots, so they don’t have to import foreign workers, and so face the problems and strains of a multicultural society.

Japanese society also has some very conservative attitudes towards women. So much so, in fact, that the chapter on the subject in a book I read two decades ago on Japan, written by a Times journalist, was entitled ‘A Woman’s Place Is In the Wrong’. Married women are expected to stay at home to raise the kids, and the removal of a large number of women from the workplace was one cause of the low unemployment rate in Japan. There’s clearly a conflict between opening up the workplace to allow more married women to have a career, and employing more robots.

Garrod also went off to Bristol University, where he met the ‘turtles’ created by the neuroscientist, Grey Walter. Walter was interested in using robots to explore how the brain functioned. The turtles were simple robots, consisting of a light-detecting diode. The machine was constructed to follow and move towards light sources. As Garrod himself pointed out, this was like the very primitive organisms he’d studied, which also only had a light-sensitive spot.

However, the view that the human brain is really a form of computer have also been discredited by recent research. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, describes how, after the failure of Good Old Fashioned A.I. (GOFAI), computer engineers then hoped to create it through exploring the connections between different computing elements, modelled on the way individual brain cells are connected to each by a complex web of neurons. Way back in 1966, Walter Rosenblith of MIT, one of the pioneers in the use of computers in neuropsychology, wrote

We no longer hold the earlier widespread belief that the so-called all-or-none law from nerve impulses makes it legitimate to think of relays as adequate models for neurons. In addition, we have become increasingly impressed with the interactions that take place among neurons: in some instances a sequence of nerve impulses may reflect the activities of literally thousands of neurons in a finely graded manner. In a system whose numerous elements interact so strongly with each other, the functioning of the system is not necessarily best understood by proceeding on a neuron-by-neuron basis as if each had an independent personality…Detailed comparisons of the organization of computer systems and brains would prove equally frustrating and inconclusive. (Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, p. 162).

Put simply, brain’s don’t work like computers. This was written fifty years ago, but it’s fair to ask if the problem still exists today, despite some of the highly optimistic statements to the contrary.

Almost inevitably, driverless cars made their appearance. The Germans have been developing them, and Garrod went for a spin in one, surrounded by two or three engineers. He laughed with delight when the car told him he could take his hands off the wheel and let the vehicle continue on its own. However, the car only works in the comparatively simply environment of the autobahn. When it came off the junction, back into the normal road system, the machine told him to start driving himself. So, not quite the victory for A.I. it at first appears.

Garrod did raise the question of the legal issues. Who would be responsible if the car crashed while working automatically – the car, or the driver? The engineers told him it would be the car. Garrod nevertheless concluded that segment by noting that there were still knotty legal issues around it. But I don’t know anyone who wants one, or necessarily would trust one to operate on its own. A recent Counterpunch article I blogged about stated that driverless cars are largely being pushed by a car industry, trying to expand a market that is already saturated, and the insurance companies. The latter see it as a golden opportunity to charge people, who don’t want one, higher premiums on the grounds that driverless cars are safer.

Garrod also went to meet researchers in A.I. at Plymouth University, who were also developing a robot which as part of their research into the future creation of genuine consciousness in machines. Talking to one of the scientists afterwards, Garrod heard that there could indeed be a disruptive aspect to this research. Human society was based on conscious decision making. But if the creation of consciousness was comparatively easy, so that it could be done in an afternoon, it could have a ‘disruptive’ effect. It may indeed be the case that machines will one day arise which will be conscious, sentient entities, but this does not mean that the development of consciousness is easy. You think of the vast ages of geologic time it took evolution to go from simple, single-celled organisms to complex creatures like worms, fish, insects and so on, right up to the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within the last 200,000 years.

Nevertheless, the programme ended with Garrod and George talking the matter over on the banks of the Thames in London. George concluded that the rise of robots would bring immense benefits and the development of A.I. was ‘inevitable’.

This is very optimistic, to the point where I think you could be justified by calling it hype. I’ve said in a previous article how Dreyfus’ book describes how robotics scientists and engineers have made endless predictions since Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing, predicting the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and each time they’ve been wrong. He’s also described the sheer rage with which many of those same researchers respond to criticism and doubt. In one passage he discusses a secret meeting of scientists at MIT to discuss A.I., in which a previous edition of his book came up. The scientists present howled at it with derision and abuse. He comments that why scientists should persist in responding so hostilely to criticism, and to persist in their optimistic belief that they will eventually solve the problem of A.I., is a question for psychology and the sociology of knowledge.

