Posts Tagged ‘The Terminator’

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.


Jeremy Corbyn Suggests Capping Director’s Pay – Media Goes Ballistic

January 11, 2017

Mike yesterday put up a piece reporting on another good suggestion from Jeremy Corbyn, and the predictable response of outrage and sneering from the meejah. The Labour leader had said on an interview on Radio 4 yesterday morning that he believed that there should be a cap on the pay earned by company directors and senior execs. The media naturally responded by pointing out that Corbyn has an annual pay of £138,000 a year, and tried to draw him into giving a price figure for what the maximum amount earned should be.

The story got onto the One Show yesterday evening, where they did a brief survey of people in the street. Opinions were, as they say, mixed. One elderly objected to the cap on the grounds that it might take away the incentive for people rising to the top. Looking at the headlines on the various papers this morning, it was very clear that it had riled someone at the Torygraph, as this was the story they shoved on their front cover. Other newspapers, like Mail, led by claiming that Labour’s policy in immigration was ‘in disarray’. Mike’s also written another article this week showing that’s also rubbish.

Mike in his article makes the point that compared to some of the vast, bloated salaries awarded to company executives, Corbyn’s own salary appears very modest indeed. He suggests that it is stupid to try to lay down a particular set figure – it should be based on company turnover and the lowest wage earned by an employee at that company. He also makes the point that the casting of particular star actors can make a great difference to how well a movie does, and that when this happens, everyone else who worked on the movie should also enjoy the films’ financial awards.

This is all correct. And there’s something else that needs to be added:

Japan already has maximum wage legislation.

Yep, it’s true. Japan is one of the world’s five wealthy countries with a very capitalist economy. The centre right Liberal Democratic party has ruled the country almost uninterrupted since the Second World War. And it also has a cap on how much company directors may be paid. I think it’s set at about 20 times that of the lowest paid employee, but I am not sure.

And the limitation of wage differentials is not something that has been simply added on in the course of reform, but an integral part of the dominant, guiding vision of the nature of Japanese society. East Asian societies can be extremely collectivist, stressing group loyalty over individual opportunity or achievement. In Japan the goal was to create a harmonious, middle class society, where there would be no extremes in wealth or poverty. This isn’t quite the case, as the Burakami, an outcast group rather like the Dalits in India, and those of Korean descent are still subject to massive poverty and discrimination.

The Japanese have also tried to justify their collectivist outlook through racist pseudo-anthropology. One school textbook claimed that Japanese society was more collectivist and co-operative because the Japanese people were descended from agriculturalists, who had to forge strong links with each other in order to cultivate and harvest rice. We Westerners, however, were all isolated individualists because we’re all descended from hunter-gatherers.

As anthropology, it’s rubbish, of course. Some social historians have argued that agricultural societies are more prone to tyranny and absolute government, which would include the type of Asian absolute monarchies described by Western observers as ‘oriental despotism’. But all human societies were originally hunter-gatherers, including the Japanese. And European society has practised settled agriculture since the beginning of the Neolithic 6,000 years ago.

The origins of Japanese and East Asian collectivism probably lie more in the influence of Confucianism, which stressed the right relationships between the members of society, such as between the prince and the people, and between elders, parents and children, and the still powerful influence of feudalism in structuring social relationships. Instead of a samurai warrior giving his loyalty and service to a daimyo feudal lord, it’s now the sarariman – the corporate warrior – becoming part of the retinue of company employees under the lordship of the director.

And European individualism probably comes not from any vestiges of our hunter-gatherer deep past, but from the effect of Hobbesian Social Contract political theorising and the free trade economics of the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith. Hobbes has been described as the first, of one of the first philosophers of the emerging bourgeois society of the 17th century. This was the period which saw Cromwell sweep away the last vestiges of feudalism in England, and the emergence of modern capitalism. But Hobbes’ philosophy views people as social atoms, all competing against each other, as opposed to other views of society, which may stress the importance of collective or corporate identities and loyalties, such as family, feudal lordship or membership of trade and professional bodies. Similarly, the founders of the economic theories of modern capitalism, such as the Physiocrats in France and Adam Smith and in Scotland, also stressed unrestrained individual competition. They were also specifically arguing against the mercantilist system, in which the state regulated trade. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries the British government enacted a series of legislation governing trade with its emerging colonies, so as to tie them to the economy of the home country, which would benefit from their products. Modern Western individualism come from these theories of capitalist society and the perceived operation of its economy.

