Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Hawking’

Time Travel Tale of Scientists Warning of Ecological Collapse: Gregory Benford’s ‘Timescape’

May 10, 2019

Gregory Benford, Timescape (London: Victor Gollancz 1980).

Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, has asked me to do a review of Gregory Benford’s time machine book, Timescape. I read it a few years ago, having bought the 1996 edition, over a decade and a half after it was first published. It is just a bit dated now in its prediction of life in 1998, but still well-worth reading if you’re into physics and hard SF.

Benford, the ‘Galactic Centre’ Novels and Timescape

Gregory Benford is an American astronomer and hard SF writer. He’s probably best known for his ‘Galactic Centre’ series of novels. Set thousands of years in the future, this is about the last remnants of humanity battling for survival against a ruthless and almost overwhelmingly superior machine civilisation, the Mechs, at the centre of the Galaxy. Hard SF is the type of science fiction that tries as far as possible to keep to established scientific rules. Such as, for example, the inviolability of the rule of Relativity, so that there are no Faster Than Light drives taking humans to the stars in a matter of hours, days or months rather than years. But that doesn’t mean ruling out other scientific advances, like time travel. Several of the ‘Galactic Centre’ novels are set in an artificial environment within the Black Hole at the centre of our Galaxy, where careful engineering by alien creatures formed of pure magnetism have merged two Black Holes to form an artificial environment of warped space time, within which humans and organic aliens are able to seek sanctuary from the Mechs. The curvature of spacetime and stress cracks within it in this environment allow the inhabitants to travel backwards and forwards in time. One of the novels features the adventures of a modern human family, who are forced to flee forward in time as the Mechs invade, almost to the end of time itself.

Brief Synopsis

Timescape doesn’t go that far, and is very firmly set in the recent past, and near future according to the time it was written. It’s the tale of two scientists and their friends, Gordon Bernstein and his fellows at CalTech in 1963, and Gregory Markham, an American scientist and his friend Markham, at Cambridge Uni in 1998. Bernstein is a young graduate student, who detects strange signals from an experiment he and his fellows are running, signals that he gradually begins to realize cannot be explained as just random noise or the product of background radiation. In 1998 Markham and Renfrew are working on ways to generate tachyons, faster than light subatomic particles that will travel back in time through bombarding iridium with high energy particles. They hope that by creating such particles, they may be able to use them to send a warning to the past.

The Earth in this very near future is dying. The ecology is collapsing through a deadly bacteriological bloom that destroys vegetable and animal life. The result is global famine, poverty and social unrest, with food rationing and bands of hostile, violent beggars moving across England. Markham and Renfrew hope they can send a message to the past detailing how the disease can be fought and eradicated in order to save civilisation by preventing the catastrophe occurring in the first place.

Time Travelling Subatomic Particles from Space

The idea of using subatomic particles and quantum physics to contact the past is highly speculative, of course, but not unreasonable. Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that information is able to move backwards through time, so that events in the future are able to determine the results of certain experiments, for example. There was also speculation in the 1990s that some subatomic particles reaching Earth from despite might be tachyons in origin. I can’t quite remember whether these were a type of neutrino or meson, but the theory was that they were produced by high energy events in space, such as supernovas. This produced tachyons, which traveled backwards in time until they decayed to become neutrinos or mesons or whatever, which were then able to be detected by scientists.

The Connecticutt College Professor’s Time Machine

Also in the 1990s came a plan by a Black professor at Connecticutt Community college to build a real, working time machine. This wouldn’t be able to transport people, just other subatomic particles back into the past. The idea was to create an Einstein-Rosen Condensate of iridium ions. An Einstein-Rosen Condensate is a strange state of matter where a plasma – an ionised gas is supercooled so that its component particles behave as a single particle. This plasma was to be whirled around in a chamber mimicking the spin of stars. Stars are so massive that as they spin, they pull the fabric of space time itself around after them. The effect has been observed around the Sun, providing confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It has been suggested that this effect could be used in the case of extremely massive objects, like Black Holes, to travel back in time. You simply enter the region of space being dragged around by the Black Hole, and then travel in the opposite direction to the local movement of spacetime. This should make you go back in time, it is suggested, and so you should be able to leave that area of space some time in the past, before you entered it. The professors plan worked along similar lines. Electrons would be shot into the chamber in the opposite direction to the circulation of the condensate. This should allow them to travel back into the past. If the scientists running the experiment found a larger number of electrons in the condensate than normal or otherwise explained, before they had started shooting them into it, then it would mean that the electrons had traveled there from the future. Time travel, or at least that possibility of communication between past and future, would be possible.

