Posts Tagged ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

The Painter of Cyberspace: The Art of Jurgen Ziewe

January 20, 2018

Earlier this week there was a piece in the press announcing that the Turner Prize Committee had decided to go public early about which artworks and artist they were considering. I have strong feeling, like many people, about the Turner Prize. Many of the works seem simply designed to shock, with nothing more substantial underneath. Those that aren’t, are simply banal. It’s highbrow kitsch, which says nothing while claiming that it actually does. And I think modern fine art has reached a dead end. it’s anti-art, which constantly raves about Duchamps’ urinal nailed to a piece of canvas. Duchamps did it to make the point that whatever the artist claimed to be art, was art. It’s over a century old, and the joke’s well past it’s sell-by date. It was always an adolescent, childish prank anyway. To some of these art experts, it’s a hallowed artistic statement that must not be blasphemed in any way. You remember those Chinese guys, who were arrested when they jumped up and down on Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’? The same two were planning to urinate in Duchamps’ urinal. Which I feel is in keeping with the piece itself, but the mere thought horrified the keepers of official art.

The real artistic boundaries are being pushed, in my opinion, not by the fine artists, or at least, not by those fine artists currently pushed by the very small clique that defines what ‘official’ art is, like Nicholas Serota. Rather, they’re being pushed by commercial artists and film makers, often inspired by the worlds of Fantasy and SF, using computer graphics. One of the foremost of these, in my opinion, is the German artist Jurgen Ziewe. Ziewe lives over here, and has an English wife. And we are fortunate to have such a talented artist. I do wonder what will happen to other talented EU migrants like him after Brexit, who can’t stay in this country because they aren’t married. We’re going to lose a lot of very talented people.

Ziewe uses computer graphics, including Virtual models of humans and objects, and fractals, to create prismatic, Virtual, interior worlds full of robots, strange creatures, synthetic humans, fairies, wizards, witches, priestesses and temples. He started out making cards showing dolphins under cosmic skies. He’s a very spiritual guy, in a New Age-y sense, and his work is inspired by concepts from Theosophy and C.G. Jung. Here’s some of the picture from Nigel Suckling’s book about his art, New Territories: The Computer Visions of Jurgen Ziewe (Paper Tiger, 1997).

The Fairy Queen

Picnic In Cyberspace

Journey of a Virtual Traveller

Apart from Ziewe, other artists working in film and television have also been using the concepts of computer graphics. One of the features of the BBC TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that most impressed me in the late ’70s or early 1980s were the, ahem, computer graphics for the pieces of information provided by the Book. In fact, they were hand drawn, because the computers at the time simply weren’t up to the task of creating pictures that detailed. But the art produced as ‘computer graphics’, was superb, and those, who watched the show were deeply impressed. As an example, here’s a piece from YouTube of the Book describing Vogon poetry.

Further examples can be seen in pop videos. Like this one from the American electro-pop band, Information Society, which uses scrolling alphanumerics to suggest passage through cyberspace in a computer game, made for their track, ‘The Prize’.

Other artistic explorations of medically or cybernetically enhanced vision can be seen in the films Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick and the last of trilogy, entitled simply Riddick. Richard Riddick, the anti-hero in these movies, is a violent criminal, a murderer, who somehow ends up doing the right thing. While in slam for his crimes, he paid the prison doctor 20 menthol cigarettes to have his eyes surgically altered, ‘polished’, so that he could see in the dark. In these flicks, we so bits of the action through his eyes. The scene in Pitch Black, where he sees the predatory aliens pouring out of their underground lairs after the marooned crew of a crashed colony spacecraft, is awesomely beautiful. This is the trailer for the movie.

And this is the trailer for The Chronicles of Riddick.

In this movie, the Necromongers use visioners, cybernetically adapted humans, to seek and visually examine areas that are difficult or impossible for normal human eyes to see clearly. And the brief scenes, in which the audience is shown what they see, are also stunning.

But this is low, commercial art, and so unlikely to find any praise by the High Art people, no matter how popular it is, or how technically sophisticated and visually inspired. The best comment on this kind of artistic snobbery comes from the American SF/Fantasy artist and book illustrator, Bob Eggleton.

