Posts Tagged ‘Stanislaw Lem’

Radio 4 Serialising Ian McEwan’s Robot Book Next Week

April 23, 2019

I don’t belieeeve it! As the great Victor Meldrew used to say. Next week, according to the Radio Times for 27th April – 3rd May 2019, Radio 4 is serialising Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, Machines Like Me, about a love triangle between a man, his wife and the android he has bought. It’s in ten parts, Monday to Fridays at 12.04 pm, and read by Anton Lesser.

I’ve already put up two posts about the book, which has only just been published. McEwan’s novel is one of a long-line of SF stories about humans falling in love, or pursuing sexual relationships with the humanoid robots they have built, such as Asimov’s ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’. Genre science fiction writers have explored the issues of machine consciousness and its philosophical and ethical issues, from highbrow authors like Poland’s Stanislaw Lem, to comic book writers like Pat Mills in 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’. The issue I have with McEwan’s book, and other literary authors that are planning similar works of fiction, is that while genre science fiction is still looked down on somewhat by the literary elite, McEwan’s book is going to receive immediate acclaim as proper literature.

Now Radio 4 has serialised a number of great works of SF, including Robert Silverberg’s masterwork Dying Inside, and has, like some of the other channels, Radio 3 and Radio 4 Extra, put on SF plays. Not so long ago there was a series of these, with the title Dangerous Visions. SF buffs will recognise this as the title of the groundbreaking SF anthology edited by Harlan Ellison, that ushered in the SF New Wave over in America. But despite the achievements of genre SF authors, there is still this feeling that it hasn’t quite won critical respectability in the elevated literary circles that support McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and the other regular literary award winners, who are writing or preparing to write books about robots and AI.

As I’ve said, I feel very strongly that if McEwan and co. win literary awards for their SF works, like Machines Like Me, then those awards should have the decency to drop some of the snobbishness and include genre SF authors. Whose latest works I hope the Beeb will also serialise the moment they come out.

Reviewing the ‘I’s’ Review of Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’

April 21, 2019

George Barr’s cover illo for Lloyd Biggle’s The Metallic Muse. From David Kyle, the Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (London: Hamlyn 1977).

The book’s pages of last Friday’s I , for 19th April 2019, carried a review by Jude Cook of Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, a tale of a love triangle between a man, the male robot he has purchased, and his wife, a plot summed up in the review’s title, ‘Boy meets robot, robot falls for girl’. I’d already written a piece in anticipation of its publication on Thursday, based on a little snippet in Private Eye’s literary column that McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro were all now turning to robots and AI for their subject matter, and the Eye expected other literary authors, like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, to follow. My objection to this is that it appeared to be another instance of the literary elite taking their ideas from Science Fiction, while looking down on the genre and its writers. The literary establishment has moved on considerably, but I can still remember the late, and very talented Terry Pratchett complaining at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the organisers had looked at him as if he was about to talk to all his waiting fans crammed into the room about motorcycle maintenance.

Cook’s review gave an outline of the plot and some of the philosophical issues discussed in the novel. Like the Eye’s piece, it also noted the plot’s similarity to that of the Channel 4 series, Humans. The book is set in an alternative 1982 in which the Beatles are still around and recording, Tony Benn is Prime Minister, but Britain has lost the Falklands War. It’s a world where Alan Turing is still alive, and has perfected machine consciousness. The book’s hero, Charlie, purchases one of the only 25 androids that have been manufactured, Adam. This is not a sex robot, but described as ‘capable of sex’, and which has an affair with the hero’s wife, Miranda. Adam is an increasing threat to Charlie, refusing to all his master to power him down. There’s also a subplot about a criminal coming forward to avenge the rape Miranda has suffered in the past, and a four year old boy about to be placed in the care system.

Cook states that McEwan discusses the philosophical issue of the Cartesian duality between mind and brain when Charlie makes contact with Turing, and that Charlie has to decide whether Adam is too dangerous to be allowed to continue among his flesh and blood counterparts, because

A Manichean machine-mind that can’t distinguish between a white lie and a harmful lie, or understand that revenge can sometimes be justified, is potentially lethal.