This obviously got very many people very excited. H.G. Wells’ grandson, who directed the ’90s version of his grand-dad’s classic, The Time Machine, appeared in a documentary telling us that the age of time travel was almost upon us. The experiment was due to be run aboard one of the space shuttles, but I think it must have been cancelled when one exploded, thus grounding the fleet and finally endings its use.

Time and the Weird World of Quantum Physics

Benford warns in his acknowledgements that

Many scientific elements in this novel are true. Others are speculative, and thus may well prove false. My aim has been to illuminate some outstanding philosophical difficulties in physics. If the reader emerges with the conviction that time represents are fundamental riddle in modern physics, this book will have served its purpose.

Which must be one of the rare occasions when a scientist writes a book to show how mysterious and incomprehensible a scientific phenomenon is, rather than how it can be grasped and understood. This famously applies to quantum physics. As one prominent scientist said of this subject, you don’t understand it, you just get used it.

Science and Society in the ’60s and ’90s

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of physics in the book, though none of its so hard that only physics graduates, let alone the late Stephen Hawking, would be the only people that understand it. And the book does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like doing physics at an advanced level in the early 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Gordon Bernstein, the hero of the early years, is a New York Jew, whose girlfriend, Marjorie, is a Conservative gentile. As his investigations proceed, he first believes that the signals are messages from space before coming to understand they’re from the future instead. He faces scepticism and opposition from his colleagues and academic supervisors, and risks being failed and his academic career and research terminated. as he goes on and his theories become public, he suffers from the attentions of the press and a procession of cranks, who traipse through his office door offering their own weird theories. I think this is a common experience to many astronomers and cosmologists. I can remember reading a comment by one such scientist that hardly a week went by without him receiving in the mail letters from people explaining their ‘theory of the universe’. At the same time, Bernstein’s relationship with his girlfriend also comes under pressure. His family don’t approve, and would like him to marry a nice Jewish girl instead. There are also political disagreements. Penny and her friends fully support the Vietnam War, views that aren’t shared by the liberal Bernstein. But in a twist, it’s Penny who understands that the waiters at their favourite restaurant are gay, is comfortable with that fact.

Back in Blighty in 1998, Markham’s and Renfrew’s backgrounds are solidly middle class. This is still a world where women were expected to stay home and cook, and the aristocracy still wields power and influence. A society in which entitled public school boys shout their food and alcohol choices in the local pub in Latin. It’s a world in which Markham is an outsider, and resents the privilege and condescension of the upper class Brits among which he moves.

Timescape and ’70s Fears of the End of Civilisation

Like much near-future SF, the book’s now dated. 1998 is now twenty years ago, and fortunately civilisation has not collapsed. Not yet. The book was partly a product of the sense of crisis in the 1970s, when many people really did fear the end of civilisation through industrial and social unrest and ecological collapse. It was predicted that overpopulation would result in mass famine, while the resources would run out and the Earth itself become uninhabitable through massive pollution. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. Not yet. But there is still a real danger of global civilisation collapsing through irreversible ecological damage from climate change and pollution, and algal blooms are poisoning the water in some parts of the world. Despite it’s age, the book thus remains acutely relevant.

Social Change and the Rise of Domestic Computers

In other respects, the book as a prediction of the future hasn’t worn quite as well. The advance of feminism in the 1980s and ’90s meant that traditional gender roles were breaking down as women sought careers outside the home. By 1998 there was the expectation that both partners in a relationship would be working, and the old domestic arrangement in which women looked after children and the home and were supported by their husbands was seen as anachronistic. At the same time, he also doesn’t predict the advances in information technology that has produced the home and personal computers or mobile phones. There is, however, a machine called the Sek, which is a type of answerphone and database, if I recall correctly.