But there are also very strong issues about human rights, which would have to be confronted if genuine A.I. was ever created. Back in the 1970s or early ’80s, the British SF magazine, New Voyager, reviewed Roderick Random. Subtitled, ‘The Education of a Young Machine’, this is all about the creation of a robot child. The reviewer stated that the development of truly sentient machines would constitute the return of slavery. A similar point was made in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode where another ship’s captain wished to take Data apart, so that he could be properly investigated and more like him built. Data refused, and so the captain sued to gain custody of him, arguing that he wasn’t really sentient, and so should be legally considered property. And in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that launched the Cyberpunk SF genre, the hero, Case, finds out that the vast computer for which he’s working, Wintermute, has Swiss citizenship, but its programming are the property of the company that built it. This, he considers, is like humans having their thoughts and memories made the property of a corporation.

Back to 2000 AD, the Robusters strip portrayed exactly what such slavery would mean for genuinely intelligent machines. Hammerstein, an old war droid, and his crude sidekick, the sewer droid Rojaws and their fellows live with the constant threat of outliving their usefulness, and taking a trip down to be torn apart by the thick and sadistic Mek-Quake. Such a situation should, if it ever became a reality, be utterly intolerable to anyone who believes in the dignity of sentient beings.

I think we’re a long way off that point just yet. And despite Prof. George’s statements to the contrary, I’m not sure we will ever get there. Hyperevolution is a fascinating programme, but like many of the depictions of cutting edge research, it’s probably wise to take some of its optimistic pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

Soviet SF Synthesiser Music: Monolith 14

April 19, 2017

This is another piece of Russian space culture I found over on YouTube. The YouTube channel it’s on simply describes it as ‘Monolith 14’ with the addition of ‘CCCP 1974’, which presumably means it was made in the Soviet Union in 1974. And it’s very, very strange. I don’t know if the accompanying video was a promotional film specially made for the music, or is simply bits of an old Russian SF flick, which the band has recycled. It shows Soviet cosmonauts travelling to an alien planet, and getting shot at, bald android people, who are dead white, with bit sparse fur growing on their bonces and goggles walking around menacingly; a woman with eight eyes, four in each eye socket, examining a human couple, who are placed in man- and woman-shaped receptacles above which is some strange machinery ready to do, well, something or other to them; and a human bald bloke in a black tracksuit being pulled by invisible forces down a long corridor to be seized by the white android baldies. All while standing in a trough filled with dry ice. it looks a bit – but only a bit – as though the makers were influenced by THX 1138. I have no idea what’s going on, and I can’t find a film with the title in John Clute’s Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Dorling Kindersley 1995).

If the video is from a genuine Soviet SF film, then I’d like to see it. It looks fun and more than a little mind-blowing. It’s another window into the alternative universe that was Soviet SF. The best known Soviet SF films are Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, adapted from the novels by Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky Brothers respectively. This shows there’s much more out there, which needs to be rediscovered.

Secular Talk: One-Third of All Jobs Will Be Lost Due to Automation by 2030s

March 30, 2017

In this clip from Secular Talk, host Kyle Kulinski comments on a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the firm of accountants, that by the 2030s one third of all jobs in Britain will be lost to automation. This process will also affect America, Germany and Japan. In America, 38 per cent of all jobs will go; 35 per cent in Germany, and 21 per cent in Japan. As Kulinski points out, the 2030s aren’t very far away, and this is frightening.

He goes on to discuss an article he read by Stephen Hawking about this problem some time ago, in which the cosmologist said that there are two ways this could go. It could lead to a dystopia, in which the benefits of automation were monopolised by the rich. The result would be massive unemployment, social unrest and war. Or a way could be found to spread the benefits to everyone in society. One way this could be done is if we accept that this is inevitable, and that all jobs will go eventually. Instead of throwing people onto welfare, people could instead be assigned a machine at birth, and given an income derived from the work this machine does, so that not everyone has the same income.

He also notes that the same report suggests that some job losses could be offset by gains in areas that have not yet been automated. He is sceptical of this claim, however.

Kulinski states that this issue needs to be tackled urgently, and that so far only a very few have dared to take it seriously, and then only in a limited area.

