Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

The ‘I’ Newspaper on the Invention of Star Trek-Style ‘Tractor Beam’

January 4, 2017

The I newspaper today reported that Asier Marzo, an American doctoral student, now a research assistant at Bristol uni, has invented a tractor beam using sound which can be built by anyone with a 3D printer.

The article by Tom Bawden runs

Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek were given a huge boost last year when a doctoral student in America developed the first sonic tractor beam capable of pulling an object towards it by using sound waves. But alas its use was confined to fancy labs with expensive equipment.

Now, thanks to that same individual – who has since become a research assistant at the University of Bristol – it has become far more accessible, at least to anyone with 3D printing technology.

The tractor beam has long been a staple of science fiction, used in a series of Star Trek episodes to capture and tow other space ships, while the Death Star’s tractor beam memorably catches the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

A do-it-yourself handheld acoustic tractor beam will now become widely available, according to a new paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

“Previously we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system,” said Asier Marzo, the researcher behind the developments.

“Now, we have made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter,” he said.

“We can modulate a simple wave using what’s called a metamaterial, which is basically a piece of matter with lots of tubes of different lengths. The sound passes through these tubes and when it exits the metamaterial it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam.”

With an effect that is determined by the shape of the tubes, the research team focused on optimising the design to allow fabrication with common 3D printers, ensuring it could be constructed by home hobbyists. (The I, 4th January 2017, p. 23).

I think the pseudoscientific explanation for the tractor beams in Star Trek is that they use gravitons – the subatomic particles that carry the force of gravity – to pull other ships and objects towards them. In an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Wesley Crusher is shown having invented a handheld tractor beam. I think it’s in the episode ‘The Naked Now’.

There are some very clever things now being done with sound. There was a piece on The One Show or perhaps the Beeb’s pop science programme, Bang Goes The Theory, where they showed how sound waves could be used to levitate a series of small objects. I have a feeling it was the discovery of acoustic levitation back in the 1990s or early 2000s that inspired one episode of Far Scape, ‘Taking the Stone’ where Chiana joins a group of alien thrill seekers. These young people get their kicks from leaping off a cliff above an alien echo chamber while humming. If they get the tone right, the sound waves resonate and break their fall. If they don’t, they plunge to their deaths. I can’t imagine that ever catching on as sport in real life, but you never know.

Blade Runner Sequel Teaser Trailer

December 20, 2016

I found the teaser trailer for the sequel to Ridley Scott’s SF classic, Blade Runner, on YouTube yesterday. The film’s entitled Blade Runner 2049, and is set 30 years after the events of the original movie. It stars Harrison Ford, who is reprising his role as Rick Deckard, and Ryan Gosling. It won’t be directed by Scott, but Denis Villeneuve. Scott was going to be the director, but I think he’s too busy with other projects. While I’m disappointed that he won’t be sitting in the director’s chair, from what little I’ve seen and heard of it, Villeneuve is an excellent choice. The movie is due to open in cinemas in June next year (2017).

As you can see, the trailer’s very short and doesn’t give very much away. It begins with Deckard’s line from the original film about Replicants being like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a problem. And if they’re a benefit, then they’re not his problem. It also seems to have the same run-down, towering cityscape of the first movie, but also adds what looks like a desert. The film’s score also seems to follow the original movie’s brilliant soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, in being played on synthesiser, though it has a rougher, grittier tone. And also there’s the same vehicles carrying adverts for people to move off world. Also the desert scenes have the same diffuse, golden light Scott used to create such a moody tone in the scenes Tyrell’s apartment in the original movie, but this time far brighter and more intense.

I’m really looking forward to this flick, but I do have some reservations about it. Blade Runner is now rightly recognised as one of the great SF movies of 20th century. William Gibson, one of the inventors of the Cyberpunk SF genre, said that he felt distinctly unnerved when he saw it. He was writing Neuromancer at the time, and was somewhat dismayed to find that the film had beaten him to portraying the same kind of future he was writing about. Grant and Naylor, the creators of Red Dwarf, have also admitted that it was Blade Runner that inspired them to create their own SF show. That was very obvious in the episode aired several years ago on satellite/ cable, where the crew of the Red Dwarf go in search of their creators on Earth, one of whom is a genetic engineer. ‘Noses’, the scientist says in answer to their questions, ‘I only do noses’. Which is, as fans of Blade Runner will recognise, a parody of the line the Chinese genetic engineer gives Batty and Leon when they pay him a visit: ‘Eyes. I only do eyes.’

My fear is that Blade Runner is such a classic, and the movie so perfect in itself, that the sequel will be unable to add anything new or match the original. Part of the reason many people will terribly disappointed with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, apart from its many flaws, was that the original films had set the bar so high, and the fans had waited so long for it, that when it came out it was almost bound to fail expectations. I hope the same isn’t true of this attempt to revisit one of the greatest SF movies.

