Cog ergo sum

Reading Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain for New Scientist 15 April 2020

Ask a passer-by in 2nd-century Rome where consciousness resided — in the heart or in the head — and he was sure to say, in the heart. The surgeon-philosopher Galen of Pergamon had other ideas. During one show he had someone press upon the exposed brain of a pig, which promptly (and mercifully) passed out. Letting go brought the pig back to consciousness.

Is the brain one organ, or many? Are our mental faculties localised in the brain? 1600 years after, Galen a Parisian gentleman tried to blow his brains out with a pistol. Instead he shot away his frontal bone, while leaving the anterior lobes of his brain bare but undamaged. He was rushed to the Hôpital St. Louis, where Ernest Aubertin spent a few vain hours trying to save his life. Aubertin discovered that if he pressed a spatula on the patient’s brain while he was speaking, his speech “was suddenly suspended; a word begun was cut in two. Speech returned as soon as pressure was removed,” Aubertin reported.

Does the brain contain all we are? Eighty years after Aubertin, Montreal neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was carrying out hundreds of brain operations to relieve chronic temporal-lobe epilepsy. Using delicate electrodes, he would map the safest cuts to make — ones that would not excise vital brain functions. For the patient, the tiniest regions, when stimulated, accessed the strangest experiences. A piano being played. A telephone conversation between two family members. A man and a dog walking along a road. They weren’t memories, so much as dreamlike glimpses of another world.

Cobb’s history of brain science will fascinate readers quite as much as it occasionally horrifies. Cobb, a zoologist by training, has focused for much of his career on the sense of smell and the neurology of the humble fruit fly maggot. The Idea of the Brain sees him coming up for air, taking in the big picture before diving once again into the minutiae of his profession.

He makes a hell of a splash, too, explaining how the analogies we use to describe the brain both enrich our understanding of that mysterious organ, and hamstring our further progress. He shows how mechanical metaphors for brain function lasted well into the era of electricity. And he explains why computational metaphors, though unimaginably more fertile, are now throttling his science.

Study the brain as though it were a machine and in the end (and after much good work) you will run into three kinds of trouble.

First you will find that reverse engineering very complex systems is impossible. In 2017 two neuroscientists, Eric Jonas and Konrad Paul Kording employed the techniques they normally used to analyse the brain to study the Mos 6507 processor — a chip found in computers from the late 1970s and early 1980s that enabled machines to run video games such as Donkey Kong, Space Invaders or Pitfall. Despite their powerful analytical armoury, and despite the fact that there is a clear explanation for how the chip works, they admitted that their study fell short of producing “a meaningful understanding”.

Another problem is the way the meanings of technical terms expand over time, warping the way we think about a subject. The French neuroscientist Romain Brette has a particular hatred for that staple of neuroscience, “coding”, an term first invoked by Adrian in the 1920s in a technical sense, in which there is a link between a stimulus and the activity of the neuron. Today almost everybody think of neural codes as representions of that stimulus, which is a real problem, because it implies that there must be an ideal observer or reader within the brain, watching and interpreting those representations. It may be better to think of the brain as constructing information, rather than simply representing it — only we have no idea (yet) how such an organ would function. For sure, it wouldn’t be a computer.

Which brings us neatly to our third and final obstacle to understanding the brain: we take far too much comfort and encouragement from our own metaphors. Do recent advances in AI bring us closer to understanding how our brains work? Cobb’s hollow laughter is all but audible. “My view is that it will probably take fifty years before we understand the maggot brain,” he writes.

One last history lesson. In the 1970s, twenty years after Penfield electrostimulation studies, Michael Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studied the experiences of people whose brains had been split down the middle in a desperate effort to control their epilepsy. He discovered that each half of the brain was, on its own, sufficient to produce a mind, albeit with slightly different abilities and outlooks in each half. “From one mind, you had two,” Cobb remarks. “Try that with a computer.”

Hearing the news brought veteran psychologist William Estes to despair: “Great,” he snapped, “now we have two things we don’t understand.”

Pollen count

THEY are red, they have stalks that look like eels, and no leaves. But Karl, the boss of the laboratory – played by the unsettling David Wilmot – has his eye on them for the forthcoming flower fair. He tells visiting investors that these genetically engineered creations are “the first mood-lifting, antidepressant, happy plant”.

Ben Whishaw’s character, Chris, smirks: “You’ll love this plant like your own child.”

Chris is in love with Alice, played by Emily Beecham, who is in love with her creations, her “Little Joes”, even to the point of neglecting her own son, Joe.