The collectivist nature of Japanese society also expresses itself in other ways in the structure and management of Japanese corporations. Singing the company song in the morning is one example. Management are also encouraged or required to share the same canteen as the workers on the shop floor. Both of these practices, and no doubt many others, are designed to foster group solidarity, so that management and workers work together for the good of the company.

This isn’t a perfect system, by any means. Apart from the immense pressure placed on individuals in a society that places such heavy emphasis on the value of hard work, that individuals actually keel over and die because of it when doing their jobs, it has also made Japanese society and corporations extremely resistant to change. Confucianism places great stress on respect for one’s elders and superiors. While respect for the older generation is an admirable virtue, and one which our society in many ways is sadly lacking, in Japan it has resulted in a mindset which resists change or apportioning due blame for historical crimes and atrocities.

At the corporate level, the slow down of the Japanese economy in the 1990s meant there was no longer such a pressing need for company staff to work such long hours. However, so great is the corporate inertia, that staff still feel that they have to keep working past six O’clock in the evening, even if there is little or no work to do, because they don’t want to be seen as breaking with the approved practices of previous generations of employees.

And at the national level, it has been suggested that the exaggerated respect for one’s elders and ancestors is the reason why Japan has had such immense difficulty confronting the atrocities their nation committed during the Second World War. Japanese school texts and official histories have been criticised because they’d don’t discuss the atrocities committed by the imperial Japanese army. One school textbook even talked about the army’s ‘advance’ through Asia, rather than its invasion. The reason for this failure to admit the existence of these crimes, and criticise those who perpetrated them, is that respect for one’s elders and social superiors is so engrained in Japanese society, that except for a few extremely courageous mavericks, casting shame on those responsible for such horrors and, by implication, the whole of society during this period, is unacceptable. Even though many over on this side of the Eurasian landmass would consider that a failure to confront the atrocities committed by one’s nation to be even more shameful.

Japanese and Asian collectivism is not, then, perfect. But a maximum wage cap certainly did not hinder Japan’s advance to become one of the world’s foremost industrial countries. And the goal of creating a harmonious, co-operative society where there is little disparity in wealth is a good one.

The title of Mike’s article on Corbyn’s suggestion for a maximum wage states that the identities of those complaining about it reveal why they’re doing so. Indeed. The proprietors and leading executives of newspaper companies, like the Barclay twins at the Torygraph, have awarded themselves immense salaries. They’re multimillionaires. This wealth is increasingly not being shared with the hacks, who do the actual work of putting the paper out. The Torygraph has been particularly struck with declining sales to the point that Private Eye’s ‘Street of Shame’ column regularly reported further job cuts. Many of the big newspaper companies depend on the work of unpaid interns, particularly the Groaniad. And even if they’re not being threatened with the sack, conditions for the paid staff are becoming increasingly Orwellian. For example, the Eye reported a few months ago that one of the managers at the Torygraph had tried to install motion detectors on the staff’s desks to prevent them moving around too much, just like the staff at call centres are also monitored. The hacks were so annoyed, however, that management had to back down and the motion detectors were removed.

As for the film industry, the presence of big name Hollywood stars can sink a movie simply through the sheer expense of paying. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid $7 million for his appearance in the second Terminator movie. While that was a box office success, the presence of ‘A’ list celebrities in a movie does not guarantee that a film will be a success. One of the reasons why the film Ishtar became such a notorious flop in the 1990s was that the producers cast three major stars, who all commanded multi-million dollar salaries. This pushed the bill for the movie towards $20 million or so, even before the film had been shot. The film was thus under financial pressure from the start.