Robothespian, the British Robotic Actor

October 25, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece about a performance of Karel Capek’s classic play about a robot rebellion, RUR, at the Czech national library a few years ago by a theatre group, Café Neu Romance, using lego robots. The theatre company was the creation of Vive Les Robots, a Danish company set up to encourage public interest in robots and robotics. I said in the article that I thought it would be good if the play could be performed by full-sized robots, to give it the stature it deserves. I realise, however, that was unlikely given how massively expensive the animatronic technology is, that brings to life robotic puppets like Ry’gel from the SF series Farscape.

One British company, Engineered Arts, has created such a full size mechanical actor. It’s called Robothespian, and there are a number of videos about it on YouTube. The video below shows it, appropriately enough, talking about R.U.R. as part of Café Neu Romance, a robot arts festival, at the Czech National Technical Library in 2012.

Robothespian has also appeared on British breakfast television. In this clip from the Beeb’s Breakfast TV programme from 2014, the two presenters talk about, and sometimes to Robothespian with Dr Nigel Crook of Oxford Brookes University. The robot was created by Engineered Arts as a research project to explore the ways people interact with robots. Crook explains that it can respond to a number of voice commands, and the two presenters ask it questions such as what advantages robots have over human beings. Crook also explains that despite this ability, real intelligence is a long way off, and the problem of giving the robot the ability to hold a genuinely intelligent, wide-ranging conversation is very challenging. So right now, the machine responds giving the answers programmed into it by a human operator.

Robothespian, or Artie, as it is called, from RT – Robothespian – replies to the question about its usefulness that robots can perform simple, repetitive tasks accurately without tiring, or needing to go for breaks. They ask it if it could do their job. Its answer is that it certainly could, as all they do is read from an autocue. So when does it start?

The machine has a range of expressive hand gestures, a moving mouth, and two screens in its head, which show images of eyes. These blink, helping it show a number of expressions. They also show hearts, like those shown in the eyes of cartoon characters to indicate they have fallen in love. The two presenters are, however, advised to stand a few feet away from the robot. Crook explains it is compliant, which means that, unlike an industrial robot, it won’t blindly continue to perform a gesture if it accidentally strikes someone who happens to stand in the way. Similarly, it’s possible to pull the robot’s limbs away from where they’ve settled without damaging it. Nevertheless, the presenters were advised to stand clear of it just in case it accidentally flipped back and struck them.

As well as delivering monologues, Robothespian can also sing, giving a hilarious rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and do impressions, like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Crook explains that it was built to act as a guide at museums, festivals and exhibitions. The two presenters ask about its gender, and are told that it’s creators think of it as male, as it’s been given a male voice.

Also on the show is a little feature about a robot toy, Caspar, which is used in schools to teach autistic children. The toy was being tried out as a teaching tool as autistic people can find it immensely challenging understanding other’s emotions. They also like things in a very set order. Caspar is useful in that its responses, although intended to mimic those of humans, are always the same. For example, when it smiles, that smile is always the same smile every time it makes that expression. And this regularity and constancy of expression is intended to be reassuring and non-threatening, so that the child using it finds it easy, or easier to do so, than more conventional forms of interaction with people.

Robothespian isn’t cheap. Crook explains that it costs about £50,000. Despite this, Engineered Arts have built more than one of them. In this video from last year, 2015, two of them sing, ‘I Am Not A Robot’.

I find robots and robotics interesting, but I am very much aware of the problems they pose. There are the general philosophical issues like human identity and uniqueness – how long before they develop real intelligence and consciousness, start performing sophisticated task like creating art or composing music, or resent at their enslavement and control by humans? There are also the very real social and economic problems caused by their manufacture. The more industry is automated, the more real jobs, that could be performed by people, are lost. The Beeb a few months ago broadcast a documentary which forecast that in the next 15-20 years a third of all jobs could be lost in Britain. You can certainly see it in retail, where a number of companies have replaced human staff with self-service tills, where you scan in yourself the items you want to purchase into the machine, which then takes your money and hands you your change and receipt. If we aren’t careful, this will lead to the emergence of a society very much like that of 2000 AD’s Megacity One. Judge Dredd’s home city has, thanks to robots, a massive unemployment rate of 95% or so. As a result, most people’s lives are marked by boredom and despair, a situation brought home in the classic ‘Judge Dredd’ story, ‘Un-American Graffitti’, featuring Chopper, a teenage lad trying to escape this crushing social malaise through ever more daring pieces of graffiti artwork. 2000 AD and the ‘Dredd’ strip in particular always had a very strong element of satire and social commentary, and this was one of the most outstanding examples of the strip telling an entertaining story while also describing the real situation many of its readers faced for real due to Thatcherism.