Owning and caring for a flower that, treated properly, will emit pollen that can induce happiness, would surely be a good thing for these characters. But the plant has been bred to be sterile, and it is determined to propagate itself by any means necessary.

Little Joe is an exercise in brooding paranoia, and it feeds off some of the more colourful fears around the genetic modification of plants.

Kerry Fox plays Bella, whose disappointments and lack of kids seem to put her in the frame of mind to realise what these innocent-looking blooms are up to. “The ability to reproduce is what gives every living thing meaning!” she exclaims. Her colleagues might just be sceptical about this because she is an unhappy presence in the lab, or they may already have fallen under the sway of Little Joe’s psychoactive pollen.

Popular fears around GM – the sort that dominated newspapers and scuppered the industry’s experimental programmes in the mid-1990s – are nearly as old as the science of genetics itself.

At about the turn of the 20th century, agricultural scientists in the US combined inbred lines of maize and found that crop yields were radically increased. Farmers who bought the specially bred seed found that their yields tailed off in subsequent years, so it made sense to buy fresh seed yearly because the profits from bigger crops more than covered the cost of new seeds.

In the 2000s, Monsanto, a multinational agribusiness, added “terminator” genes to the seed it was developing to prevent farmers resowing the product of the previous year’s crop. This didn’t matter to most farmers, but the world’s poorest, who still rely on replanting last year’s seed, were vociferous in their complaints, and a global scandal loomed.

Monsanto chose not, in the end, to commercialise its terminator technologies, but found it had already created a monster: an urban myth of thwarted plant fecundity that provides Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe with its science fictional plot.

What does Little Joe’s pollen do to people? Is it a vegetal telepath, controlling the behaviour of its subjects? Or does it simply make the people who enjoy its scent happier, more sure of themselves, more capable of making healthy life choices? Would that be so terrible? As Karl says, “Who can prove the genuineness of feelings? Moreover, who cares?”

Well, we do, or we should. If, like Karl, we come to believe that the “soul” is nothing more than behaviour, then people could become zombies tomorrow and no one would notice.

Little Joe’s GM paranoia may set some New Scientist readers’ teeth on edge, but this isn’t ultimately, what the movie is about. It is after bigger game: the nature of human freedom.

“Me, Washoe”

Watching Nick Lehane: Chimpanzee  at Barbican Centre, London
for New Scientist, 20 January 2020

The puppet, a life-sized female chimpanzee, is made out of wood, rope, carved hard foam and paper mâché. She gazes out at the audience from a raised platform and, through movement alone, weaves her tale. When she was young, she lived as part of a human family. Now she is incarcerated in a research laboratory, deprived of company, her mind slowly deteriorating.

Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman operate the chimpanzee, the sole actor in a puppet play running at the Barbican Centre in London. The play, Chimpanzee, by Brooklyn-based actor and puppeteer Nick Lehane, is a highlight of 2020’s London International Mime Festival. It is a moving story that is attracting attention from neurologists and cognitive scientists along with the usual performing-arts crowd.

Lehane conceived the show after reading Next of Kin, a memoir by psychologist and primate researcher Roger Fouts. Fouts’s tales of experiments in fostering young chimpanzees in human homes had obvious dramatic potential. Then, as Lehane looked deeper, he discovered a much darker story.

The Fouts family’s own chimps enjoyed a relatively comfortable life once they outgrew their human home. But other chimpanzees in similar programmes found themselves sold to research labs, living out almost inconceivably solitary lives of confinement and vivisection.

Modern efforts to communicate with chimpanzees began in 1967 at the University of Nevada, Reno, when primatologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner set up a project to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to a chimp called Washoe. These experiments have so transformed our view of chimp culture that many of the original researchers are campaigning to end the practice of keeping primates in captivity. (It is still legal to keep primates as pets in the UK.)

Chimpanzee vocalisations aren’t under conscious control, but the apes can communicate using body gestures. “This happens naturally in the wild,” says Mary Lee Jensvold, who advised Nick Lehane on his play. A former student of Roger Fouts, she too campaigns to end primate captivity. “And because chimps live in communities that are relatively closed and quite aggressive with each other, each community has its own repertoire of gestures. Where there’s some overlap, there are differences in how the gestures are articulated.”

In other words, each community speaks in its own accent, and this, says Jensvold, “really speaks to chimpanzees being cultural beings“.

As the sign-language studies grew more ambitious, the Gardners and their colleagues Roger and Deborah Fouts took the chimps into their own homes, acculturating them as humans as far they could to encourage communication.

