Posts Tagged ‘‘The Silence of the Lambs’’

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.

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Secular Talk: Alex Jones Rants about Liberal Butch Lesbians Eating Brains

December 8, 2017

Before I get to the serious stuff today, here’s some comedy from the TV lunatic asylum that is Alex Jones and Infowars. In this clip from Secular Talk, Kyle Kulinski comments on an unhinged rant from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, in which he gives his well-thought out and deeply considered opinions on female sexuality, sexual violence and cannibalism. And like almost everything else Jones says, it’s as a mad as a hatter.

Jones rants that butch lesbians really want to be the macho bad boy, who beats women up. Women actually like macho bad boys, who beat them up, as shown by the success of the book 50 Shades of Grey. If women can’t get men to beat them up, they’ll turn to butch, lesbian women. Who are, of course, all liberals, and will then take them down into their basement, where they will cut open their skulls and eat their brains.

As Kulinski himself points out, no, they won’t. That never happens. He has never been to a meeting with other liberals, like Jimmy Dore, Ro Khanna and the like, where, after discussing politics, they have decided to retreat to their secret dungeon to eat the contents of someone’s skull. It might have been done once by an apolitical serial killer somewhere, but never by anyone on the Left.

But the rant does creepily reflect on Jones himself, as it is disturbingly too detailed. Listening to it, there probably isn’t a judge, who wouldn’t issue a search warrant for Jones’ own basement.

Kulinski also mentions the other side of Jones, that amongst all the nonsense and sheer, right-wing paranoia and lunacy, there were things that he had exactly right. He was right about America starting imperialist wars and the exploitative conduct of the multinationals. But he’s now gone on to pushing insane conspiracy theories and stupid rants like this. He emphasises just how stupid and ridiculous this particular diatribe is by comparing Jones to genuinely great thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Socrates and so on. Well, that’s how some of Jones’ followers perceive him, even though the absolute opposite is true, and the true dimensions of Jones’ tiny intellect are shown very clearly in the comparison.

It’s clear here that Jones has been watching too much Silence of the Lambs. And specifically the sequel in which Lecter escapes, captures the corrupt head of the FBI and eats his brain while the man’s still alive and conscious.

Even though it’s unhinged, the rant also says something serious about the American lunatic fringe’s attitude to female sexuality. They really do believe that women are biologically driven to strong male figures, especially men who treat them badly. You find that a constant source of complaint from the anti-feminist denizens of the Manosphere, like Davis Aurini. In one of his videos, Aurini rants about how modern women are ‘the most decadent sluts since the Fall of Rome’. Which is quite a claim, and not even remotely true. Many of these guys seem to be deeply sexually frustrated. They can’t get girlfriends, and so, rather than there being something wrong with them, there has to be something wrong with women.

There are women, who find bad boys sexy. And unfortunately there are women, who do go from one abusive relationship to another, and actively defend the men, who hit and maltreat them. It’s a real problem for those genuinely concerned about women’s welfare and safety, including the police officers, who are called in to sort the violence out, only to find that the victim does not want to leave or press charges against her abuser.

But clearly this is very much not true of all women. As for 50 Shades of Grey, the book’s a fantasy, and the violence and domination in that has its male counterpart in the pornography about whip-wielding dominatrices. And just because people like reading about such practices, doesn’t mean that they actually want such a relationship in reality, for the same reason that the millions of SF fans, who enjoy films about alien invasions really don’t want creatures from outer space to invade.

As for the ranting about butch lesbians, that comes from Jones’ anti-feminism and homophobia. In a previous rant, he sputtered that gay rights was a transhumanist space cult to create genderless human cyborgs. Jones does seem to be obsessed with castration and emasculation. There’s one rant where he declares that UN doctors were coming to cut men’s testicles off. And one of the left-wing commenters on YouTube remarked that he seemed to be afraid that liberals were coming to castrate men, and force them into FEMA camps, where they would carry around fat, greased-up lesbians. It’s a lurid image, and Jones hasn’t quite said that, but it’s a fair reflection of his views.