Cook declares that while this passage threatens to turn the book into a dry cerebral exercise, its engagement with the big questions is its strength, concluding

The novel’s presiding Prospero is Turing himself, who observes that AI is fatally flawed because life is “an open system… full of tricks and feints and ambiguities”. His great hope is that by its existence “we might be shocked in doing something about ourselves.”

Robots and the Edisonade

It’s an interesting review, but what it does not do is mention the vast amount of genre Science Fiction that has used robots to explore the human condition, the limits or otherwise of machine intelligence and the relationship between such machines and their creators, since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. There clearly seems to be a nod to Shelley with the name of this android, as the monster in her work, I think, is also called Adam. But Eando Binder – the nom de plume of the brothers Earl and Otto Binder, also wrote a series of stories in the 1930s and ’40s about a robot, Adam Link, one of which was entitled I, Robot, which was later used as the title of one of Asimov’s stories. And although the term ‘robot’ was first used of such machines by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920s play, RUR, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, they first appeared in the 19th century. One of these was Villier de l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Futur of 1884. This was about a robot woman invented by Thomas Edison. As one of the 19th centuries foremost inventors, Edison was the subject of a series of proto-SF novels, the Edisonades, in which his genius allowed him to create all manner of advanced machines. In another such tale, Edison invents a spaceship and weapons that allow humanity to travel to the planets and conquer Mars. McEwan’s book with its inclusion of Alan Turing is basically a modern Edisonade, but with the great computer pioneer rather than the 19th century electrician as its presiding scientific genius. Possibly later generations will have novels set in an alternative late 20th century where Stephen Hawking has invented warp drive, time travel or a device to take us into alternative realities via artificial Black Holes.

Robot Romances

As I said in my original article, there are any number of SF books about humans having affairs with robots, like Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy and Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed. The genre literature has also explored the moral and philosophical issues raised by the creation of intelligent machines. In much of this literature, robots are a threat, eventually turning on their masters, from Capek’s R.U.R. through to The Terminator and beyond. But some writers, like Asimov, have had a more optimistic view. In his 1950 I, Robot, a robot psychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, describes them in a news interview as ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’.

Lem’s Robots and Descartes

As for the philosophical issues, the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem, explored them in some of his novels and short stories. One of these deals with the old problem, also dating back to Descartes, about whether we can truly know that there is an external world. The story’s hero, the space pilot Pirx, visits a leading cybernetician in his laboratory. This scientist has developed a series of computer minds. These exist, however, without robot bodies, but the minds themselves are being fed programmes which make them believe that they are real, embodied people living in the real world. One of these minds is of a beautiful woman with a scar on her shoulder from a previous love affair. Sometimes the recorded programmes jump a groove, creating instances of precognition or deja vu. But ultimately, all these minds are, no matter how human or how how real they believe themselves to be, are brains in vats. Just like Descartes speculated that a demon could stop people from believing in a real world by casting the illusion of a completely false one on the person they’ve possessed.

Morality and Tragedy in The ABC Warriors 

Some of these complex moral and personal issues have also been explored by comics, until recently viewed as one of the lowest forms of literature. In a 1980s ‘ABC Warriors’ story in 2000AD, Hammerstein, the leader of a band of heroic robot soldiers, remembers his earliest days. He was the third prototype of a series of robot soldiers. The first was an efficient killer, patriotically killing Communists, but exceeded its function. It couldn’t tell civilians from combatants, and so committed war crimes. The next was programmed with a set of morals, which causes it to become a pacifist. It is killed trying to persuade the enemy – the Volgans – to lay down their arms. Hammerstein is its successor. He has been given morals, but not to the depth that they impinge on his ability to kill. For example, enemy soldiers are ‘terrorists’. But those on our side are ‘freedom fighters’. When the enemy murders civilians, it’s an atrocity. When we kill civilians, it’s unavoidable casualties. As you can see, the writer and creator of the strip, Pat Mills, has very strong left-wing opinions.