And unfortunately, despite the boom years of the 1990s, the prospect of long-term unemployment and grinding poverty has got worse, due to globalism and the spread of neoliberalism as the dominant political and economic ideology. This will only get worse unless humanity finds ways to manage robotic technology wisely, to create jobs, rather than to the replace them.

RUR Performed by Lego Robots in Prague

October 24, 2016

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

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

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

Here’s the video:

Open Democracy Webinar on Alternative Democracy

February 25, 2016

Last Thursday, February 18th 2016, I was privileged to attend a webinar held by the Open Democracy forum on ‘alternative democracy’. Webinars, if you’ve never come across before, like me, are discussions held over the internet between a number of participants. They remain in their own homes, and talk to each other via their webcams or digital cameras attached to the computers. In this instance, the main speaker at any given point occupied most of the screen, while the other participants were each shown at the bottom. I was invited to go by Michelle Thomasson, a member and a commenter on this blog. The discussion was an hour long, covering topics that have been central to the issue of democracy since the very first democratic theorists like the ancient Athenians and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These include the fact that democracy leads to popular government, rather than right government; the problem of applying a political system that originally arose in small city states to large, complex modern societies, and the problem of energising and encouraging public engagement in politics and the political process at a time when increasing numbers feel disenfranchised, and that politicians are self-serving and isolated from the rest of society.

The first issue, that of democracy allowing the public to vote for the ‘wrong’ people, or make the ‘wrong’ decisions, is shown by the controversy about capital punishment and the EU. One of the female participants made the point that she wasn’t happy with referenda, because if one was a held on those two issues, the British public would almost certain vote in favour of reinstating the death penalty and leaving the European Union, both of which she considered wrong and unjust. She also made the point that there was a problem in that people don’t understand how parliament itself works. People have been horrified by what they’ve seen of it and the parliamentary process on television, especially since the launch of the parliament channel. She also discussed the problem of young people becoming uninterested in politics. She felt that part of the solution to this problem of increasing political indifference and disenfranchisement was for parliament itself to become more representative. She was in favour of quotas, and particularly for more women in parliament. She also felt that there should be more teaching in schools about the importance of politics, democracy and political participation. There still were areas for the public to be involved in politics in local issues, but these were becoming increasing rare as many local amenities, such as youth clubs, were being closed down. There was therefore a real danger of people retreating into social media.

The participants also discussed the possibility of learning from the Occupy Movement, which mobilised people against the cuts and bankers’ bail-outs across the world. People were disillusioned and felt that politicians were distant. One possible solution was digital democracy, but it was felt that this also was not the right way to go. They also pointed out that as far back as ancient Greece, politicians have never done what the electorate wanted. There was also the additional problem of democratic decisions in large societies like modern Britain. They pointed out that although the march against the Iraq War were the largest modern protests, most people still supported the invasion of Iraq, because they had been deliberately given the wrong information. There were similar problems with the reforms attacking and dismantling the welfare state. This led to a discussion of the wider problem of how communities could be connected to parliament.

Some possible solutions included the transformation of the House of Lord’s into a genuine popular assembly, and the revitalisation of political parties. Trump and Bernie Sanders in America, and Jeremy Corbyn over here at sparked an upturn in people joining and becoming interested in political parties. This led to the problem of how to involve other organisations to balance the power of the big corporations now involved in defining and influencing politics. They felt that the revitalisation of the political parties should be done through the existing political system. However, one of the problems with Jeremy Corbyn was that one of the speakers felt he hadn’t drawn new people into the party, but caused older members, who had let their membership lapse, to rejoin.

That led in turn to the question of what should be done with all the new political activists and participants, once they’d been energised, so that they could transform society. One of the men stated that the Labour party had declined from a genuinely popular movement into a party, in which people in suits made decision on behalf of the people they represented. This led to the question of local democracy in the Aristotelian sense. He considered that we currently have local administration rather than democracy. Most of the funding for local councils in England comes from central government, compared with Sweden where 80 per cent comes from local taxes. One of the other participants pointed out that the Coalition was indeed trying to reverse this situation under the guise of localism. They also discussed the way the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition had dissolved the regional partnerships, that had some success in regenerating the local political and economic situation. On the other hand, the Coalition has also encouraged local authorities to group together so that they could co-operate across borders. This worked well in some areas, like Manchester, but was less effective in others.