The obvious question – what is it like growing up in a family that contains chimpanzees? – is the only question Roger Fouts’s son Joshua struggles to answer: “The reality is it’s all I knew.” Joshua, now a media scholar, was raised in a family whose rituals involved members that weren’t human, whose human members would sign to each other so the chimpanzees wouldn’t feel left out of the conversation, and the experience has left him with a profound sense that every non-human has inherent sapience. “When I’m walking down the sidewalk, and I see a human walking with their dog,” he says, “I tend to greet the dog.”

Roger Fouts and his colleagues found that their animals used ASL to communicate with each other, creating phrases by combining signs to denote novel objects.

Washoe was the first chimpanzee to wield ASL in a convincing fashion. Others followed: when Washoe’s mate Moja didn’t know the word for “thermos”, he referred to it as a “metal cup drink”. When Washoe was shown an image of herself in the mirror, and asked what she was seeing, she replied: “Me, Washoe.”

The researchers could hardly credit what they were seeing – and some of their peers still don’t. Jensvold believes there may be a cultural conflict at work. “In the US, comparative psychology has historically been a very lab-based science, where you set up these contrived experiments in order to answer your research questions,” she says. “Out of Europe comes an ethological approach, which is really more about taking the time to observe.”

The sign language research has drawn Jensvold and her colleagues into animal welfare and protection. “We can’t keep doing to them what we’ve been doing,” she says.

Joshua recalls the moment his father reached the same conclusion: “About midway through his career, Roger realised that this was an experiment that should never have been done. Out of the desire to determine what it is about humans that makes us special, we’ve effectively condemned these chimpanzees to a life of incarceration. They’re enculturated to our behaviours. They can never be reintroduced to the wild.”

There are no captive chimps in New York, so Nick Lehane’s research for his play consisted almost entirely of watching videos. According to Jensvold, he couldn’t have picked a better form of study. “With video tape,” she says, “you can take close observation down to a minute level.”

By the time Jensvold got involved in Lehane’s project, there was already a performance ready for her to judge. For Lehane, that was a heart-in-mouth moment: “I was afraid that despite our best efforts, we had missed the mark. If anyone was going to think that we had missed something vital about chimp movement or behaviour, it would be Mary Lee.”

He needn’t have worried. “Chimpanzee was phenomenal,” says Jensvold. “I was spotting things that I knew other people in the audience, people who weren’t experts, weren’t going to notice. He captured these incredible nuances.” She pauses: “So the level of suffering that he’s depicting: he gets that right, too.”

How does Lehane’s chimpanzee convey emotion, given that chimp and human expressions don’t overlap at all precisely?

“A lot of it is in the miming of breath patterns,” says Lehane. “Short little pants and hoots look happy; deep intense heaves and cough will register as a different emotion.”

“One of the things I think is so cool about puppetry is that the audience fills in so many blanks,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times that someone has said, ‘How did you make the puppet cry?’ ‘How did you make the puppet frown?’ ‘I loved it when the puppet blinked!’ It tickles me because I just didn’t do any of those things.”

Is there a danger here that the audience is merely anthropomorphising his subject, interpreting his chimpanzee as little more than a funny-shaped human?

In answer, Lehane quotes primatologist Frans de Waal: “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

 

Can you use a bottle opener?

Visiting the Baltic in Gateshead for Animalesque: Art across species and beings.
For New Scientist, 15 January 2020.

EXHIBITIONS about our relationship with the environment tend to be bombastic. Either they preach doom and destruction, or they reckon our children will soon be living lives of plenty on artificial atolls.

Animalesque at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK, knows better than this. In an international selection of art, sculpture and film, curator Filipa Ramos points out how little we know about other species, and how much we might still learn. With this humility comes hope that we can reform our relations with Earth.

Research has a major role to play, but it can only go so far. One unassuming TV monitor is screening a video from Tupilakosaurus, a long-running project by Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke. It is a telling but not unsympathetic satirical film, in which examinations of a fossil dinosaur throw up folk tales, mangled histories and surreal mountains of paperwork as researchers try to represent and classify the Arctic’s life and history.

Often, we find out about other species only as we are evicting and replacing them. This happened to the Malayan tiger, which now numbers just some 300 wild cats in the Malay Peninsula. 2 or 3 Tigers (2015) by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen is a 19-minute, two- screen video, made using CGI and some very dodgy operatic singing, about the were-tigers of Malayan folklore. As ancestors, companions, competitors, protectors, destroyers and gods, tigers were central to the indigenous culture. Western settlers couldn’t find any there, however, until one sprang out of the forest in 1835 and attacked a hapless surveyor’s theodolite.