Conclusion

These differences between the book’s expectation of what the ’90s would be like and the reality actually don’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the story. Science Fiction tends not to be very good at predicting the future. If it was, then humanoid robots with a comparable level of intelligence and genuine consciousness, like Star Wars’ C3PO, would be in every home and we would already have colonies on the Moon, Mars and Earth orbit. We don’t have any of that. But we do have personal computers, the internet and mobile phones, as well as a variety of industrial machines, which weren’t predicted. Many SF novels still remain worth reading even though their predictions of the future, or the contemporary present in which they were set, are dated. These include such classics as those of H.G. Wells’, Jules Verne, John Wyndham and so on. What matters in the story and the writer’s ability to create a convincing, fascinating world, which Timescape does.

While some of its details are inaccurate, this is still a readable, gripping story with a solid base in plausible science, and whose warning about environmental decline is, horrendously, just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1980.

 

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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.

Physics Textbook on Cosmology and Gravitation

March 15, 2018

M.V. Berry, Principles of Cosmology and Gravitation (Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing 1989).

Yesterday came the news of the death of the great British physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking at the age of 76. Hawking had suffered for most of his adult life from motor neurone disease, since he was diagnosed with it in his early 20s. He was given only three years to live, but instead managed to live out a very full lifespan working on his theories of the origin of the universe and Black Holes. He was a great ambassador for science. His book, A Brief History of Time, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1980s, although he admitted that it was probably a book few finished. And he showed that it was still possible for a disabled person to do cutting edge research, provided they had the necessary technical and medical support. In his case, it was his wheelchair and the machine that allowed him to speak, first of all by keying in the words, then by twitching just a single muscle. Some of the praise seemed a bit too fulsome to me. Like when they started saying that he was the greatest scientist since Newton and Einstein. I don’t think he was. And Hawking on his own didn’t unlock the secrets of universe or Black Holes, as the Beeb’s presenters also claimed. As for his great sense of humour, well, it existed, as his appearance on shows like The Simpsons demonstrated, but my memory of it is marred by him turning up with the TV critic, Victor Lewis Smith, telling fart jokes and laughing on the 1990s series, Inside Victor Lewis Smith. But it really was inspiring to see how he was a great hero to the ‘A’ level students at a science fair yesterday, and how he had inspired them to become interested in science.

One of the complaints Richard Dawkins has made about popular science programmes is that they’re too ‘dumbed-down’. He points out that they have to have lots of explosions, and they mustn’t include equations, in case that scares people off. There’s a lot with which I don’t agree with Dawkins. I’m not an atheist, and have argued on this blog against him and the other militant atheists. But he is right here. Scientists writing the popular science books have said that they’ve been told by their publishers to leave equations out, because every equation in a book damages sales.

I think this is the wrong attitude to have. It’s why I’ve put up this piece about the above book by M.V. Berry. It’s an undergraduate physics textbook, which does contain the fundamental mathematical equations for this area of physics. Its contents include

1. Introduction

2. Cosmography
2.1 What the universe contains
2.2 The cosmic distance hierarchy and the determination of galactic densities
2.2.1 Parallax
2.2.2 Distance from velocity measurements
2.2.3 Distance from apparent luminosity
2.2.4 Weighing galaxies
2.3 The red shift and the expansion of the universe.

3. Physical base of general relativity
3.1 The need for relativistic ideas and a theory of gravitation.
3.2 Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: gravity
3.3. Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: inertial frames and absolute space.
3.4 Inadequacy of special relativity.
3.5 Mach’s principle, and gravitational waves.
3.6 Einstein’s principle of equivalence.

4 Curved spacetime and the physical mathematics of general relativity.
4.1 Particle Paths and the separation between events
4.2 Geodesics
4.3 Curved spaces
4.4 Curvature and gravitation.