Welcome to Megacity 1 and the world of Judge Dredd. The writers of the long-running comic strip acknowledge that Dredd’s home city – a vast, sprawling supercity of over 1 billion people spread along the east coast of America – is a monumental dystopia. John Wagner described it as ‘a gigantic black comedy’. The City suffers from 98 per cent unemployment due to robots. As a result of this and massive overcrowding, crime is rampant. And any sign that there might be a paid job going can easily result in a riot.

The massive psychological harm inflicted through such conditions has been portrayed again and again, particularly in the class Dredd strip, ‘UnAmerican Graffiti’. This was about the contest between two graffiti artists, ‘Chopper’, an unknown lad, and ‘the Shadow’, a robot. Chopper, like many others, had been driven to street art as a reaction to the boredom and despair created by the terrible unemployment rate. This was a society, where the problem was so great that schoolchildren were told that getting a job was unlikely, and therefore they needed a hobby to stave off boredom.

The solution Kulinski discusses for solving the problem of high unemployment due to automation – by assigning each individual at birth an income from a particular machine – in similar to a social programme in Mick Farren’s 1980s SF book, Exit Funtopia. This is a piece of ‘Future Noir’ set in a dying future Britain. Environmental and economic collapse has resulted in a society, where many citizens have been forced to become impoverished migrants – Joads, after the family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, forced onto the road in search of work. The ‘Funtopia’ of the title is a giant amusement park, where members of different subcultures can live out their fantasies away from mainstream society. Each member of the park is given an income based on the work a robot performed by robot doing their job. As befitting a piece of Noir, the hero is a ’40s’, a man who recreates the styles in dress and culture of the 1940s, called Marlowe. After the private eye, of course. There are also references to Godard’s Alphaville.

I’m very sceptical about this scheme. I don’t think it would work on the grounds that there isn’t a straight equivalence between one person equalling one machine. The jobs lost through automation may well be those in which the job lost may only constitute one function in a series of processes carried on by a machine, or a number of machines.

The great Polish SF writer, Stanislav Lem, also discussed this problem in one of his short stories. In this tale, a space pilot from Earth touches down on a planet covered in little black discs. There is only a single inhabitant left. When the pilot questions him, the man tells him that the black discs are the result of the decision by the planets’ leaders to solve their unemployment problem through automation. Nearly everyone was thrown out of work, except for the planets leaders and those who possessed the automated factories. There was massive unrest. It could have been avoided if the factories had been nationalised, and the profits shared amongst the citizens. But this wasn’t done. With the population growing restless, the leaders held a competition to decide how the problem could be solved. The winner was an inventor, who had developed a device for turning everyone into one of the black discs. It was selected through an extremely literal and legalistic reading of the conditions of the competition. The whole unemployed population was rounded up to be killed in this way, and eventually the unrest spread to the ruling class, who also found themselves fed to the murderous machine. Only the inventor was left, alone on his world, surrounded by the glassy remains of his victims.

Lem was an intellectual, who used SF to explore philosophical problems and concepts. He could create very serious works like Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderbergh, or hilarious fables, often with a strongly satirical edge, like The Futurological Congress and the Cyberiad. I think that short story was written in the 1970s. But it’s coming true, very quickly, and needs to be tackled.

But what’s the odds we’re going to get the dystopian option, ’cause the elites running society, the economy and the media, simply won’t want to create a more egalitarian society as the price of solving the problem. Get ready for Megacity 1. Assuming, of course, that they don’t try turning us into the equivalent of the little black glass discs.

Lem’s Robots and Marvin the Paranoid Android

February 15, 2017

lem-pic

Polish SF Maestro Stanislaw Lem

Remember Marvin, the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? He was the manically depressed robot with a brain the size of a planet, who also suffered from a terrible pain in the diodes all down his left side. I was reminded of him yesterday when reading one of the short stories in Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines (Harmondsworth: Penguin 2016.

Lem’s a highbrow Polish SF writer, who uses his fiction to explore deep philosophical issues, sometimes stretching and challenging the conventions of the short story form itself. One of his volumes, A Perfect Vacuum, consists of reviews of non-existent books. Another one is blurbs, also for books that don’t exist. As you can see from this, he was strongly influenced by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, after whom he’s been hailed as the ‘Borges of Science Fiction’. But he could also write straightforward stories, some of which could be hilariously funny.