Our most stable cross-species relationships are with domesticated animals, even if they are sometimes discomforting or guilt-ridden affairs. In French artist Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), a macaque explores an abandoned restaurant in Fukushima, Japan, an area gutted by the 2011 tsunami. Identifying the species of our protagonist takes a while. You would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a girl, because the macaque is wearing a wig and an eerily beautiful mask (pictured above).

The uncanny collision of categories (girl and pet, puppet and creature) only becomes more dizzying when you discover that Huyghe recruited his “star” from a Tokyo restaurant where the macaque spent many apparently happy hours working as a waiter.

It is a film of great pathos, more moving and less disturbing than this bald description suggests. It speaks to our difficulty understanding other animals, steeped as we are in human concerns.

The difficulty is real, can research help us? Degreecoordinates, Shared traits of the Hominini (humans, bonobos and chimpanzees) (2015) attempts it. For this, UK artist Marcus Coates worked with primatologist Volker Sommer to list questions relevant to all three: do you resolve conflicts using sex? Can you use a bottle opener? Do you kiss? Are you preoccupied with hierarchy and status?

Human answers vary, but so do those gleaned from studying individual chimps and bonobos. The differences between individuals of each of the three species far exceed those across species. Animalesque celebrates what we share – and what we can learn.

 

A pontiff set upon by angels

Watching Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela for New Scientist, 15 January 2020.

WINTER in southern Siberia. By a long-winded, painstaking method involving levers, ropes and a fair amount of cursing, vehicles that have fallen through the thawing ice of Lake Baikal can be hauled back onto the surface.

The crew working on Aquarela were filming one such operation when an SUV shot past in a shower of ice, then plunged nose-first into the freezing water, killing one of its occupants.

There is nothing exploitative about the footage that, after much soul-searching, Russian film-maker Victor Kossakovsky used to front his poetic, narrative-less documentary about the power and weirdness of water. Locals and police slip and topple, hacking frantically at the ice, while the accident’s sole survivor stumbles about, frenzied with terror and getting in everyone’s way.

Kossakovsky is one of those rare documentary makers who still believes that the camera alone can capture truth. His expensive and time-consuming method of waiting, watching and witnessing the world is rarely supported by an industry obsessed with narratives and sound bites. Bravo, then, to Participant Media and the film’s many other backers, large and small, for Aquarela: the strangest, most powerful eco-documentary you are ever likely to see.

Captured at a staggering 96 frames per second, Aquarela‘s tracking shots, even in extreme close-up, are completely flicker-free. This makes them surreally present, in a way that demolishes scale and has you gripping the arms of your chair. Virtually no cinemas are equipped to screen such footage: this is a film made with an eye to posterity, and the plaudits that come with being a cinematic first.

Just as much study – and, no doubt, expense – has gone into the super-stabilisation of the camera used to capture the swells of a storm-tossed mid-Atlantic. If ever a present-day sequence could recreate the urban myth surrounding L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, in which early audiences were convinced an on-screen train was going to drive into them and fled to the back of the cinema, it is a ride over one of Aquarela‘s impending waves.

Why recommend a film that no cinema chain can yet screen properly? Buying the Blu-Ray disc or watching it on a streaming service (we will tell you when it arrives in our Don’t Miss column) is likely to convey only a fraction of its magic. But that fragment is jaw-dropping. After so many eco-docs, with their predictable 5-second glimpses of calving icebergs, here, finally, is a film that lingers on the berg as it sinks and rises, turns and crumbles, until an ice fragment floats by that looks for all the world like a pontiff set upon by angels.

This is a film that makes even a placid ocean surface strange, as oblique light catches the ripples within each little wave. Those ripples, in such a harsh, angled, almost monochrome light, resemble the stress fractures you find in flint or bottle glass. As such, the water, for all its movement, looks like a weirdly animated mineral, and those ocean swells really do look like mountains – the cliche made vivid at last.

This isn’t a film about our relationship with water. From continent to continent, glacier to ocean, burst dam to waterfall, Aquarela is about water’s indifference to any relationship we might try to strike up with it. It is a most disconcerting film.

668 televisions (some of them broken)

Visiting the Nam June Paik exhibition at Tate Modern for New Scientist, 27 November 2019

A short drive out of Washington DC, in an anonymous industrial unit, there is an enormous storage space crammed to the brim with broken television sets, and rolling stack shelving piled with typewriters, sewing machines and crudely carved coyotes.

This is the archive of the estate of Nam June Paik, the man who predicted the internet, the Web, YouTube, MOOCs, and most other icons of the current information age; an artist who spent much of his time engineering, dismantling, reusing, swapping out components, replacing old technology with better technology, delivering what he could of his vision with the components available to him. Cathode ray tube televisions. Neon. Copper. FORTRAN punch cards. And a video synthesizer, designed with the Tokyo artist-engineer Shuya Abe in 1969. The signature psychedelic video effects of Top of the Pops and MTV began life here.