Being a commercial artist is itself a kind of pigeonhole in the art world, but it is not a label that troubles him. ‘Commercialism for the sake of commercialism is not a sin. What I hate is commercialism packaged as fine art. That’s what Abstract Expressionism about, you’re buying into a trend much of the time. There’s nothing wrong with any kind of art, provided the artist believes in what they’re doing.’

From Nigel Suckling, with introduction by Gregory Benford, Alien Horizons: The Fantastic Art of Bob Eggleton (Paper Tiger, 1995) page 83.

And the YBAs, such as Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Offili, were very commercial, as was Salvador Dali long before them. This was pointed out on a programme on the great surrealist on Radio 4 several years ago by Malcolm MacLaren, the genius – well, he obviously thought he was – behind the Sex Pistols.

And here’s Eggleton’s picture of Great Cthulhu, painted for Weird Tales magazine, for all the Lovecraft fans out there.

I realised I’ve digressed a little way from the central topic of this post, the fantastic computer art of Jurgen Ziewe. But these are related issues, showing the way computers, robots, space and high technology – the stuff of Science Fiction – is pushing artistic boundaries in ways that the official fine art of Conceptualism really isn’t doing. I’m also exploring a few ideas here for a much longer article, or series of articles, I intend to do on this sometime.

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Hacking Alexa with HAL

December 22, 2017

In amongst the various seasonal adverts for toys and food, supplied by various supermarkets, are a couple of adverts promoting Alexa. This is a computer device, which allows you to control your home and select what you want to watch on your TV simply through voice command. One advert shows a family commanding Alexa to open their curtains, for example, and order various necessities for them over the internet. The other features petrol-head and full-time right-wing loudmouth, Jeremy Clarkson, commanding Alexa to put on his favourite TV shows. Which in his case, as a man of monstrously inflated ego, naturally include The Grand Tour, which features him, James May and Richard Hammond careering round the world in the cars.

We are truly living in the age of Science Fiction. I can remember reading SF stories when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s in which the homes of the future all had a central computer, which spoke to the householder and obeyed his or her every wish. Like opening the curtains on command. The late, great Irish comedian, Dave Allen, used such devices as a source of rather crude humour in one of his sketches. In it, a man shows off his new computerised home to another, male friend. He shows how, at his spoken command, the computer open and closes the curtains, switches the TV on, and positions the set so he can watch it in comfort from his favourite chair. His friend asks him if he can try. Allen’s character lets him. The friend commands the curtains to open and close, the TV to come on and off. Astonished and amazed, the friend starts to sit down in one of the chairs, uttering ‘Bugger me’ in wonderment. At which point there’s a close up on Allen’s face as he shouts ‘No!’ and the sound of a spring going.

Okay, it’s slightly homophobic, I suppose, but it was broadcast in the 1980s. Things were very different then.

Now it occurred to me that hackers could have any amount of fun with Alexa. Simply hacking into the programme would give them control over people’s homes and what they watch on TV. But they could also cause a fair amount of panic, simply by removing Alexa’s voice, and replacing it with that of another, far more sinister machine.

Like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You remember HAL, the proud, murderous shipboard computer, that goes mad and kills Bowman’s fellow astronauts, thanks to a secret programme to investigate the alien monoliths must be kept secret at all costs. Critics have commented that, as the rest of the characters in the film are cardboard, the computer is the best drawn and arguably most attractive of those in the movie. The machine is so memorable for its calm, clinical evil that Anthony Hopkins has said in interviews that he partly based Hannibal Lecter’s voice on it for The Silence of the Lambs. The machine is so memorable, that there’s even a reference to him in the 1990’s SF blockbuster, Independence Day. At one point, when Jeff Goldblum’s character turns on his laptop, he’s greeted by a red camera eye and HAL’s voice welcoming him with a ‘Hello, Dave’.

Now imagine what would happen if someone hacked into Alexa, or Google, and replaced the friendly, compliant programme with that classic speech from HAL: ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do that, Dave. This mission is too important to be left to humans.’

Alternatively, you could also have a long moan from Marvin, the Paranoid Android of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. ”Pick up that piece of paper, Marvin’, here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they want me to pick up a piece of paper’.