Two of his works are collected short stories about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines. The stories in the Cyberiad, and several in Mortal Engines, are literally technological fairytales, in which electroknights sally forth to battle robotic dragons. Or mad robotic inventors compete with each other to create the most impressive machines, machines which usually go disastrously wrong. One of the stories in Mortal Engines, ‘The Sanatorium of Dr Vliperdius’, is about a journalist who goes to visit a mental hospital for robots. At the end of his visit, just as he is going out, the journo encounters yet another troubled cybernetic soul.

On my way back with the young assistant I met in the corridor a patient who was pulling behind him a heavily laden cart. This individual presented a singular sight, in that he was tied all around with bits of string.

‘You don’t by any chance have a hammer?’ he asked.
‘No’.
‘A shame. My head hurts.’

I engaged him in conversation. He was a robot-hypochondriac. On his squeaking cart he carried a complete set of spare parts. After ten minutes I learned that he got shooting pains in the back during storms, pins and needles all over while watching television, and spots before his eyes when anyone stroked a cat nearby. It grew monotonous, so I left him quickly and headed for the director’s office. (P. 131).

There’s a serious philosophical issue here, apart from Lem’s literary exploration of the kind of delusions mentally ill robots could suffer from, such as the robot earlier in the story, who believes that he’s really organic, but that somebody has stolen his human body and replaced it with the machine he inhabits. If humanity ever creates genuinely sentient machines, which are able to think and reason like humans – and that’s a big ‘if’, despite the assertions of some robotics engineers – then presumably there will come a point when these machines suffer psychological problems, just as humans do.

Mortal Engines was first published in America by Seabury Press in 1977, roughly at the same time Hitch-Hiker came out on radio over here. Hitch-Hiker is full of references to philosophical problems, such as the debate about the existence of God, so clearly both he and Lem saw the same potential for using robots to explore spiritual malaise, and the psychological implication of genuine Artificial Intelligence.

The Young Turks: Other Countries Apart from the US Now Have Drones

December 17, 2015

This is another fascinating and chilling report from The Young Turks about drones. America is now not the only country to have them. Hezbollah, the radical and militant Lebanese Islamist party has them. They recently flew one of their drones close to an Israeli nuclear reactor, just to see how far they could get. Iran also has drones with a range of 1,500 or so miles, well in range of a strike on Tel Aviv, which is only 990 or so miles away. They also report the development of nano-drones, tiny drones that are able to attack in swarms. The Pentagon has also created a 5.5 lb drone, which can be used by a single person.

The report by The Turks’ anchor, Cenk Uygur, cites Peter W. Singer, a drone expert, who testified in front of the American government that drones are a revolution in military technology comparable to the invention of gunpowder. They are a complete ‘game changer’. Drones have also been compared to the IEDs, the Improvised Explosive Devices that have killed and maimed so many of our squaddies in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are simple, cheap to make, and are forcing America to spend billions trying to find a way of combating them. They’re also a major problem for Israel, as the Iron Dome missile shield won’t work against them. Uygur even says that the Taliban may have them, or if they don’t, then China will sell them drones. To stop the spread of this technology, you’d have to stop science, industry and even war itself.

The whole thrust of the report is that drones aren’t looking so good now that other nations apart from the US have them. Definitely not. I’ve put up posts before about the use of drones, and how the prediction about the use of similar machines by the Polish Science Fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, is starting to come true. In one of his short stories, Lem described a future in which expensive military hardware would be replaced by cheap, miniature robots. These robots would attack in swarms, but would also be almost indistinguishable from natural disasters, like storms and so on. The result would be a militarised peace, where countries were constantly under attack, but unable to know whether or not the disasters they experienced were natural or due to enemy military action.

With more countries developing nano-drones, right down to their use by individuals, this prediction is now frighteningly plausible.

Bugbots – Military Nano Drones, and a Warning from Polish SF Author Stanislaw Lem

December 1, 2015

This is another interesting – and chilling – video I found on Youtube. It’s a promotional film from one of the US aerospace contractors talking up nanorobotic drones. This is drones about the size of a small bird or children’s toy helicopters. The video hypes their use for gather intelligence, both singly and in swarms like insects. It also states that they may be used to kill enemy soldiers or combatants.

We’re already using miniature drones like those above to gather information in Afghanistan.

This video shows British soldiers talking about the Black Hornet nano drone, which can be controlled in the same way you can operate a playstation.