5 General relativity near massive objects
5.1 Spacetime near an isolated mass.
5.2 Around the world with clocks.
5.3 Precession of the perihelion of Mercury
5.4 Deflection of light
5.5 Radar echoes from planets
5.6 Black Holes

6 Cosmic Kinematics
6.1 Spacetime for the smoothed-out universe
6.2 Red shifts and horizons
6.3 Apparent luminosity
6.4 Galactic densities and the darkness of the night sky.
6.5 Number counts

7 Cosmic dynamics
7.1 Gravitation and the cosmic fluid
7.2 Histories of model universes
7.3 The steady state theory
7.4 Cosmologies in which the strength of gravity varies

8 In the beginning
8.1 Cosmic black-body radiation.
8.2 Condensation of galaxies
8.3 Ylem.

Appendix A: Labelling astronomical objects
Appendix B: Theorema Egregium
Problems
Solutions to odd-numbered problems
Useful numbers.

there’s also a bibliography and index.

I’m not claiming to understand the equations. I struggled at both my ‘O’ level maths and physics, and what I know about science and astronomy I learned mostly through popular science books. But in the mid-1990s I wanted to see at least some of the equations scientists used in their explorations and modelling of the universe. One of the popular science books I was reading said at the time that this book was at the level that people with ‘A’ level maths could understand, and this didn’t seem quite so much a jump from my basic maths skills. So I ordered it. I’m afraid I can’t say that I’ve read it properly, despite the fact that I keep meaning to. Some of the equations are just too much for me, but I can follow the explanations in the text. I’m putting this notice of the book up here, in case there are any budding Stephen or Stephanie Hawkingses out there, who want to go a bit further than the pop-sci explanations, and see for themselves what the maths behind it all is like.

The Beeb also said in their eulogy for the great man, that Hawking hoped that the people reading his A Brief History of Time would come away with one point, even if they hadn’t finished it: that the universe is governed by rational law. Actually, this ideas isn’t unique to Hawking by a very, very long way. It actually comes from the Middle Ages, and is the assumption that makes science possible. Hawking was an agnostic, I believe, and many scientists are atheists. But this assumption that the universe is governed by rational laws ultimately comes from Christian theology. The founds of modern science in the Renaissance pointed to the passages in the Bible, in which God’s Wisdom creates the universes and establishes the boundaries and courses of natural phenomena, like the tides and stars. And the anarchist of science, Feuerabend, pointed out that the assumption that the laws of the universe all form a consistent whole come from Christian doctrine, quoting the 13th century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas: ‘We must believe that the laws of the universe are one, because God is one.’

Hawking has passed away, but it’s clear that he has inspired many more people to become interested in this rather arcane branch of the sciences. I hope this continues, despite the Tories’ attack on education and science and research for its own sake.

Radio 4 Programme on Douglas Adams, and New Series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 27, 2018

This Saturday, 3rd March 2018, Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme on Douglas Adams and his ideas for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on papers at Cambridge University. The programme’s part of their Archive Hour series, at 8.00 O’clock in the evening. The blurb for it on page 119 of the Radio Times reads

John Lloyd explores a collection of Douglas Adams’ private papers written as the latter’s ideas for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy took shape.

There’s a bit more about the programme on the previous page, 118, which runs

Don’t Panic! It’s the Douglas Adams Papers

As part of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast on Radio 4 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a new series begins on Radio 4 on Thursday. It includes unused material held at Cambridge University by author Douglas Adams, and Adams’ papers are the basis of his friend and collaborator John Lloyd’s tribute this evening. The tribute inevitably hinges on Adams’ famous inability to write. He “got stuck”. But the results of his anguish impressed such fans as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, both of whom appear. A priceless homage to a comedy genius.

And there’s a two-page feature on him on pages 114 & 115.

The new series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is on Radio 4 at 6.30, on Thursday 8th March. The new series’ entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase, and the listing for it in the Radio Times runs

Simon Jones returns as Arthur Dent in a new sci-fi comedy tale based on Dirk Maggs’ novel And Another Thing, with additional material by creator Douglas Adams. It sees Arthur and the rest in an adventure involving Viking Gods and Irish confidence tricksters-not to mention the first glimpse of the Eccentrica Gallumbits.

I don’t think I’ll be listening to it, as I went off Hitchhiker and Adams way back in the 1990s. I loved the first two books, but their quality steadily went down, and I’ve had no desire to read the Dirk Gently stories or anything else Adams’ wrote. And I also wasn’t impressed by the way Adams got very sniffy in an interview on the radio with Paxman, when Paxo told him he wrote science fiction, ‘but it was good’, and Adams denied that he did. Hitchhiker clearly is SF, but it seems Adams either didn’t respect the genre due to literary snobbishness, or simply didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an SF writer. I can also remember him on another radio programme back in the 1990s telling an audience of schoolchildren that he was a ‘wordsmith’. I’m sure that’s true, in the sense that Adams was genuinely concerned with making sure his work was exactly right, but it still sounds more than a little pretentious and conceited when the uses the term to describe himself.