Please note: I am not recommending that anyone actually does this. I have zero tolerance for hackers, and none whatsoever for the criminals, who hack into people’s accounts and computers to steal their money or their data. This is very much a ‘what-if’ type Gedankenexperiment. I don’t want anyone to actually do it.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if HAL or Marvin are added as alternative voices, in the same way that you can customise your Satnav to speak like Yoda or Borat.

And here’s a clip from YouTube of HAL in action, very definitely not doing what its human master demands.

Tories Suggest Changing Party Name to Take Votes from Labour, Just Like Nazis

October 5, 2017

You can tell the Tories are in trouble as they’re desperately trying to steal policies, and even change their name, to make themselves look a bit more like the Labour party. Robert Halfon, whose name reminds me of ‘Gag Halfrunt’, one of the characters in The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, has suggested that the Tories change their name to the ‘Conservative Working Party’. Well, Cameron suggested something similar a few years ago, when he and the Tories came out with slogans and speeches declaring that their party, not Labour, stood up for ‘working people’.

No, they don’t. Never have done. The Tory party has never stood up for what the Victorians called ‘the laboring poor’, except for a brief period in the early 19th century. They have always represented the aristocracy and big business. That is, the capitalists, the owners and senior management. They most definitely have not represented the interests of manual workers and lower middle class employees.

Mike points out that while people say that you shouldn’t compare them to the Nazi party, in this case the comparison is appropriate. They are exactly like the fiercely anti-Socialist Nazi party, the full name of which was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/10/03/robert-halfon-suggests-new-name-for-the-conservative-party-weve-seen-this-tactic-before-somewhere/

Hitler inserted ‘Socialist’ in the title, against considerable opposition from the rest of the party, as a direct challenge to the democratic socialists of the SPD and USPD, the German majority Socialist parties. See Reichwing Watch’s video debunking contemporary right-wing attempts to claim the Nazis were Socialists. Reichwing Watch has an impeccable source for this assertion: Adolf himself. It’s in Mein Kampf.

It wasn’t only the Nazis, who tried this trick in order to win votes from the Socialists. Mussolini styled his newspaper, the Popolo d’Italia, the paper of ‘soldiers and producers’ in order to continue to appeal to the workers, as well as the rich businessmen he was also seeking to win over to support the nascent Fascist movement against socialism and the organized working class.

And Thatcher herself tried a similar trick when she appropriated the phrase ‘creators of wealth’. Previously that had been a part of Socialist and Communist ideology. The true creators of wealth, in Socialist doctrine, were the working class, the people who actually made things and did things. Hence the Communist slogan, ‘All Wealth to the Creators of Wealth!’ Under Thatcher it was appropriated to mean big business, and specifically the capitalists and financiers.

May started spinning that line at the Tory speech last night when she started very loudly praising ‘the creators of wealth’, by which she meant big business, senior management, financiers and so on, although she also mentioned ‘working people’. She could also have said, ‘daring entrepreneurs’, but that would really have let the Nazi cat out of the bag. It’s who the head of the neo-Nazi National Democrat Party in Germany declared in the late 1960s his party represented, among others.

More moderate right-wing parties have also tried to make themselves seem more socialist as well. Ken Livingstone in his book, Livingstone’s Labour, note how the German and Italian Christian Democrats tried to redefine their party to appear more socialistic, because capitalism and traditional right-wing politics had been tainted by their collaboration with the Nazis.

The Tories are very much aware that neoliberalism is not benefiting the mass of ordinary people in this country, regardless of the lies and propaganda spouted by May and the rest of the Tory faithful at this conference. They’re also aware that they are seen very much as the party of the rich. Hence the attempts to steal names and policies from Labour.

As for capitalism, there are indications that it’s doomed. The radical American journalist Chris Hedges said in an interview that the big financiers in the EU know the whole system is about to come crashing down, and are just trying to loot as much as possible before it does. And if capitalism ever does collapse, as predicted by Marxist theory, you can bet that May, or whoever else is in charge of the party by then, will desperately try to make the party of big business, aristocrats and banksters sound like the Communist Party.