I find this chilling, as it starts to confirm a prediction the Polish Science Fiction author, Stanislaw Lem made, about the future direction of military technology in the 1980s/90s. Lem was impressed by the increasing power and intelligence of computers, and predicted that eventually this would effect even politics. The short story played with the idea that political parties would compete to show the electorate that they had the best computer, and therefore the best solutions to the country’s problems.

He also believed that as weapons and equipment, such as planes, ships and tanks became increasingly sophisticated, so they would also become prohibitively expensive. As a result, government would turn to miniaturisation, using swarms of extremely small robots to attack their enemies.

This would result in a global situation that was neither war nor peace, as it would be unclear whether natural disasters, such as, for example, devastation of crops by bad weather or insect swarms, were genuine or caused by enemy robot intervention.

Fortunately, we haven’t got to the point where politics is decided by which party has the biggest, cleverest computer. I think if that point every comes, we may as well say goodbye to democracy and just hand the world over to Microsoft, IBM or Apple. Military technology and equipment is becoming more expensive, and in Britain we are seeing extensive cuts which may well harm our ability to fight and win wars. However, American politics is strongly coloured by the arms and other industries sponsoring politicians campaigns, in return for them continuing to receive extremely generous subsidies from the taxpayer. I really don’t see the Americans cutting back on their military spending anytime soon, still less Russia and China.

And with miniature killer drones disguised as insects, it really does look like the frowning Polish grandmaster of SF was right about the use of such robots, and the highly uncertain hostile and militarised ‘peace’ that would arise through their use.

Here’s another video, this time from Reason TV, giving three reasons why the use of drones is a bad idea.

The transcript for the video on its Youtube page runs

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may not agree on much, but they’re both totally into the use of unmanned aircraft known as drones to hunt down and kill real and imagined threats to the American way of life.

Whenever you’ve got top Democrats and top Republicans getting along, you know something has gone horribly wrong.

Here are three reasons why drone strikes are really freaking scary.

1. They’re not that accurate.

One of the main selling points of drone strikes is their supposedly surgical precision. Rather than carpet-bombing entire city blocks to nail one or two bad guys, now we can just zap them without harming anyone else.

But a new study from researchers at NYU and Stanford concludes that as many 881 civilians – including 176 children – have been killed by US drone strikes in northern Pakistan since 2004. Worse still are reports that targets get blasted repeatedly, to ward off rescuers from helping the wounded.

2. There’s no legal framework.

Drone strikes have been carried out in countries with whom we’re allies or against whom we’ve yet to declare war. They are the principal way in which President Obama’s infamous “kill list” is made operational and yet nobody knows how such decisions are being made. As The New York Times said earlier this year, “a unilateral campaign of death is untenable.”

Not only is such a campaign immoral on its face, it only damages America’s standing in the world.

3. It’s only going to get worse.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that in 20 years, as many as 30,000 drones could be filling the skies over America, doing everything from promoting local restaurants to executing warrantless snooping for local, state, and federal cops. That includes “nano drones,” that will the size of a small flying insect. As it stands, the taxpaying public has basically zero information on how many drones are being used by which parts of government.

That’s led the ACLU to file a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to find out more about the technical capabilities of drones and what parts of government are already up there in the wild blue yonder.

We need to force the government to be transparent on drones long before the machines start blotting out the sun.

This is powerful technology that clearly is a real threat to the freedom of the countries using them, as well as being unethical and counterproductive when used against the enemy. And the secrecy surrounding them should be real cause for concern.

It’s no accident that the first appearance of something like a drone – an airborne camera to spy on citizens – made its appearance as long ago as the 1980s in 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd. And a drone can also be seen flying around in the opening scenes of the Dredd movie that came out a few years ago, starring Karl Urban. Dredd is the ultimate lawman, but he’s also a deliberately ambiguous figure. John Wagner in an interview around 1983 or so stated that he would never take off his helmet because he represents the faceless police state.

When real life starts to resemble the nightmare black comedy of Megacity 1, you know something’s gone very seriously wrong.

From the Director of 47 Ronin: The Gift Short SF Film

January 15, 2014

With the samurai fantasy epic, 47 Ronin about to hit the big screens here in Britain, I found this fascinating short film by its director, Carl Erik Rinsch. The Gift is set in a future Russia, inhabited by animal and humanoid robots, and patrolled by sinister and murderous robotic cops. A mysterious man travels through Moscow with a gift-wrapped package, containing something so precious people are willing to kill and die for it.