They also discussed whether Britain needed a constitution. It was pointed out that those nations with constitutions were not necessarily any more democratic than those which did not. One of the speakers was also quite scathing about the way the leadership in Labour party had blocked a bill on corporate funding in order not to upset the trade unions. The result of this was that the Tories were continuing to enjoy massive corporate donations, while trying to find ways to deprive the Labour party of money.

They also returned to the question of referenda. They stated that this worked in small countries with a tradition of direct democracy, like Switzerland. It was much less effective in large countries like Britain. As an example, when the Americans set up internet polling following the British example, the two petitions with greatest number of signatures were for America to build a Death Star, like the one in Star Wars, and to deport Justin Bieber back to Canada.

They also raised the issue of untrained cabinet ministers. Many ministers didn’t know how to manage the performance of the civil servants under them, as it wasn’t a requirement for cabinet ministers. There was poor human resource management in the Civil Service and poor project managers. However, expertise in specific areas did not necessarily make someone a more efficient minister. Andrew Lansley was an expert on health and healthcare, and yet his reforms were dreadful. The Coalition had also performed a number of U-turns, as no-one had told its members what the results of their reforms were intended to be. Overall, they concluded that the problem was one of improving the existing system, rather than overturning it.

All of these issues are complex and it’s fair to say that they need long and careful examination if we are to overcome the continuing crisis in British democracy. People do feel bitter and disenfranchised by their politicians. The scandal over MPs’ bonuses showed how bitter the public felt about their claims. Hopefully, more seminars and discussions like this will lead to the discovery of better ways to reverse this, and to bring people back to participating in the political process, which is supposed to serve them. Democratic political theory states that political sovereignty lies with the people. It’s a question of putting them back in charge, and taking power away from an increasingly managerial elite.

And if digital democracy is not a solution to this problem, than the internet has also provided part of the solution. Yes, there is the danger that people are retreating into social media. But the same social media has enabled political discussions like the above, by connecting people vastly separated from each other, who can discuss weighty issues like this easily in the comfort of their own homes.

A recording of the webinar, plus comments, can be found at: https:​//plus.​google.​com/events/cqjpogiqt6osi7fliui​4k4tkg4c
Thanks, Michelle.

The War on Drugs, Racism and Eugenics in Modern America

January 29, 2016

There’s a particularly chilling passage in the chapter ‘The History of “Black Paranoia” in Cockburn and St. Clair’s End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate, where they describe the revival and continuation of eugenics policies, including the use of castration and sterilisation, and the US government’s ‘war on drugs’. The chapter as a whole is intended to show that Black Americans have very good reason for not trusting the US government, considering the numerous policies that have been deliberately enacted against them. This has includes treating them as unwitting subjects for human experimentation, and the way crimes have been specifically framed by the legal authorities so that punishment bears down hardest on Blacks and other ethnic minorities. The various anti-drugs legislation is a case in point. Although middle class White Americans also used opium, marijuana and cocaine, the laws against them were formulated and promoted to specifically attack Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese, as a way of making them seem threateningly foreign. Cannabis was originally just called ‘hemp’. It was renamed ‘marijuana’ as a way of associating with Mexican workers, who were then competing with White workers in the Depression for jobs. It was associated with the racial threat supposedly posed by Black men, often using the crude imagery of school playground racial stereotype. One government headline screamed that ‘Negroes with Big Lips Lure White Women with Marijuana and Jazz.’ And all this was going on a mere few decades after one US cigarette manufacturer offered smokers cocaine-laced ciggies for their consumption.

The Destruction of Black Communities by the War on Drugs

Cockburn and St. Clair talk about the devastation wrought in downtown L.A. by the War on Drugs, which effectively turned poor Black neighbourhoods into war zones. Wards were walled off from each other, curfews imposed, and Black men were stopped and searched on the street. 89 per cent of those arrested were released without charge. Unemployment soared, as did the proportion of Blacks in US prisons. Poverty increased, and for the first in a century, the average Black life expectancy fell.

Fred Goodwin on Inner City Men Evolving Backwards

And as conditions in the inner cities deteriorated, there was a revival of eugenics. In 1992, Fred Goodwin, the director of ADAMHA, or the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, declared that the increase in Black violence in the inner cities may well have been due to a gene for violence. He recommended that a national biomedical campaign should be launched to isolate the gene and treat the gene’s carriers. In February of that year he gave a speech to the National Mental Health Advisory Council, in which he explicitly stated that violence had increased, as individuals in the jungle conditions of the inner cities had reverted to more ‘natural’ behaviour. He stated:

There are discussion of “biological correlates” and “biological markers”. The individuals have defective brains with detectable prefrontal changes that may well be predictive of later violence. The individuals have impaired intelligence, in this case “cognitive deficit” … Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner city areas, has removed some of the civilising evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilisation over thousands of years in our evolution.