Stephen Hawking to Play The Book in New Series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 18, 2018

The I newspaper yesterday reported that the physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, is set to play the Book in a new radio series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Entitled ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Edition’ the series will commemorate the original show on Radio 4 back in 1978, featuring the original cast.

I loved the original series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the first two books based on the show, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. However, I lost interest in it after the third book. I tried reading the fourth, only to give up. I think by that time Douglas Adams himself was growing tired of writing them. I’ve heard someone say on an interview that he was only lured back to write his last Hitch-Hiker book by the publisher’s promise that in it he could destroy every possible Earth in every possible universe. So I’m not sure I’ll listen to it, especially as the series is being carried on by other writers.

I also wasn’t impressed by Adams’ expressed contempt for the genre he wrote in. Back in the 1990s he was interviewed on the radio by Paxo, who said his book was Science Fiction, but different. It was good. Adams replied by saying that he didn’t write Science Fiction. Which is odd, because that’s what Hitch-Hiker is. But I guess Adams wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as a genre writer.

At that time the prejudice of the literary establishment towards Science Fiction and Fantasy was much stronger than it is now. I can remember seeing Terry Pratchett speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, saying how the organisers looked on him as if he was going to talk to people about fixing motorcycles. There’s a clip of the BBC arts programme, The Late Review, in which the Oxford lecturer and poet, Tom Paulin, and a female litterateur are asked to review one of Pratchett’s books, where they both make very disparaging remarks. The woman states that she felt like writing across it in big lines ‘I cannot read any more’. Paulin compared it to lifting up a stone to find all these weird people doing weird things underneath it. And going further back to the 1950s Brian Aldiss commented in The Trillion Year Spree that at that time, despite being championed by Kingsley Amis, pornography had a better reputation than Science Fiction amongst the literary elite.

Pratchett had to fight against that literary snobbishness throughout his life, but is now being taken very seriously by critics. I think Adams avoided it. Back in the ’90s he and Hitch-Hiker were the subjects of one edition of the South Bank Show with Melvin Bragg. But perhaps the price of that critical acclaim was his denial that he wrote Science Fiction at all.

But other people are different, and so I’ve no doubt that there are millions of Hitch-Hiker fans out there, who will be delighted to hear the news. They know who they are. They’re the people, who bought merchandising, like the Hitch-Hiker bath towels. This was a large, white bath towel with the text from the HHGG talking about how every Hitch-Hiker really needed to know where their towel was on it. I found one of those in Forever People, the comics/ SF shop in Bristol. The show’s fans are also the people, who organised conventions with dubious names like ‘Slartibartday’, after one of the creators of the Earth, Slartibartfast.

Hawking is in many ways an ideal choice for The Book after the death of Peter Jones, who was its original voice on Radio 4 and then in the BBC 2 TV series. He already has an electronic voice to fit the character of an electronic book, and is a world famous space scientist and advocate of space colonisation. But you wonder how massive his ego will be after playing a publication, which the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes as, amongst some people, having displaced the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom.

Stephen Hawking, Academics and Campaigners Launch Legal Challenge to Hunt’s Privatisation of NHS

December 12, 2017

Mike last Friday put up a piece reporting that the physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, had joined a group of university professors and campaigners mounting a legal challenge to Hunt’s planned introduction of Accountable Care Organisations into the NHS. The article notes that Hawking and Labour MPs are opposed to them, as they have the same name and are modelled on similar organisations which manage care within the private American healthcare system. Hawking sees them very much as a device to cut services and expenditure, and open the NHS up to further privatisation. The campaigners are also opposed to the way these organisations are being introduced without statute, and part of the point of the legal challenge is to open them up to proper parliamentary debate.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/12/08/stephen-hawking-joins-lawsuit-aimed-at-foiling-hunts-nhs-shake-up-the-guardian/

Mike’s article also notes that Hawking has challenged Hunt to a debate, and used statistics to prove his point that Hunt was wrecking the NHS. To which Hunt responded by accusing him of ‘cherrypicking’ the data. Which in my experience is exactly what the Tories do, in order to hide their own duplicity and destructiveness. Hawking has challenged Hunt to a public debate. To which Hunt responded by running away. The comedian Ralf Little has also challenged the Health Secretary to a debate. Twice. And Hunt’s run away from that.