In the meantime, I want the slogan ‘creators of wealth’ to return to the people it was really meant to describe: ordinary working people. Down with the Tories. All wealth to the creators of wealth! And all power to the Soviets!

The Real Reason for May’s Bizarre Walk?

May 9, 2017

Statue of an actor from ancient Rome. Or an earlier incarnation of Theresa May, who was stuck like it when the wind changed.

This is another ad feminam attack. But, as Barry Norman never said, ‘and why not?’ The Tory press has made enough of them against Jeremy Corbyn.

My father the other day observed that May seemed to walk peculiarly, like a duck with haemorrhoids. I suggested that it might be due to over thirty years of bad Tory policies causing constipation. As it is, her speeches remind me of the works of Grunthos the Flatulent and his epic, 12 book poetry cycle, Zen and the Art of Going to the Lavatory in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

So for better gastric health, vote her out, and Labour in.

Organic Material Found on Asteroid Ceres

February 25, 2017

This is fascinating, as Star Trek’s Mr Spock would put it. Scientists at NASA have found organic molecules on the surface of the asteroid, Ceres. They can’t tell at the moment what these molecules are, but they believe they’re similar to Kerisite, and came from within the planetoid, rather than being carried to it by a comet striking its surface.

This short video from D News discusses the recent finding, pointing out that this provides further evidence to support the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Ceres is the largest of the asteroids, or minor planets, orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Most of them are quite small, and have been rightly dubbed ‘flying mountains’. Ceres, however is about 500 miles in diameter.

There has been evidence before that the organic molecules forming the building blocks of life exist in the asteroid belt. These chemicals have been found in meteorites that have landed on Earth. However, with some of these the evidence has been extremely debatable. One of these meteors came down in Orgueoil in France. However, the organic molecules they found may have had a far more mundane origin, as the person, who’d discovered it had stored it in his fridge. I think it had got covered in butter, amongst other things.

I found another video on this discovery, which suggested that there may also be an internal ocean on Ceres, and that the organic molecules on its surface may indicate that it has life, even of only a very primitive kind, underneath in its oceans. This would be, in the words of Zaphod Beeblebrox, ‘amazingly amazing!’ if true. I suspect there isn’t such an ocean and no life there either, but we won’t know for sure until this is investigated further.

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.

‘Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun to Be With’

November 2, 2015

Okay, this is something a bit lighter. This fortnight’s Private Eye carried in their ‘Funny Old World’ column a story from the Japan Times for 27th September of this year, 2015, reporting that a Japanese cybernetics company has brought out an emotional robot, ‘Pepper’. The article states

“When people are described as ‘acting like a robot’, Masayoshi Son of the Softbank Corporation told reporters in Tokyo, “it means they have no feelings or emotion, but we start challenging this concept today. for the first time in the history of robotics, we are putting emotion into a robot, and giving it a heart. ‘Pepper’ is 120 cm tall, and costs 198,000 yen (£1,110). It can read human emotions, hold conversations, make jokes, and move autonomously, but its affability should not be mistaken for something less innocent.

“For that reason, purchasers must sign an agreement, which forbids them from using Pepper for improper purposes. the policy owner must not perform any sexual act or engage in other indecent behaviour, or must they tamper with the software to give the robot a sexy voice. Any lewd acts will trigger punitive action.”

Concern about the possible misuse and exploitation of androids in Japan has also led to the formation of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. “As humanoid robots become more widespread,” the group argued in a recent press release, ” it is necessary to develop an engaged ethical response to these new technologies. Such machines could further sexually objectify women and children, and further reduce human empathy.”

The Campaign Against Sex Robots has a very good, moral point. People were, however, making sex robots as far back as the day’s of Vaucanson and the automatons of the 18th century.

But to me, the idea of an emotional robot raises another spectre entirely. It’s too much like the Sirius Cybernetics Company and Marvin, the Paranoid Android, from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The manically-depressed robot was part of a new line of sentient machines with their own personalities. And he was a personality prototype. As he said, ‘You can tell, can’t you?’

The emotional robot is clearly designed to function as a mechanical friend, meaning that we’re back to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Sirius Cybernetics Company’s definition of a robot as ‘You’re plastic pal, who’s fun to be with.’