Planting Electrodes in Brains to Control Violence

Cockburn and St. Clair link Goodwin’s attempt to find the genetic origins of violence and a medical treatment, with that of Lewis “Jolly” West, who presided over the neuropsychiatric institute at UCLA. In 1969 West announced his plan to plant electrodes in the brain of violent offenders, in order to control them. This caused such an outcry that he was forced to abandon his plans. There are shades here of the limiter in the BBC SF series, Blake’s 7. One of the early characters, Oleg Gan, had had a limiter – an electronic device designed to prevent him from killing anyone – implanted in his brain after he killed the Federation trooper, who’d raped his girlfriend. Blake’s 7 was a kind of ‘Dirty Dozen’ meets Star Wars, in which a motley crew of criminals led by the dissident Blake took on the totalitarian Federation. It was very much of its time, and strongly influenced by the medical abuse of psychiatry against dissidents in the former Soviet Union. West and his electrodes suggest that its creator, Terry Nation, the man, who gave children the world over the terrible joy of the Daleks, was also very much aware of the totalitarian tendencies in western science.

The Castration of the Violent

One of West’s own mentors was Dr Ernst Rodin, who was in charge of the Neurology department of Lafayette Clinic. He recommended neurosurgery and castration for the ‘dumb young males who riot’. His views were echoed by West after the Watts riots, but instead of surgery, West recommended sterilising them with cyproterone acetate. In 1972 he recommended that this should be carried out on the inmates in US prisons. This caused such an outcry that his funding was cut.

The Eugenic Sterilisation of the Unfit

Cockburn and St. Clair also cover the eugenics laws enacted in twelve US states in the first two decades of the last century. Between 1907 and 1964 about 63,678 people had been compulsorily sterilised in thirty states and one colony. But this was probably an underestimate of the true numbers of the policy’s victims. In 1974 Federal Judge Gerhard Gessell, reviewing the suit brought by them, declared that 100,000 to 150,000 people with low incomes had been sterilised annually over the past few years in federally funded programmes. Allan Chase, the author of a book on this, The Legacy of Malthus, states that this is comparable to the rate of the Nazis in their sterilisation campaign.

Such programmes were supposed to be voluntary, but Gessell ruled that an unknown number had been forced into it through the authorities threatening to take away their welfare benefits. Those most frequently targeted with this kind of pressure were women reliant on Medicaid to pay their bills for childbirth. One of the intended victims of this was Katie Relf, who successfully fought it off by locking herself into her room. Chase has estimated that by the end of the 1970s, the US was sterilising 200,000 citizens annually.

Winston Churchill, Eugenics, and the Bengal Famine

And the policy was not without its supporters over here. Winston Churchill also supported the policy, and wanted to see about 100,000 degenerates in the UK forcibly sterilised. This isn’t by far the most loathsome thing the great War Leader ever said or did. Last week, Secular Talk covered the story in the Independent that 40 per cent of Brits miss the Empire. The show covered a series of crimes against humanity committed by the Empire and its servants. These included the Amritsar Massacre, the incarceration of Afrikaaner women and children in concentration camps during the Boer War, and the Bengal Famine, in which 27 million people died of starvation. The wheat that could have fed them was diverted to British troops fighting in Europe in the Second World War. For the victims, Churchill had no sympathy. He said he hated Indians, and that it served them right for ‘breeding like rabbits’. He may have been the great leader who kept Europe free, but that doesn’t stop him from also being a moral slug.

Conclusion: Don’t Trust Those Who Claim to Have Found the Gene For Whatever

Apart from its main point – that American Blacks have every reason to be alienated and distrustful of the government and authorities, the chapter also shows how recently such racist attitudes were accepted by medical authorities, as well as the use of sterilisation against the poor generally. And it also provides very good reasons for being extremely distrustful of scientists when they claim to have found the gene for ‘X’. This includes the gene for schizophrenia, for homosexuality, and for violence. The latter surfaced yet again about a few months ago. Someone was claiming that extremely violent crims had a certain mutated chromosome. Then another biologist pointed out that roughly half of everybody also had the gene, and it didn’t make them into psychos. There’s a real danger here that if we pay too much attention to these scientists, we’ll be back with sterilisation and compulsory lobotomy. Just like the early 20th century and Nazis.

Cameron’s Picture of Himself Watching Space Launch Gets the Photoshop Treatment

December 17, 2015

Mike has a highly funny article over at Vox Political about an article on RT, commenting on Cameron’s latest stunt to show himself personally backing Tim Peake’s launch into space as the first British astronaut for nearly 20 years. Obviously, Cameron isn’t actually at the Baikonur cosmodrome, or Kapustin Yar, or wherever the launch actually took place. He’s at home watching it on TV. So that has to do. After posting pictures of himself watching the launch, others decided that it would be much more appropriate if he was watching something else entirely. Some of these are, of course, pig related. The most acceptable of these for a family audience, or those of a Nervous Disposition, is him watching Miss Piggy.