But not according to the Beeb’s Newsbeat, which claimed that it was Little running away from Hunt. Hunt has also been madly spinning, claiming that he’s waiting for Little to show the evidence, when in fact Little has. It’s Hunt who’s been running away.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/12/11/bbc-gets-the-ralf-little-jeremy-hunt-debate-completely-backwards/

Is this a genuine mistake, or yet more rightwing bias at the Beeb? I’d say it was more right-wing bias. However, the Beeb’s clearly getting a mite sensitive about this, as Ian Hislop got a bit sniffy about claims of anti-Labour bias at the Beeb a few weeks ago on Have I Got News For You. He made a sneer about such accusations, as if that stopped them from being true.

Wildswimmerpete posted this observation about the basis for this latest privatisation in Kaiserpermanente:

*Unt: ” following a US-style privatisation agenda with his introduction of Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs)”. The “name that should never uttered”: Kaiser Permanente. *Unt seems to spend a lot of his time at KP’s HQ no doubt for inspiration to feed his delusions.

This is very much how it appears to me. It looks very much like an extension of Tony Blair’s policy. Blair also wanted the privatisation of the NHS, and looked to the ‘managed care’ system devised by Kaiserpermanente in America, which was supposed to deliver care more efficiently and economically. In fact, it doesn’t, but that’s the effect of free market ideology on people: they become completely impervious to the truth, blinded by the glory of Thatcherite economics. Blair also set up the Community Care Groups, groups of GPs which were also supposed to be given the powers to arrange for the provision of services within the NHS, or alternatively, to buy in services from the private sector.

Of course, Blair was just following and expanding the policies of NHS privatisation introduced by Thatcher and John Major. It was Major, who introduced the system of allowing private companies to build and run hospitals and other NHS services under the Private Finance Initiative.

And Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act of 2012 is a particular danger, as it absolves the Health Secretary of his statutory obligation to ensure people have access to state provided healthcare.

I’ve written a couple of pamphlets on this. One of these, Privatisation: Killing the NHS, is available from Lulu. The other is a desktop published work, which you can get directly from me, if you want it. Just leave a message in the comments if you want one, and I’ll get back to you.

And I also put up this video on YouTube urging everyone to vote for Corbyn in the elections, as he’s the only one, who has promised to renationalise the Health Service.

‘Horizon’ with Mark Gatiss on a Crewed Mission to Mars

September 6, 2017

After the programme with Drs. Stephen Hawking, Danielle George and Christophe Galfand on BBC 2 next Monday, 11th September, discussing the colonization of Proxima B, the Beeb are also dedicating an edition of the long-running science documentary programme, Horizon, to the issue of sending humans to a nearer planet, Mars. The programme’s called ‘Mars – A Traveller’s Guide, and will be screened at 9 pm on Tuesday, 12th September 2017.. The blurb for this on page 82 of the Radio Times runs as follows

The reality of sending humans to Mars is getting so close that certain scientists think that somebody who is alive today will be the first person to set foot on the Red Planet. But where should the first explorers visit when they get there? Experts on the planet take their pick from extraordinary Martian landscapes ranging from vast plains and towering volcanos to deep valleys and underground caverns. They also consider what people will need to survive, the best place to land, how to live and even where to hunt for traces of extraterrestrial life.

There’s also another section giving more information about the programme on page by David Buthcer. This says

The first person to walk on Mars is probably alive today. And they might watch Horizon. So here’s a rough guide to Mars, the even lonelier planet, with a rundown of its finest sights, drily narrated by Mark Gatiss.

Visitors should certainly look out for the Valles Marineris, he tells us, the grandest canyon in the solar system at 10 km deep and long enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Or there’s Olympus Mons, a volcano 100 times higher than any on Earth.