Apart from the Japanese, there are other, successful European nations that also deliberately avoid huge inequalities in wealth. One of these is Denmark. The newspapers have been full of articles analysing and celebrating the traditional Danish concept of ‘hygge’. This has been translated as ‘cosiness’, but it actually means much more than that. The way I’ve heard it explained by a Danish friend, it’s about being content with the homely necessities. I got the distinct impression that it was similar to the Swedish notion of ‘lagom’, which translates as ‘just enough’. You make just enough to satisfy your basic needs, but no more. And from what I’ve heard about Danish society, the social attitude there is that no-one should try to appear ostentatiously better off than anyone else. This is not to say that everyone has to do the same low-paid job, or that they should not earn more than anyone else. But it does mean that they should not be conspicuously more affluent.

This is the complete opposite from the values promoted and celebrated by Thatcher and the wretched ‘New Right’ of the 1980s. They demanded making conditions harsher for the poor, and giving ever larger salaries to management on the grounds that this would act as an incentive for others to do well and try to climb up the corporate and social ladder. The result has been the emergence of a tiny minority, who are massively wealthy – the 1%. Like the Barclay twins, Rupert Murdoch and just about every member of Theresa May’s cabinet. For everyone else, wages have stagnated to the point where a considerable number are finding it very difficult to make ends meet.

But wage caps and an attitude that discourages inequalities of wealth have not harmed Japan, nor Denmark and Sweden, which also have very strong economies and a very high standard of living.

The massive difference between the millions earned by the heads of the big corporations has been a scandal here in Britain, to the point where David Cameron and May made noises urging company directors to restrain their greed. Corbyn’s suggestion is eminently sensible, if Britain is to be a genuinely inclusive, prosperous society. The outrage shown by various media execs to it shows that the Tories are still committed to a policy of poverty for the many, riches for a very few. And all their concern at reining in executive pay is just platitudes to make it appear that they’re concerned when the issue becomes too embarrassing.

Robots at the Philippe Plein Fashion Show in Milan

December 27, 2016

And Courtney Love, always assuming that she isn’t an android, of course.

I’ve got zero interest in fashion, but this is interesting as it’s stuff of Science Fiction today. I found this video of a fashion show in Milan for the designer Philippe Plein. This was based very much around robots. As you can see, Courtney Love and the models don’t come down a catwalk, but instead move along a conveyor. The music is provided by the German robot heavy metal band, Compressorhead, as well as a recording of Kraftwerk’s The Model, appropriately enough. Kraftwerk saw themselves as engineers of sound, and have performed with robots on stage themselves, or rather, with robotic versions of themselves, as well as cultivating a very robotic image themselves personally. A few years ago one of them published his autobiography, entitled I Was a Cyborg. As well as the robots of Compressorhead, there are big industrial robots moving about the stage filming the proceedings.

The Italian Futurists of the early 20th century would have really dug all of this. They were a militant artistic movement which celebrated war, masculinity, the new machine age and the speed of modern mass communication, like cinema newsreels, newspapers and radio. Their founder, the poet Marinetti, celebrated the motor car as ‘more beautiful than the Battle of the Samothrace’ in his Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, and declared that his movement ‘looked for the union of man and machine’. They dreamed of creating a world of biomechanical toys, designed ‘noise machines’ to be used in their musical concerts, and wrote pieces like The Agony of the Machine. One of their plays was about the love of locomotive for its driver. Plein’s fashion show clearly isn’t about aggressive masculinity, but feminine style. Nevertheless, the performance by the machines does take part in the spirit of Futurism as the art of the modern, industrial, machine age.