Cameron Miss Piggy

The article’s at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/12/16/cameron-tweets-picture-of-himself-watching-iss-launch-internet-reacts-hilariously-rt-uk/ Go there for more scurrility.

Of course, there’s no reason he couldn’t combine his two interests. Here’s the Muppet’s ‘Pigs in Space’, with guests Mark Hamill, R2-D2 and C-3PO, to celebrate the release of the latest Star Wars film.

Lucas Gave Profits from Sale of Star Wars to Education

December 16, 2015

The world, or at least Britain and Europe, is gearing up for the release of the new Star Wars film, Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Unlike the earlier features, which were Lucas Film/ 20th century Fox, the new flick has been made by Disney after Lucas sold Star Wars to them. I found this meme on 1000 Natural Shocks, and if it’s true, then it shows another side to Lucas in an extremely generous and admirable gesture.

Lucas Education Donation

Lucas has, of course, made his money cinematically from entertaining children, so its extremely appropriate that he should also try to benefit them educationally as well.

Unlike the current Tory government over here, which is trying to shut everything down or privatise it. And there isn’t even a Death Star to destroy Chipping Norton.

Hoverbikes to Appear in 2017?

November 30, 2015

This is another fascinating piece of technology news from Youtube. It’s on the hoverbike that’s been produced by the Aerofex company, and which may be on the market in 2017. According to the video it has two rotors, can fly up to ten feet off the ground and stay in the air for an hour and a quarter. The downside is that if you want one, it’s going to cost $85,000. Here’s the video.

It reminds me very much of the Piasecki ZV-8- Airgeep, which was designed for use by the American army. A model kit of this was produced in the 1990s by Glencoe Models, of Northboro, Massachusetts. According to the background information given with the kit,

The Piasecki ZV-8_ or 59L VTOL Airgeep was designed for the army to increase mobility by combining the versatility of an all-terrain ground vehicle with the benefits of a small helicopter. The first flight was on October 12, 1958. Some of its capabilities were to include the ability to fly at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, and to fly unhindered over water or mountains. Actual top speed was closer to 70 miles per hour with a maximum cruising range of 75 miles. General dimensions were 24 ft. 6 in. long and 9 ft. wide. Having a very low profile and a significant amount of speed combined with its ability to fly low along the ground would have made it an elusive target.

Power for the Airgeep comes from two flat opposed six cylinder Lycoming engines. Rated at 180 horsepower each, the 0-360-A2A piston engines are housed in the fuselage and turn the two large propellers via drive shafts. To aid in stability the front propeller turns clockwise and the rear turns counter-clockwise. Directional vane below the props control side to side and forward-reverse motions.

Protection from minor contact with immovable objects is taken care of by the large inflatable bumpers at both ends. The perimeter of the duct area is also shielded to protect the crew in case of detachment of one of the propeller blades.

Today the Piasecki ZV-8_ or 59L Airgeep resides at the United States Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Virginia.

Piasecki Airgeep

Airborne bikes have appeared in a number of SF movies since the appearance of the Speeders in the Star Wars films. By far the best known are probably the Speeder bikes used by the imperial storm troopers in the third of the original movies, Return of the Jedi. Similar vehicles also appear in the third Riddick film, simple called after its hero, Riddick, where they’re ridden by a posse of interplanetary bounty hunters sent to catch or kill him. Unlike the Star Wars Speeder bikes, the ‘hogs’ used in Riddick seem to be propelled not by some kind of anti-gravity field, but by something more like a downward-facing jet.

It’ll also be interesting to see if this does actually go into production. Some of us can still remember the one-man helicopter that was due to come on the market for about the same amount of money. One even appeared in one of the Spy Kids films, as I recall. In practice, however, that scheme was a failure. They never managed to get it stable, and its press release got into the ‘Funny Old World’ column in Private Eye. The machine went on sale, but as it was lethally unfit to fly, purchasers were legally forbidden to try doing so, on the grounds they’d kill themselves. And that was the end of that dream of single-person flight.

If these pics are to be believe, though, it looks like they’ve solved that problem. I hope it comes out. Like most people, I could never afford one, but it looks a cool way to travel.