It’s massively distorted, but Jones’ rant does say something about the American Conservative attitude to sex and gender. Much Republican rhetoric and ideology is about defending traditional gender roles, in which women stay at home to raise children, while the men are the aggressive heads of the household. Liberalism, Socialism and feminism oppose this traditional family structure, or at the least state that women and men should be free to choose different roles if they wish. But to American Conservatives, this is a direct attack on masculinity itself. Hence Jones’ ranting about UN doctors coming to castrate American men. It also seems to form part of the hysteria surrounding gun rights. Americans have the right to own guns, which empower men to defend themselves and their families. Liberals want to take these guns away, or regulate them, and this is seen as another attack on traditional masculinity.

It’s debatable how much Jones actually believes in the really mad stuff he rants about. Sam Seder has said that he’s seen Jones at political and media gatherings, where he’s perfectly calm, lucid and reasonable. In a recent dispute with his wife over custody of their children, Jones’ lawyer stated that he was a ‘rodeo clown’, who didn’t believe any of the crazy nonsense that his ex-wife was afraid would disturb their children, who lived with Jones at his home and TV studios. Looking through the number of videos that are on YouTube, of Jones ranting and raving, which are actually posted by Infowars, and described as rants, it seems to me that Jones doesn’t believe in the really crazy stuff he rants about. But he is aware that it draws people into his show, and so acts up for the camera and his audience. Others have suggested that Jones really is that mad, but he’s just got enough self-awareness to realise how it looks to others, and to exploit that.

Even though it’s hysterically and grotesquely exaggerated, Jones’ rant does say much about the very real attitudes towards female sexuality and gender roles in American, and for that matte, British Conservatism. You can find much the same comments about the evils of feminism uttered by the Kippers, several of whom became notorious for their comments denying that women should leave the home and go to work. It’s a grim worldview in which women, despite decades of feminism and female empowerment, secretly hanker after strong, dominating men, who’ll keep them in line. It forms part of the misogynistic attitudes of the anti-feminist Men’s Right’s movements. And while Jones himself certainly doesn’t condone violence towards women, this attitude could legitimise the horrific levels of domestic violence against women in American, and for that matter, British society.

Jones’ rants are funny, but underneath the lurid stupidity, they express a very disturbing mindset, which in its fundamental attitudes, isn’t remotely funny at all.

West World and the Original Robots of R.U.R.

October 23, 2016

A few weeks ago H.B.O. launched the latest SF blockbuster show, West World. It’s a TV series based on the 1970s film of the same name, written by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton’s Jurassic Park nearly twenty years or so later, West World is about a fantasy amusement, presided over by a sinister inventor played by Anthony Hopkins, the man who scared audiences witless as the cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs and its sequel, Hannibal. While Jurassic Park was about scientific attempts to recreate the dinosaurs for popular amusement, in West World the amusement park was a resort which attempted to recreate past eras for fun. This included the Middle Ages, and a section devoted to the old West. Like Jurassic Park, things go disastrously wrong. A computer malfunction makes the robots break the inbuilt restrictions on their behaviour, so that they gain autonomy and independence. In the medieval part of the resort, a man, who is used to getting his way with the female androids has his advances rebuffed with the curt answer, ‘Methinks Sir forgets himself’. But the real action of the story is the attempts by the movie’s hero over in the West World part of the resort to overcome the black-garbed, robot gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner. Like Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films, the gunslinger is an implacable, unstoppable killing machine, and the hero has to destroy it before it kills him, just like it gunned down his friend.

The TV series has adapted and altered the story. The gunman is now human, rather than robotic, and the focus seems to have shifted more to the robots than the humans. They are the victims of the humans enjoying the resort, who come to act out terrible fantasies of rape and killing that they would never dare consider doing in the real world to other human beings. The robot hosts they use – and abuse – are repaired and have their memories wiped ready for the next set of visitors to do the same, all over again. But attempts to give the machines consciousness have had an effect. The machines are beginning to remember. The press releases to the series state that its premise is not about machines developing consciousness and intelligence, but what they will make of us when they do.