This fascinates me, as I think that there is room for the use of robots in serious art. Indeed, a feel that artists, musicians and choreographers have made all too little use of these devices in their performances. I know that at a time there was a vogue for people performing dances using forklift trucks to music. Many of these used to appear on children’s programmes, like the awesome Vision On. But this also shows that the artistic potential offered by machines really isn’t taken that seriously. These were amusing diversions for children, rather than serious art. But the potential to use them for high art is there, as the performance art and explorer of cyborgisation, Stelarc, has shown. His performances are, however, a bit too avant-garde for most people. I think, however, that it’s possible to use robots and cybernetics in traditional artistic forms, like music, drama and dance. A little while ago I blogged about a performance of Karel Capek’s robot play, R.U.R. in Prague, by an artistic group dedicated to exploring the implications of robots, using Lego robots. There are already machines like the British Robothespian, which act as guides in science museums. It should be possible to use robots like these in more serious artistic works. The only real problem with this, however, is the cost. These robots at the moment cost tens of thousands of pounds, which makes the use of more than two of them prohibitively expensive.

While I appreciate Plein’s artistic use of robots in his show, I also found them very slightly frightening. This points to a future, perhaps only a decade or so away, in which humans share the world with increasingly sophisticated machines with a great degree of autonomy. It is no longer a wholly human world, and people have to make their way amongst these sophisticated, and physically powerful devices. I don’t believe we’ll ever see a robot revolution, like R.U.R. or The Terminator, despite the pessimistic forecasts of Kevin Warwick in his March of the Machines. But this does seem to prefigure a future in which humanity has to share the planet with its mechanical creations, who have surpassed it in physical power.

RUR Performed by Lego Robots in Prague

October 24, 2016

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

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

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

Here’s the video:

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.

Vox Political Apologises! Owen Smith Did Not Buy Twitter Supporters

July 26, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece from Mike, over at Vox Political, who reported that Owen Smith’s Twitter storm of supporters over the weekend weren’t genuine supporters, but people, whose support he’d purchased from various dodgy internet companies. For a moment, it looked like Smiffy had resorted to the same tactics other dodgy individuals use to buy ‘likes’ on Facebook. Now Mike confesses that he was wrong, and duly apologises. But this doesn’t make Smiffy look much better.

Mike quotes James Earley, an expert on such matters, who says that the messages of support Smiffy got didn’t actually come from any human supporters whatsoever. Nor any mechanical supporters either. They came from bots, programmes set up to spam accounts and redirect their readers to specific websites. To get past the spam filters, these programmes are disguised as humans, and monitor and alter their messages according to whatever’s being discussed on the Net, so that it looks like it might just be from a human. Earley states that mostly, these programmes are entirely unconvincing, but very occasionally, they are good enough to fool you into thinking your dealing with a human on the other end of the line.

This is what appears to have happened here. The tweets Owen Smith had from followers giving their support weren’t from him or his supporters,but were from daft computer programmes instead, trying to get you to follow them to buy, well, if it’s the usual rubbish that gets caught in the spam filters, it’s knock-off watches, Viagra and penis enlargement.

Correction: Pretence of support for Owen Smith WASN’T from purpose-built Twitter accounts; it’s WORSE than that!

This sort of makes Smudger look a bit better than the previous story, as at least he wasn’t buying votes, even if the support he got was nevertheless still fake. But he still isn’t any more popular.

As for the bots, I really do wonder what Alan Turing would make of these machines. Turing was the pioneering computer scientist, who designed the famous test to see if a computer was genuinely intelligent. He ruled that if you were linked to a computer through a teleprinter, and held a conversation with it through a keyboard, but could not tell whether or not you were communicating with a machine or a real person, then the computer had shown that it had real artificial intelligence.

In fact, the Turing test fails as an indicator of genuine intelligence of the part of the machines. They are programme to respond in certain ways, and give answers that simulate intelligence, but the computers themselves have no understanding really of what they’re saying. It’s just automatic mechanical functions. I wonder, however, if the great man would have also been dismayed by the fact that the simulation of intelligence modern machines were being given, weren’t to push forward the frontiers of science and the scientific and philosophical understanding of intelligence, reason, and sentience, but to sell people tat. It’s like finding out that someone really has built an army of Terminators, but instead of lethal killing machines, they’re all dodgy spivs. ‘I’ll be back…with the dodgy Viagra knock-offs.’