Motherboard Report on the Japanese Robot Hotel

November 25, 2015

This is another interesting video I found over on Youtube. It’s a piece by the science news programme, Motherboard, on the Henn-na – Japanese for ‘weird’ Hotel in Tokyo that’s staffed by robots. The presenter states that Japan has legions of industrial robots, and Japanese trends were believed to show what the future would be like. In the case of the hotel industry, a few decades ago this was believed to be the capsule hotels, where tired Sararimen hired what was basically a stacked space about the size of a coffin to sleep in. The presenter tries one of these out, and talks to a traditional Japanese hotelier about how he feels about the rise of hotels where everything is done by robots.

The human hotelier states that he believes that people actually want the human touch, and personal contact with other human beings. So to compete, he believes that ordinary hotels will have to concentrate on being more human, rather than like those run by the machines. The journalist then goes on to sample what a night in one of these robot hotels is like. He states that the Japanese are turning to robots in order to cut down on high labour costs.

Inside the hotel, he is greeted with the hotel reception, which consists of two robots on a desk. One is in the guise of a woman, the other is a dinosaur in a hat. To check in, he has to use a touch-screen, which he describes as like those used at checkouts. Any valuables you have is placed in a locker behind glass by a robot arm, which the journalists says could come from a state of the art factory. Your luggage is taken to your room by another robot, though this is a robot trolley, not any kind of humanoid machine. In the bedroom on the bedside drawers is another, rather diminutive robot, which responds to your voice, greets you, and asks if you want the lights on or off.

Back down stairs, there are no catering staff. All the meals come from vending machines. There is a small human staff of about three guys. When interviewed, they also talk about how these hotels are driven by the need to cut labour costs. The journalist also interviews the managers, who states that he believes these hotels will become more popular and appear around the world. He and his staff also believe that to compete, hotels staffed by humans will also have to offer a more uniquely human experience.

The presenter himself and some of the guests he interviews are, however, in the end less than enthusiastic about the experience. He states that while its exciting to begin with, it’s actually rather lonely. The group of young women he interviews actually state that it’s really rather boring.

Here’s the video:

Now the presenter makes the point that as machines take more of our jobs, businesses like these raise the question of what can be uniquely done by humans. I’d argue that hotel catering and accommodation may not be an industry that can only be done by humans, but at the moment its an industry that can only be done well by humans.

If you look at the type of robots that have been popular in SF, they’re fictional machines that have had real characters and personalities. Think of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, C-3PO and R2D2 in the Star Wars films and K-9 in Dr Who. The same with the sentient computers, like Zen, Orac and Slave in Blake’s 7, or the Hal 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Or even Marvin the Paranoid Android in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These machines became favourite SF characters because they were precisely that: characters. They were essentially artificial people, with human-like intelligence, personality traits and even flaws. Robbie the Robot had all the polite aloofness of a human butler. C-3PO was fussy and rather camp, but a foil for R2D2, who was cheeky and slightly wilful, in the manner of a child determined to have its own way. Orac in Blake’s 7 was arrogant and pedantic, like a rather tetchy university professor. Slave was grovelling and subservient. K-9 was a perky companion, eager to help his master, but also with his own mind and opinions. The Hal-9000 computer was proud of its model’s computing power, accuracy and reliability, stated it enjoyed human companion, even though it went on to kill the crew on the grounds that human unreliability made them a threat to the success of the mission. Finally, it felt fear, when Dave Bowman, the hero of that segment of the film, closed it down. Zen was the most impersonal of all the machines. Except for its dying moment in the last episode of the third series, ‘Terminal’, it did not refer to itself. It was basically a hemisphere in a corner of the Liberator’s flight deck, across which flowed patterns of lights. Yet these lights and the slight inflections in its voice gave the impression of a distinct personality, and again, real human-like intelligence. Peter Tuddenham, the voice actor for Orac and Zen, in an interview with Blake’s 7 magazine in the 1980s, stated that of the two, Zen was his favourite. Orac, he felt, had merely taken on the personality of its creator, Ensor, who was also tetchy, pedantic and professorial. Zen’s personality was a more natural growth of the machine’s basic nature. It could have become human-like, but had deliberately held back and remained as it was.

And back in the 1970s and ’80s, 2000 AD also gave their own very comic version of what form robot accommodation for humans would take in the Robohunter strip. This followed the adventures of Sam Slade, that’s ‘S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’, as he attempted to combat robot crime. In the first story, Slade found himself despatched to the distant planet, Verdus. This had been occupied by robots in preparation for human colonisation. The robots, however, had refused to recognise the colonists as humans on the grounds that humans would obviously be superior to them in the every way. When the human colonists turned up, the robots found that they were instead weaker, and less intelligent. They concluded that they must somehow be ‘sims’, simulated humans, sent to deceive them for some purpose they didn’t understand. As a result, humans were rounded up into concentration camps to be experimented on and culled. Slade managed to break out, find the original robot sent to colonise the planet, who duly recognised and testified that he was indeed human. This convinced some of the robots that the Sims were humans, while others remained unconvinced. A war broke out between the two sides, which was only stopped by Slade destroying every robot on Verdus. This restored peace, but left his employers furious.