Hammerstein’s programming is in conflict, so his female programmer takes him to a male robot psychiatrist, a man who definitely has romantic intentions towards her. They try to get Hammerstein to come out of his catatonic reverie by trying to provoke a genuine emotional reaction. So he’s exposed to all manner of stimuli, including great works of classical music, a documentary about Belsen, and the novels of Barbara Cartland. But the breakthrough finally comes when the psychiatrist tries to kiss his programmer. This provokes Hammerstein into a frenzied attack, in which he accidentally kills both. Trying to repair the damage he’s done, Hammerstein says plaintively ‘I tried to replace his head, but it wouldn’t screw back on.’

It’s a genuinely adult tale within the overall, action-oriented story in which the robots are sent to prevent a demon from Earth’s far future from destroying the Galaxy by destabilising the artificial Black and White Holes at the centre of Earth’s underground civilisation, which have been constructed as express routes to the stars. It’s an example of how the comics culture of the time was becoming more adult, and tackling rather more sophisticated themes.

Conclusion: Give Genre Authors Their Place at Literary Fiction Awards

It might seem a bit mean-spirited to compare McEwan’s latest book to its genre predecessors. After all, in most reviews of fiction all that is required is a brief description of the plot and the reviewer’s own feelings about the work, whether it’s done well or badly. But there is a point to this. As I’ve said, McEwan, Winterson, Ishiguro and the others, who may well follow their lead, are literary authors, whose work regularly wins the big literary prizes. They’re not genre authors, and the type of novels they write are arguably seen by the literary establishment as superior to that of genre Science Fiction. But here they’re taking over proper Science Fiction subjects – robots and parallel worlds – whose authors have extensively explored their moral and philosophical implications. This is a literature that can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed as trash, as Stanislaw Lem has done, and which the judges and critics of mainstream literary fiction still seem to do. McEwan’s work deserves to be put into the context of genre Science Fiction. The literary community may feel that it’s somehow superior, but it is very much of the same type as its genre predecessors, who did the themes first and, in my opinion, better.

There is absolutely no reason, given the quality of much SF literature, why this tale by McEwan should be entered for a literary award or reviewed by the kind of literary journals that wouldn’t touch genre science fiction with a barge pole, while genre SF writers are excluded. It’s high time that highbrow literary culture recognised and accepted works and writers of genre SF as equally worthy of respect and inclusion.

Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

April 17, 2019

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.  

RT Reports on People Attacking Robots and Driverless Cars in California

March 9, 2018

This is a very short video – about 2 1/2 minutes long – I found over on YouTube by RT. It reports attacks on driverless cars and other robots by the good folks of California. The other robots attacked include a robot guard, designed to shoo the homeless away from business entrances, which was put out of action several times, and a robot burger chef. The machine is basically just an arm and hand, which is shown flipping burgers, and laying them out ready for the bun. The attacks on this machine have included comments about it taking people’s jobs.

The piece cuts to an expert, who says that when you have predictions that mechanisation will destroy half the jobs in America, which will cause massive social dislocation – people are going to be angry. He then makes the anodyne statement that they have to find ways to make automation work for the benefit of everyone.

There is no way under capitalism that automation will work for everyone. Value under capitalism is determined by scarcity. The scarcer and more vital a product or service is, the more people are willing to pay for it. Hence the neoliberal dictum that there must be a ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ to bring down wages, whatever George Osborne and the other liars in the Tory party say about reducing unemployment. Making half the workforce unemployed will create immense poverty, but I can see the Tories and their backers salivating over that, as it means jobs will become more precious, and the working and lower middle class more dispirited and willing to put up with even worse condition to get them.

Of course, one solution would be to nationalise the companies not using a given proportion of human labour, so that their profits could be used to benefit everyone, perhaps through a universal citizen wage. The Polish SF author, Stanislaw Lem, mentioned this option in one of his short stories in Tales of Pirx the Pilot. But there’s no way this is going to happen, as the Tories and other apologists for capitalism will scream blue murder about the sanctity of private industry. Even when that industry is destroying jobs for private profit.

There needs to be a complete change in the structure of our society, if such widespread automation goes ahead. And it should begin by kicking out the Tories and the other corporatist politicos.

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.