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot Being Put Through Its Paces

February 24, 2016

This is a fascinating piece of footage showing Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot being tested. It’s a bipedal robot, with two arms, and the video shows it walking about, picking up boxes and placing them on shelves, It can also follow the boxes when they’re moved out of its way or reach, and right itself when its pushed over. It’s an impressive display of robot engineering.

From the look of it, Boston Dynamics were the manufacturers of the ‘Big Dog’ robot, which was supposed to help carry loads for the US military. This ended up being cancelled because its electric motors were too noisy for the covert missions for which the machine was intended to be used. I’m sure Atlas has been designed with a military role or disaster relief in mind, very much like Hammerstein, Rojaws, Mek-Quake and their metal pals in Robusters and ABC Warriors. We’re not quite there yet, and I have real qualms about the use of this technology. Not so much in the fears about Terminator-style robots running amok to exterminate humanity, but simply of the process of mechanisation replacing human workers. I’ve noticed that in shops and cinemas, the self-service machines are being used to replace human staff, and this process is likely to continue until about 1/3 of service sector jobs are lost in the next 20 years. Or at least, they will according to current projections. The end result will be Mega-City One, sprawling conurbations with a 95% unemployment rate due to robots replacing humans in just about all areas of employment.

One of the reasons historians and sociologists have put forward to explain why modern science did not arise in ancient Greece, the Islamic world and China, is that despite the immense inventiveness of these cultures, they only made limited use of the technological advances made by their natural philosophers and artisans. Both the Chinese and Islamic engineers produced automata. In China, there was an automaton serving girl constructed in the 9th century AD, which went round filling people’s tea bowls. The ancient Greeks invented a toy mechanical theatre, singing mechanical birds, and an automatic hand cleaner to allow visitors to the temples to wash their hands. In Islam, al-Jazari and the Banu Musa brothers similarly produced automata. These systems were, with exceptions, not applied to industry, but used as toys to amuse the upper classes. I think at certain times a brake was deliberately applied, because they feared the social disruption such developments might bring. It’s a Luddite attitude, but as the world faces mass unemployment through mechanisation, one that we should possibly appreciate as wiser than it appears.

A View into the Phone Hacking Scandal, and the Dark, Ugly Heart of Murdoch Journalism

October 4, 2013

News of the World? Fake Sheiks and Royal Trappings, Peter Burden (London: Eye Books 2008).

Fake Sheikhs

The author is the father of a girl, whose boyfriend genuinely knows Princes Wills and Harry. As such, the girl and lad were – unsuccessfully – targeted by the ‘Fake Sheikh’ Mahmood Mazher. This is Burden’s account not only of the incident, but of the history of the infamous ‘phone hacking scandal’, Murdoch tabloid journalism and the News of the World. He charts the history of such journalism right back as far as the 18th century and the Monitor newspaper. This Georgian rag was a predecessor of the News of the World in that it adopted an attitude of pious distaste, while retailing news of sexual scandal amongst the great and not very good. George Crabbe summed up this early incarnation of tabloid prurience in the poem:

‘Then lo, the sainted Monitor is born,
Whose pious face some scared texts adorn
As artful sinners cloak the secret sin,
To veil with seeming grace the guile within
So moral essays on his front appear
But all is carnal business in the rear.’

Burden goes on to trace the rise of the News of the World itself, and how it kept itself afloat with similar stories of scandal. So firmly was the News of the World associated with this kind of yellow journalism, that it’s nickname in Private Eye was ‘News of the Screws’. In the 1960s, however, sales of the News of the World began to fall and its proprietors considered partnerships with other media moguls. One of these was a young Rupert Murdoch. The News’ owner in this period comes out actually as being rather a naïve, gentlemanly soul, in contrast to the contents of his scandal sheet. He was told repeatedly by his colleagues that if he went into business with Murdoch, the Dirty Digger would stab him in the back and he’d be ousted from his own newspaper. The proprietor refused to listen, went ahead with a deal that signed over part of the newspaper to Murdoch, and within half a year he was out. His wife, however, didn’t like the Digger. When they met over lunch, she found him humourless, amongst other things.