The artificial humans in West World are less robots in the sense of mechanical people, than artificial humans. The titles show artificial tendons and muscles being placed on synthetic skeletons by robotic arms in a more developed version of 3D printing.

This conception of artificial humans shows the influence of Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film changed Dick’s androids to ‘replicants’, artificial men and women created through sophisticated genetic engineering for use as slave soldiers and sex workers. Produced by the Tyrell Corporation under the slogan ‘More Human Than Human’, these genetic constructs have a desire for freedom and longevity. In order to stop them overthrowing humanity, they only have a lifespan of six years or so. They are also becoming increasingly sophisticated psychologically and emotionally. In the book and film, they can only be distinguished from natural people through the Voight-Comp Test. This is a complex psychological test in which the subjects have to answer a series of questions. Part of this is to measure their capacity for empathy. Replicants generally are unable to sympathise or understand others’ suffering. The test asks those undergoing its questions to imagine their in a desert. They see a tortoise lying on its back, dying in the hot sun. The animal is clearly in pain and dying, but they don’t help it. Why not? At the end of the movie, Deckard, the film’s hero, a Blade Runner – the special policemen charged with catching and ‘retiring’ replicants that have made it down to Earth, is in serious danger. In his battle with Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader and now their only survivor after he has tracked them all down, Deckard has failed to make a jump across two of the buried skyscrapers underneath the sprawling future LA. He is hanging from a girder, about to fall to his death. Until Batty, before his own programmed obsolescence kills him, pulls him to safety. Batty has developed genuine sympathy for another stricken creature. He has triumphantly passed the Voight-Comp test, and shown more humanity than the humans who made him and who enslave his kind.

It’s a very old theme, which goes all the way back to one of the very first Science Fiction plays, if not the very first SF play, to deal with a robot revolt, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Written by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, this was the play that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. The word comes from the Czech for ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. It’s set in a company producing these artificial people, which are used for everything from factory workers to domestic servants. They have also been stripped of complex emotional responses to make them suitable servants. But as with the synthetic hosts of West World, this is breaking down. Instead of simply performing their tasks, the robots are increasingly stopping and refusing to work. They simply stand there, grinding their teeth. Eventually their growing dissatisfaction turns from simple recalcitrance to outright revolt. The machines rebel, exterminating humanity and leaving the company’s accountant, Alquist, as the only survivor.

Like Blade Runner’s replicants and the synthetic hosts of West World, Capek’s robots were not machine so much as creatures produced through a kind of artificial biology. In the first act, the company’s general manager, Domain, explains the origins of the robots in the biological researches of the biologist, Rossum, to Helena Glory, the daughter of an Oxbridge prof.

‘It was in the year 1922’, informs Domain, ‘that old Rossum the great physiologist, who was then quite a young scientist, betook himself to this distant island for the purpose of studying the ocean fauna, full stop. On this occasion he attempted by chemical synthesis to imitate the living matter known as protoplasm, until he suddenly discovered a substance which behaved exactly like living matter, although its chemical composition was different; that was in the year 1932, exactly four hundred years after the discovery of America, whew!’ (The Brothers Capek, R.U.R. and The Insect Play(Oxford: OUP 1961) p. 5). Later Domain tells Helena a little about the industrial processes in which the robots are manufactured:

Domain: … Midday. The Robots don’t know when to stop work. In two hours I’ll show you the kneading-trough.

Helena: What kneading-trough?

Domain. [Dryly] The pestles and mortar as it were for beating up the paste. In each one we mix the ingredients for a thousand Robots at one operation. Then there are the vats for the preparation of liver, brains, and so on. They you’ll see the bone factory. After that I’ll show you the spinning-mill.

Helena: What spinning-mill?

Domain: For weaving nerves and veins. Miles and miles of digestive tubes pass through it at a stretch. Then there’s the fitting shed, where all the parts are put together, like motor-cars. Next comes the drying-kiln and the warehouse in which the new products work. (p. 15).