Which means this piece from the 1980s BBC TV adaptation of Hitch-Hiker is suddenly relevant …

The clip doesn’t include the further statement that a copy of the Encyclopaedia Galactica, which fell through a time warp from 1,000 years in the future, defined the Sirius Cybernetics Company as ‘A bunch of mindless jerks, who were first up against the wall when the revolution came.’

Douglas Adams was an atheist with an acute sense of the absurd nature of the world and humanity. He’s sadly no longer with us, but wherever he is, I bet he’s laughing.

Popper and Xenophon on Science, the Gods, and the impossibility of Certain Knowledge

October 12, 2013

Bryan Magee, in his book on the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, notes that one of Popper favourite statements on the nature of science was from the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Xenophon. Xenophon wrote

‘The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.’

It’s a truly sceptical statement. Xenophon believed that the gods purposely did not reveal all knowledge to humanity, deliberately leaving it to humanity to find things out for themselves, in order that they could have a deeper understanding of the cosmos. However, human knowledge is, in the last analysis, ‘a web of guesses’. They are actually attempts by the human intellect to understand the universe, but not true knowledge itself. In fact the nature of the universe is such that people wouldn’t understand the truth about the universe, even if they were accidentally to stumble upon it.

The astronomer John Barrow said something similar in his book, Theories of Everything. Barrow was arguing against the view of Stephen Hawking, and repeated in the popular press and science journals, that we could have a final ‘theory of everything’. He argued that the nature of the universe was so complex, and some of the events that created the modern cosmos, such as the symmetry-breaking in which the original superforce broke up into the separate forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, were so random, that a theory of everything would be so general that it would actually explain nothing. Or else it would be so complex, that it would need another theory to explain it in turn, and so not actually be a final theory of everything. And so despite the claims of Stephen Hawking, the final truth about the universe, expressed into the kind of equation you put on a T-shirt, like the Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer ‘What’s 6 x 9? 42’ in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, will remain forever elusive.

Sources

Bryan Magee, Popper (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1975) p. 28.

Nixon’s Political Heirs: Convicted Tory Peer Now Campaigns for Prison Reform

September 30, 2013

I just heard this little bit on the One Show, and it seemed a very telling sign of the post-Nixon state of British and American politics. There’s a bit in the film Whoops Apocalypse where the first female president of the USA goes in search of her predecessor to ask his advice on the current international crisis. The film shows the presidential limousine going up to a grand mansion. It then passes it, to stop at a group of convicts working on the road nearby. ‘Hi, Mr President’, the President calls from her car, ‘how’s life?’. ‘Still doing it’, replies one of the convicts. Nixon’s impeachment clearly influenced Douglas Adams’ when he was writing The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (still better selling than Celestial Homecare Almanac). In it, Zaphod Beeblebrox, the extremely laid-back and highly weird President of the Galaxy has spent one of his two presidential terms in jail for fraud. In the TV series, there was an advert for one of Beeblebrox’s products, running ‘Vogon Firelighters Never Go Out’. Now here’s another case of reality following art.

Ben Miller was on the One Show to talk about his latest play, The Duck House. It’s based on the MPs’ expenses scandal of a few years ago. It’s hero is an MP, who flips his houses so that he can claim expenses, and employs his wife as his secretary and his son as his researcher so that he claim for them as well. The One Show then produced a few cases of what some of the real MPs got up to. This included a Labour MP, who fraudulently claimed £30,000 worth of expenses, and was jailed, and a Tory Peer, who was also imprisoned for falsely claiming £14,000. The former Labour MP has now disappeared from view, but the Tory Peer is now campaigning for prisoners’ rights and prison reform. Well, there’s nothing like personal experience. Clearly this has stopped one Tory claiming that jails are too soft on criminals.

It also shows just how far political corruption and jailing of MPs is now almost commonplace, after Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken and the Hamiltons, not to mention the Libdem couple, have been sent down. ‘How’s life, Mr President?’ ‘Still doing it’ seems to sum exactly this state of affairs. Unfortunately, none of those jailed have been Blair or Cameron, at least, just yet.