The book has on its frontispiece a quotation from a former news editor on the News of the Screws: ‘… that is what we do – we go out and destroy other people’s lives.’ Burden discusses some of the truly low points in the rags miserable history of the invasion and destruction of people’s lives. One of these was in the 1970s, when one of the journalists covered the activities of a man running a walking society. In fact, he was swinger, who used the society as a cover for his own interest in group sex. When asked why his own wife wasn’t part of the shenanigans, the man said that he’d like her to, but she simply wasn’t interested in it and so he kept his double life secret from her. The Screws went ahead with the story. The man running the ‘walking society’ was so devastated by it that, tragically, he took his own life. This led to a scandal about the way the Screws ran its stories, and reforms were put in place to stop it all occurring in the future. Nevertheless, it shows the immense harm that such stories do to otherwise blameless individuals. Sure, the man in question was an adulterer. The people involved in it were all consenting adults, however, so no harm was done to anyone. In today’s more liberal moral climate, it could be argued very strongly that what they got up to in the privacy of their own homes was no business of anyone else. It certainly doesn’t warrant driving someone, who may otherwise have been a perfectly decent person, to suicide.

Other low points in the News’ race to the journalistic pit include their persecution of Russell Harty. Remember him? Harty was the much-loved, rather camp host of a week day chat show in the 1980s. He is perhaps most famous for being beaten up live on TV by Grace Jones, the singer and female muscle freak. The design of the set met that Harty couldn’t face more than one guest at the same time. After talking to Jones, he turned to talk to his other guest. Jones thought he was ignoring her, and so gave him a clip on the top of the head. It was a bizarre, funny moment, and added yet more evidence to prove that Grace Jones was deeply scary. There was a car advert in which her mechanical head suddenly emerged from the desert. Her mouth opened like a set of mechanical garage doors, and the car shot out. After driving around a bit, it returned back into Jones’ gaping maw. This was the decade when Arnie’s Terminator first appeared, so this may have been Jones’ turn to represent female cyborg muscle.

It was not, however, the fearsome chanteuse that persecuted Harty during his terminal illness. Harty tragically died of AIDS. During his treatment, however, he, his friends and family were repeatedly pestered by the Screws’ journalists covering the story. After breaking into his private room in hospital, the Screws’ then rented a room in the house opposite so they could take long lens shot of the sick broadcaster in his bed. it was another demonstration of how low the Screws and its journalists would go. One of them had such a reputation for indulging in stories of indiscreet sexual shenanigans that he acquired the soubriquet ‘Onan the Barbarian’.

The there’s the ‘Fake Sheikh’ Mahmood Mazher. Mazher’s stock-in-trade is to dress up as an Arab sheikh, and arrange a meeting with various members of the aristocracy or celebrities on the pretext of going into business with them. he then inveigles them into doing or saying something embarrassing or criminal. In the case of the aristocracy, this consists in indiscreet comments about the royal family. With celebrities like the Radio 1 DJ, Johnny Walker, this consists of pestering them to get drugs. When they do, Mazher takes it away for testing, and the Screws runs the story revealing that they are a drug fiend. Mazher has even gone so low as to stitch up members of his own family. His brother, Waseem, was employed in the BBC’s Asian unit at Pebble Mill. Waseem Mazher noticed that, contrary to Beeb regulations, a number of directors and producers at the Mill were using the Beeb’s equipment to edit films they were making for rival companies. At that time both Waseem and Mazher were living at home. Waseem mentioned this over family dinner. Mazher immediately recognised the story and ran it. For breaking the broadcasters’ code of omerta, Waseem was ostracised to the point where he could not work in British broadcasting. He now operates a radio station in Afghanistan. Friends and family clearly mean nothing to this man.