But getting to see them won’t be easy. One scene where an engineer describes what’s involved in landing on the planet puts the challenges in perspective. And the weather’s not great either.’

Mark Gatiss is, of course, one of the League of Gentlemen. Having escaped from Royston Vesey, a year or so ago he presented a programme on the great master of the British ghost story, M.R. James, and was one of the presenters of a series of programmes marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain a month or so ago. He is also no stranger to outer space, if only in fiction, as he’s also one of the writers of the relaunched Dr. Who.

Stephen Hawking on Why We Need to Colonise Space

September 6, 2017

Next Monday evening, 11th September 2017, on BBC 2 at 9 pm, Professor Stephen Hawking will present a programme arguing that humanity needs to colonise another world. Entitled The Search for a New Earth, the blurb for the programme on page 72 of the Radio Times runs

Physicist Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive, with climate change, pollution, deforestation, pandemics and population growth making life on Earth increasingly precarious. In this programme he examines whether humans could relocate to other planets, travelling the globe to meet scientists, technologists and engineers working on the means and method.

There’s more information about the programme on page 71. This passage states that

Stephen Hawking is convinced that, if we are not to risk annihilation, humans need to leave Earth within the next 100 years and make a new home on another planet.

It sounds like sci-fi, but a planet has already been discovered “in our neighbourhood” that’s a contender: Proxima B is in the Goldilocks Zone (the narrow orbit where conditions are perfect to sustain human life), but we’d need a massive technological feat just to get us there.

Astrophysicist Danielle George and Hawking protégé Christophe Galfard explore the practicality of where and how e could create a human colony in space.

There’s also a single page feature about the programme in the Radio Times on page 31, which includes Danielle George’s replies to the following questions

Do we really need to leave Earth?

What does a new planet need to be human-friendly?

How many people will it take to set up a colony?

Stephen Hawking believes Proxima B may be the most suitable planet. Why?

How far away is Proxima B?

How long would it take to travel 4.2 light years?

Could we fit 20 years’ worth of astronaut food into a spaceship?

Dow we have the right to take over another planet?

Do you think there is the will to make this happen?

Regarding the amount of time required to journey to Proxima B, George states that using current chemical rockets it would take 250,000 years. But there is a project at Caliphornia where they are experimenting with propelling a nano probe the size of a mobile phone sim card using a laser beam. This may make it possible for such a probe to reach Proxima in 20 years.

That last sounds like a version of the old proposal to use space-based lasers to send a light sail to another star. One of the proposed missions was Starwisp, which would use solar sails to carry a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri. The probe would reach a speed of 1/3 of the speed of light, and make the journey in something like 20 years.

The veteran hard SF writer, Larry Niven, also used the idea of laser-driven solar sails in his classic The Mote in God’s Eye. This is about the encounter between an expanding human galactic empire, and an alien race, the Moties. These are so called because their homeworld is a planet in a nebula dubbed Murchison’s Eye by humanity. The Moties are highly intelligent, but lack the Anderson Drive that has made it possible for humans to move out into the Galaxy. Instead, they have sent a vessel out on the centuries long voyage across interstellar in a ship using such a solar sail, powered by laser beam from their own system. It is the light from the laser beam which has given the Moties’ nebula its characteristic red colour.

As well as being super-intelligent, the Moties also possess between three and four arms, depending on their caste and function, and change sex throughout their life. Which makes me wonder whether the writers of the X-Files’ episode, ‘Gender Bender’, about a group of sex-changing aliens, who live an existence like the Amish had also drawn on the book for their inspiration. As well as the writers of Doctor Who when they decided that the Time Lords are also not restricted to remaining the same sex when they regenerate.

Stephen Hawking’s Defends NHS as Hunt Lies about its Privatisation

August 22, 2017

I know the Tories will immediately complain about the title of this article, but that’s exactly what’s going on. The Tories have been privatizing the NHS piecemeal since the 1980s, when Maggie Thatcher wanted to sell it off completely and replace it with an American-style insurance based system. Thatcher was prevented from doing so through a massive cabinet revolt, plus the fact that her private secretary, Patrick Jenkin, found out how appalling the American system was after he actually did some research and went there.