All this makes the strip seem grimmer than it actually was. The strip, scripted by long-time 2000 AD writer John Wagner, and drawn by Ian Gibson, was funny and satirical with a distinct cartoonish quality. On Verdus, everything was done by robots. There was a robot parliament, occupied by deranged and moronic MPs, like the Stupid Parties, which existed solely to provide comic amusement to the planet’s true leader, Big Brain. There was a robot archbishop and chief rabbi, demanding rights for Sims as God’s creatures. The robot armies included stereotypical ‘Colonel Blimp’ generals, while members of the robot constabulary in Robopoly, a robot board game, where also corrupt and brutal, following several real police scandals of the time. There were also robot singers and TV stars, like Frankie Droid, and Valve Doonican, a pastiche of the Irish singer, Val Doonican, who had his own show on British television at the time.

In the last couple of decades, a number of computer entrepreneurs and SF writers have predicted that eventually, everything will have computers chips in and so be computer controlled. The Robohunter strip also depicted that possibility, but gave it its own, twisted slant. In the page below, Slade and his diminutive sidekick, Kidd, on the run from the robots break into an apartment. Once inside, they find that everything, from the kettle, to footwear and furniture, is a robot.

Robohunter Pic 1

What makes this interesting, and extremely funny, is that all these machines have their own personalities. They talk and argue. They discuss whether Slade and Kidd are really human, or just Sims, and then decide to put it to the vote whether they should turn them in or not.

This is absolutely unlike the real robot hotel. For all the talk about Artificial Intelligence, the machines there aren’t really sentient. They respond in a very limited way to a set of instructions. These may be verbal or keyed in. Unlike the fictional machines, there is no ‘I’, no sense of self lurking within the chips and circuit boards. And no real understanding of what they’re doing either. It’s just one set of circuits responding to a certain stimulus according to its programme or wiring. They’re moving mannequins, rather than the artificial people of SF.

So instead of the robotic maniacs of Verdus, what is instead presented is something far more like the antiseptic, alienated futures of Stanley Kubrick’s SF films. In 2001 everything is gleaming white, clean, and sterile. People speak, but don’t actually communicate or really say anything much at all. And that was deliberate. Clarke had told Kubrick that he had trouble writing dialogue for the movie. Kubrick told him not to worry. He liked it stilted, as he saw the people in this future as brittle and alienated. They had reached a high stage of technological sophistication but had little human warmth or empathy in their social interactions themselves. Critics have commented that the only real personality in the movie is that of Hal, the murderous computer.

The programme’s presented states that the increasing use of robots in Japan is driven by the need to cut labour costs. I dare say that’s part of it, but not quite what has been said elsewhere. Japan actually has a labour shortage, partly caused by a falling birth rate and strongly traditional attitudes against women in the workplace. As a result, there’s been campaigns not only to introduce robots into Japanese industry, but also to humanise them, to get the other, human members of the workforce to accept them as a fellow being, rather than just a machine.

And for all the country’s immense technological sophistication and ingenuity, it’s actually extremely reluctant to implement mechanisation itself as comprehensively as its competitors in the West have done. Way back in the 1990s I read a book on Japan written by a Times journalist. The author stated that while in the West were used to computer checkouts, if you went into a Japanese shop or the post office, the clerk there would be using old fashioned ledgers. The Japanese had worked out that if they fully automated their industry, it would put half their workers out of a job. And the actual numbers of robots in Japan may well be colossally exaggerated. Geoff Simons in his book Robots: The Question for Living Machines, states that most of the what the Japanese call robots are what in the west are viewed as machine tools. The impression I have is that the Japanese love robots, but want to introduce them as an addition to the human workers, not as a replacement.

The film shows the journalist enjoying the robot actors and dancers at a carnival or nightclub. Alongside some machines, are people dressed as robots, playing at them. This strikes me as what visitors to a robot hotel would really want from the experience – real humans alongside the machines, and the machines themselves to be more like personalities than just simple automatic mechanisms. The danger there is that if you did give robots personalities, you run the risk of creating miserable robots like the eternally depressed Marvin, the Paranoid Android. He was a ‘personality prototype’. ‘You can tell, can’t you?’ as he himself put it.

I’ve no doubt that the ruthless logic of capitalism means that there’ll be more of these hotels in the future. I think there’s already another like it in Los Angeles. But in the meantime I think human-run premises probably offer a better service. At least they have real cooks, rather than vending machines.