One person, who was not deceived by Mazher was George Galloway. Mazher contacted Galloway for a meeting in his guise as the sheikh. On his way to the meeting, Galloway recognised Mazher’s accomplice and bodyguard, a seven-foot tall man mountain with gold teeth, nicknamed ‘Jaws’ because of his similarity to the Bond villain. This alerted him to what was to come. Now I’m not a fan of Galloway. He has publicly supported some of the nastiest regimes in the Middle East, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the current government in Damascus. Mind you, not that he’s alone in that. As I’ve pointed out, Maggie, Bush and Reagan were selling arms to Saddam’s regime in the 1980s. In the 1950s the CIA was running him as a hitman to whack out members of the Iraqi government after a revolution toppled Britain’s puppet. Arguably, his opinions on the Middle East are no worse than that of the British establishment. He’s just more consistent about them and open. Galloway is a supporter of the Palestinians and against Israel. He states, however, that he is anti-Zionist, but not an anti-Semite. During their conversation, Mazher tried to trap him into saying something vilely anti-Semitic and in favour of the Holocaust. Galloway was not tricked, and refused to take the bait. He replied that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity. Defeated, Mazher withdrew.

When Mazher was pulling these stunts in the 1990s, Private Eye ran a story in their ‘Street of Shame’ column. One of his victims finally caught up with him and asked him, over the phone, why he was involved in such despicable journalism. His reply? ‘But I’ve got a mortgage’. Burden notes that Mazher was originally quite a courageous, genuinely investigative journalist. He was beaten up during an investigation into the availability and use of guns amongst Manchester’s street gangs. Understandably, he gave up this type of journalism, to concentrate on weaker, less violent targets.

As for Burden’s daughter,she and her beau were flown to America by the ‘Fake Sheikh’ pretending to be interested in making a business deal with them. Mazher took them to a nightclub, and then tried to get them to say something unpleasant about the Princes, the Queen Mother and Prince Philip. The lad, who has set up nightclubs with one of the Princes, remained discreet about it all and said he really couldn’t comment, as he genuinely had no opinion. On their return to Britain, the couple slowly realised that they may have been duped and the person they encountered was Mazher in his habitual guise. Burden checked with the Screws, who replied that they had indeed tried to deceive them, and that it had been a complete waste of several thousand pounds.

Most of the book is, of course, about the phone hacking scandal, the journalists, editors and private investigators involved, how they were discovered hacking into the Princes’ private email and mobile phone messages. They were discovered after running as genuine a phone call one of the Prince’s had made to the other pretending to be his girlfriend. Burden goes further, and talks about the Murdoch’s personal management of his empire, his appointment of Rebbekah Brooks as editor of the Screws, and the weird legal economics that informs how Murdoch runs him empire. Murdoch’s chief legal advisor was one Crone. Crone used to guide his master on how much their newspapers would lose in fines and damages if they lost a libel case on a particular story. He used to raise up the fingers on his hands to show how many thousands it would cost them. Murdoch and his editors then did a few brief calculations. If the number of copies sold outweighed the amount they’d have to pay in damages, then they printed the story. Burden also criticises Murdoch and his empire for the way he has generally lowered journalistic standards through his prurient sensationalism.

Burden also considers the debate surrounding what is in the people’s interest, versus what is of interest to the people. This means whether the content of a piece of journalism is worth printing because of its importance to British society and economy. As against whether people want to read it simply out of desire to get some kind of thrill from reading about others’ private lives and peccadilloes. Burden himself seems to favour a law like that of the French legislation guaranteeing the individual’s right to a private life. This effectively puts peering into the private lives of MPs, celebs and others out of bounds. You can see his point, but I don’t think the argument is at all solid, especially after the accusations of rape directed a few years ago against a senior French politician.

This book, however, gives valuable personal and historical insight into the News of the World, and the background to the phone-hacking scandal still enveloping News International. It also shows the moral paucity at the heart of Murdoch’s media empire.

Meanwhile, here’s a clip of the formidable Ms Jones laying into Russell Harty.

It’s on Youtube at

And here’s Spitting Image’s take on Murdoch’s true journalistic values:

This is on Youtube at