But the privatization is still going on. There was a mass exodus of dentists in the late ’80s-early ’90s, after Maggie – or was it Major?-refused to give them any more money. Then came Peter Lilley and his Private Finance Initiative, in which hospitals were to be built and run for the NHS by private contractors. Then New Labour expanded this massively, breaking up the NHS internal structure to model it after the American private healthcare system, Kaiser Permanente. Blair was approached by a whole slew of American private healthcare companies. His idea was that hospitals and clinics should be taken over by private healthcare companies, like Circle Health, Virgin Healthcare and so on. The community care groups of doctors, which were supposed to commission healthcare for their patients, where to obtain it from both private healthcare providers as well as the NHS. And they were also given the powers to raise money from private enterprise.

And before anyone objects that Blair was a Socialist, no, he wasn’t. He had Clause 4 removed from the party’s constitution. He was also profoundly hostile to the trade unions, who have formed part of the very core of the Labour party since it was founded in the very early 20th century.

Blair was a true, blue Thatcherite. The first thing he did when he got into power was invite Thatcher round. And she responded warmly, declaring New Labour her greatest success. Remember, this is the woman, who proudly shouted about how she was going to destroy socialism.

And the Tories have carried on her project of gradually destroying the NHS, bit by bit, while loudly proclaiming how much they’re in favour of it.

The present Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is a prime example of this. He even wrote a book in which he declared how much better everything would be if we had a private healthcare system, like America.

Yeah, like America, where the poorer parts of the country don’t have any doctors at all, because it isn’t profitable. Where once a month, in Virginia, people sleep in cars overnight in order to join the queue for the doctor’s or dentists’ surgery offering free dental care that Saturday.

Where something like 20 million Americans can’t afford their medical coverage, and 30,000 people die every year because of this.

And where the Republicans and corporate Democrats have been lying and smearing Bernie Sanders, because he dared to run on a platform of ‘Medicare for all’. You know, giving Americans state-funded healthcare, like in the other parts of the world.

This is what the Tories are doing to Britain. And last week, as Mike reported on his blog, Stephen Hawking, the great cosmologist, called them out on it. He also accused Hunt of cherry-picking the data about the supposed deaths caused by NHS staff not working Saturdays.

Hunt got terribly upset about this, and declared that Hawking didn’t understand statistics.

This is a joke from a professional moron. Statistics are a vital part of science and medicine. Much of modern science, including astronomy and cosmology, is going through the data, trying to find something that is statistically significant. It can be time-consuming, tedious work, requiring sophisticated techniques to sort out what’s importance from apparently random results.

Hawking’s a physicist, who has been working with some extremely advanced maths as part of his investigation into the origins of the cosmos and the nature of Black Holes for his entire career. I don’t believe in his ‘No Boundaries Solution’ to the problem of the origin of the universe, but it’s abundantly clear that he understands stats. And as a man stricken with Motor Neurone Disease, a terrible illness, which has left him confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak and scarcely a muscle, Prof. Hawking clearly has first-hand experience of NHS care.

In short, don’t believe Hunt. Believe Hawking.

And yesterday one of the doctors weighed in, to request that a televised debate should be held between the two. See that story on Mike’s blog.

I’ve got no doubt that this will never happen. The schedules are full already, and the last thing the Tories will want is putting their man in a position where he’ll lose against a vastly more popular, far more respected and definitely more intelligent opponent.

Although they’re both authors. Hawking’s most famous work was A Brief History of Time, published back in the 1980s. It was a national bestseller, following very much in the footsteps of Carl Sagan’s epic Cosmos, another pop-sci blockbuster from a great science communicator, as well as a concerned scientist who attacked militarism, imperialism and man-made global warming.

As for Hunt, very few have read his book, which is why he can still repeat the lie that the Tories aren’t privatizing the NHS with a straight face, despite having advocated himself.

Such a debate would be so unequal in Hawking’s failure that I’ve no doubt that the Tories in charge of BBC News, the same people, who gave Corbyn such overtly biased coverage during the general election, are blanching at the very thought of it. Such a debate will never happen, just as the BBC will never own up, and confess that they, and particularly Laura Kuenssberg, are massively biased and everyone, who has complained about this painfully obvious fact is absolutely right.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.