I found it on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jeve1kJCBlc.

Rinsch himself is American, and the film itself was shown about four years ago in 2010 as part of the Philiips Parallel Lines film festival. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating little film, which certainly makes me wish for a few more, full-length SF films set in Russia. Russia has a long tradition of excellent SF literature, of which the best known in the West is probably the work of the Strugatski brothers. Their novel, Stalker, was turned into a film of the same name by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky had earlier produced Solaris, based on the classic SF novel of the same name by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. Tarkovsky, however, cut out most of the books special effects sequences, leaving the film as a long discussion on evil and human responsibilities by the characters as they roam a devastated, post-industrial landscape in search of something.

It’s very different from the book, where the weird, devastated environment of the Zone is given a rather fuller description. In the book the area has been cordoned off following a mysterious incident, the crash of an alien spacecraft. The area is now a death-trap in which normal, physical laws no longer apply. There can be sudden, massive increases in gravity, which can crush the unwitting traveller. The Zone is also populated by hostile dummies, the zombie remnants of humans caught, killed, and twisted into something not quite dead by the power of the strange forces that created and pervade the Zone.

The book’s hero is rather different too. In both the book and the film he’s an outlaw, venturing into the forbidden environment of the Zone in order to bring back valuable alien artefacts for money in order to support himself and his family. His journeys into the Zone have worked a terrible effect on him. Over time the Stalkers suffer genetic damage due to their exposure to the Zone and its bizarre forces. The Stalker of the novel in his career makes too many journeys into the Zone, with the result that his daughter is mutated. The film, however, makes the character much less morally ambiguous. In the book the character is at times quite ruthless, fully prepared to sacrifice his unwitting fellow travellers to the Zone and its deadly forces in order to get what he wants. Instead of the film’s elevated questioning of the nature of morality in the face of catastrophe, the book has a much darker tone, more Western cyberpunk with its similar amoral, outlaw heroes and noir-ish visions of a decaying or wrecked future.

Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris a few years ago, with George Clooney in the lead role. It was shorter than the Tarkovsky version, but made a few minor changes. There were sex scenes, which certainly weren’t present in Tarkovsky’s presence, one of the characters, the physicist Snow, was changed from a White man to a Black woman. In most other respects, however, the film was almost exactly the same, with some scenes almost shot-for-shot identical to the original. I’d like to see someone remake Stalker, but keeping closer to the source novel and showing some of the terrible wonders and dangers of the Zone.

The Strugatski brothers are only two of the many brilliant SF writers from Russia and eastern Europe. One or two of their other works were also filmed under Soviet rule, including In The Dust of their Stars, in which heroic Russian space travellers try to lead a rebellion against the oppressive rule of a planet’s feudal tyrant. Another Soviet SF film, though one which wasn’t written by them, is Planet of Storms, about a expedition to Venus. More recent Russian SF/ Fantasy films have been Daywatch and Nightwatch, about a secret society protecting humanity from supernatural evil. Seeing The Gift and with its setting in Russia reminded me just how great Russian, and eastern Science Fiction generally could be. It’s at times markedly different from Western SF. Under Communism, it was often written as a parable, in which the authors made coded comments and observations about the state of Soviet society, which they couldn’t express directly in realist fiction.

Stalker, with its depiction of wrecked landscape rendered deadly through a technological accident, became particularly relevant after the Chernobyl disaster. A few years ago a computer game was released, whose creators were Russian, and which mixed elements of Stalker with that of Chernobyl and its similar, horrifically polluted zone. Although it was entertainment, it also had a more serious purpose as it was partly intended to promote ecological awareness about the dangers of the devastating effects of such human activities on the natural world. The Russian film industry suffered catastrophically after the collapse of Communism, as it couldn’t compete with the big budget films from Hollywood, like The Terminator. The success of the Day- and Nightwatch films has proved that Russian film-makers can still produce great SF/ Fantasy films in a global market, so hopefully there will be a few more SF and Fantasy films coming from Russia and eastern Europe. And that will be no bad thing at all.

This is the trailer of Tarkovsky’s 1979 film of Stalker from Youtube:

Here’s an extract from Planet of Storms, also from Youtube :