Like Blade Runner, the robots of R.U.R. end by becoming human emotionally. Just as the replicants in Blade Runner have a severely limited lifetime, so Capek’s Robots, as beings created purely for work, are sterile. After their victory, they approach Alquist requesting that more of them be created as their numbers of falling. Despite their entreaties, Alquist can’t. He is not a scientist, and the last of the company’s management destroyed the manuscript describing how they were made before they themselves were killed. Radius, the leader of the robots, requests Alquist to find out by dissecting living robots. When Primus, one of the male robots, and Helena, a female robot, each defend the other, refusing to let Alquist take them for experimentation, the old accountant realises that the mystery of their reproduction has been solved. The play ends with him reciting the text of Genesis describing God’s creation of Man. The last lines are him reciting the Nunc Dimissit : ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy will, for mine eye have seen Thy salvation.’

This last marks the major difference between R.U.R. and modern treatments of the rise of robots and their possible replacement of humanity: R.U.R. is explicitly Christian in its underlying tone. It’s stated very clearly that Rossum was a militant atheist, who wanted to play God in order to show that God is unnecessary for the emergence of life. The ending, however, is ambiguous. Rossum was an anti-theist, but his artificial creations, which are based on a chemistry not found in nature, clearly work, and in turn become genuine, self-perpetuating, authentic men and women with intelligence, emotions and morality.

Some critics have said that R.U.R. really isn’t SF so much as a technological parable about the threat of Communism. It was written in 1920, a few years after the Russian Revolution and similar outbreaks of working class militancy across Europe, including Germany, Austria and Hungary. But other works, that are undoubtedly considered Science Fiction, are also veiled comments on events and issues of the time. Much of the SF of the former Soviet Union, like that of the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote the classic Stalker, was written in the ‘Aesopian Mode’. They were intended as parables to say in veiled form truths and comments that could not be overtly made under Soviet censorship.

And the conception of robots as a form of genuine artificial life does seem to be based on some of the scientific speculation of the time. Russian scientists, such as Oparin, were acutely interested in the emergence of life on the prehistoric Earth, and devised several experiments to suggest how the chemicals necessary for life may have been formed. And the Communists, as militant atheists, were keen supporters of Darwinian evolution, though I think they viewed it as proceeding through a form of dialectal materialism, and so bearing that theory out, rather than some of the more sophisticated, non-Marxist conceptions that have occurred later. Russian Cosmists, like the Transhumanists today, wished to develop scientific methods of resurrecting the dead and then colonising space as a suitable habitat for the new, perfected humanity.

Furthermore, some experiments and speculation in robotics has moved away from simple, mechanical processes. Human muscles operate biochemically. Messages from nerves changes the shape of the molecules composing muscles, which in turn makes those same muscles contract or expand, moving the organism’s limbs. Some scientists have therefore worked on trying to mimic this process of movement using artificial substances, rather than existing electrical or petrol-driven motors. This brings the construction of robots very close the type of 3D printing shown in West World’s titles.

My own feeling is that it will be a very long time, if ever, before humanity produces anything like the sentient robots of SF. As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the scientists interviewed by the science magazine, Frontiers, in 1998 stated that he didn’t think we’d see genuinely conscious, intelligent robots in his lifetime. Anthony Hopkins in an interview in this week’s Radio Times makes the same point, stating that we haven’t created anything as simply as a single cell. This does not mean that humanity won’t, or detract from stories about robots as entertainment, or as the means by which philosophical issues about creation, the nature of life and humanity, consciousness and intelligence, can be explored. West World in this sense is part of a trend in recent screen SF attempting to explore these issues intelligently, such as Automata and The Machine. These new treatments are far more secular, but as philosophical treatments of the underlying issues, rather than simple stories about warfare between humanity and its creations, like the Terminator, they also follow in a long line that goes all the way back to Capek.

Iain Duncan Smith and the Russian Ripper: Killers with Friends in Government

June 9, 2014

Chikitilo pic

Police photograph of the paedophile cannibal Andrei Chikatilo at his arrest

One of the most horrifying stories that emerged from the Soviet Union in its last days was that of Andrei Chikatilo, a serial killed dubbed ‘the Russian Ripper’. Chikatilo had been traumatised by his brother’s murder during the Stalinist famines of the 1930s, when the lad was killed and eaten. A former school teacher and paedophile, Chikatilo then went on to rape, kill and eat 53 people in a twelve year long career before he was finally arrested in 1991. The detective, who doggedly pursued him for six years was Chief Inspector Issa Kostoev, head of the Soviet Union’s Department for Crimes of Special Importance. Kostoev was Ingush, a Muslim people from the Caucasus, who had been deported from the homeland in the former Soviet republic of Chechen-Ingushetia by Stalin from fears they would collaborate with the invading Germans. Conscientious and determined, Kostoev began his career in a police department notorious for drunkenness and apathy through low pay. Through honesty and skilled investigation, Kostoev worked his way to capture some of the vilest monsters preying on the poor, the unfortunate and innocent in former Soviet state.

Chikatilo’s case even reached the western press, and a book was published in 1993 by Richard Lourie, Hunting the Devil: The Search for the Russian Ripper. Chikatilo and his crimes emerged at during the 1990s, when Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika and the fall of Communist had opened up eastern Europe. Russia was no longer quite the closed society it had been under the Soviet system, and there was a flood of information as journalists, writers, politicians and ordinary people from both sides of the former Iron Curtain began to explore and describe the momentous events transforming the country. It was also a decade characterised by the fad for stories about serial killers that began with Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, and which continues today. Chikatilo was grimly fascinating because he was Lecter’s Soviet counterpart, though horrifically all too real. Chikatilo had also been a member of the Communist party, and it was his political connections that allowed him to escape justice for so long.

There’s a parallel here with Britain’s own Iain Duncan Smith. Smith has not personally murdered anyone, nor has he ever committed crimes against children. Nevertheless, Smith has presided over a system that is responsible for the deaths of hundred, if not thousands, through poverty, starvation and despair. The system of sanctions he has introduced into Jobseekers Allowance, as well as the fraudulent rigour of the disability assessments, has left thousands without sufficient money on which to live. Tens of thousands have been forced to turn to food banks. And many others have died through hunger and, in despair, have taken their own lives. The precise number of deaths is unknown. Mike over at Vox Political and the other bloggers and activists, like Jayne Linney, have been unable to obtain the precise figures. Attempts to obtain them under the FOI have been refused, and denounced as ‘vexatious’. The government’s deliberate withholding of information on other, malign aspects of its welfare policies and its professed reasons for doing so reveal why this information is similarly being kept back. Joyhnny Void reported that requests for the government to reveal what firms were involved in it’s ‘welfare to work’ schemes were refused on the grounds that such information would leave the policy open to criticism, and prevent its implementation. In other words, it doesn’t want the public to know, because if the public did, it would try to stop them. This is a government that has no conscience, and is completely out of control.

And Iain Duncan Smith, Mike Penning and McVey in the DWP clearly represent this. Organisations take on the personality of their founders and leaders. Under Stalin, the Soviet system was viciously oppressive, engaging in mass murder and deportation on a colossal scale. Millions were killed, deported or incarcerated in the gulags, because Stalin himself was a vicious, paranoid thug. Smith, Penning and McVey all share aspects of his personality. There is a vicious contempt for the poor, which manifests itself in the cruelty and bullying of the DWP staff from the top down, as Smith, Penning and McVey all loudly trumpet they will be hard on benefit cheats, while claiming that they are actually helping the disabled and unemployed into work. RTU himself has absolutely no personal morals. When a Dutch lady, who has lived in this country for decades, came to him with problems about claiming her husband’s rightful benefits, Smith privately tried to have her deported. Others, who have also tried to consult him as their local MP have also seen him attempt to deprive them still further of their rightful benefits. He is untrustworthy, with absolute no morals, only an apparent burning need to humiliate, degrade and persecute those less fortunate than himself. And this has led him and his colleagues – Penning and McVey – to kill hundreds and reduce tens of thousands of others to grinding poverty.

And all the while, he has been protected by a government determined that the true scale of his crimes, the number of people, who have been killed because of his policies, remain secret for the public. Well, it’s time we had a good investigator break this wall of silence wide open, and throw Smith, Penning and McVey out of power forever, before any more people die through their criminal administration.