Paik was born in Seoul in 1932, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and educated in Germany, where he met the composers Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and John Cage. A fascinating retrospective show currently at London’s Tate Modern celebrates his involvement with that loose confederacy of artist-anarchists known as Fluxus. (Yoko Ono was a patron. David Bowie and Laurie Anderson were hangers-on.)

Beneath Paik’s celebrated, and celebrity-stuffed concerts, openings and “happenings” — there’s what amounts — in the absence of Paik’s controlling intelligence (he died in 2006) — to a pile of junk. 668 televisions, some of them broken. A black box the size of a double refrigerator, containing the hardware to drive one of Paik’s massive “matrices”, Megatron/Matrix, an eight-channel, 215-screen video wall, in pieces now, a nightmare to catalogue, never mind reconstruct, stored in innumerable tea chests.

The trick for Saisha Grayson, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s curator of time-based media, and Lynn Putney its associate registrar, is to distinguish the raw material of Paik’s work from the work itself. Then curators like Tate Modern’s Sook Kyung Lee must interpret that work for a new generation, using new technology. Because let’s face it: in the end, more or less everything Paik used to make his art will end up in the bin. Consumer electronics aren’t like a painter’s pigments, which can be analysed and copied, or like a sculptor’s marble, which can, at a pinch, be repaired.

“Through Paik’s estate we are getting advice and guidance about what the artist really intended to achieve,” Lee explains, “and then we are simulating those things with new technology.”

Paik’s video walls — the works by which he’s best remembered, are monstrously heavy and absurdly delicate. But the Tate has been able to recreate Paik’s Sistine Chapel for this show. Video projectors to fill a room with a blizzard of cultural and pop-cultural imagery from around the world — a visual melting pot reflective of Paik’s vision of a technological utopia, in which “telecommunication will become our springboard for new and surprising human endeavors.” The projectors are new but the feel of this recreated piece is not so very different to the 1994 original.

To stand here, bombarded by Bowie and Nixon and Mongolian throat singers and all the other flitting, flickering icons of Paik’s madcap future, is to remember all our hopes for the information age: “Video-telephones, fax machines, interactive two-way television… and many other variations of this kind of technology are going to turn the television set into an «expanded-media» telephone system with thousands of novel uses,” Paik enthused in 1974, “not only to serve our daily needs, but to enrich the quality of life itself.”

Worth losing sleep over

Watching Human Nature, directed by Adam Bolt, for New Scientist, 27 November 2019.

Mature and intelligent, Human Nature shows us how gene editing works, explores its implications and – in a field awash with alarmist rhetoric and cheap dystopianism – explains which concerns are worth losing sleep over.

This gripping documentary covers a lot of ground, but also works as a primer on CRISPR, the spectacular technology that enables us to cut and paste genetic information with something like the ease with which we manipulate text on a computer. Human Nature introduces us to key start-ups and projects that promise to predict, correct and maybe enhance the genetic destinies of individuals. It explores the fears this inspires, and asks whether they are reasonable. Its conclusions are cautious, well-argued and largely optimistic.

Writers Regina Sobel and Adam Bolt (who also directs) manage to tell this story through interviews. Key players in the field, put at their ease during hours of film-making, speak cogently to camera. There is no narration.

Ned Piyadarakorn’s graphics are ravishing and yet absurdly simple to grasp. They need to be, because this is an account hardly less complex than those in the best popular science books. As the film progressed, I began to suspect that the film-makers assume we aren’t idiots. This is so rare an experience that it took a while to sink in.

There are certain problems the film can’t get round, though. There are too many people in white coats moving specks from one Petri dish to another. It couldn’t be otherwise, given the technology involves coats, specks, Petri dishes and little else by way of props the general viewer can understand. That this is a source of cool amusement rather than irritation is largely due to the charisma of the film’s cast of researchers, ethicists, entrepreneurs, diagnosticians, their clients and people with conditions that could be helped by the technique, such as schoolboy David Sanchez, who has sickle-cell anaemia. We learn that researchers are running clinical trials using CRISPR to test a therapy for his condition.

Foundational researchers like Jennifer Doudna and Jill Banfield, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Fyodor Urnov provide star quality. Provocateurs like Stephen Hsu, a cheerful promoter of designer babies, and the longevity guru George Church are given room to explain why they aren’t nearly as crazy as some people assume.

Then the bioethicist Alta Charo makes the obvious but frequently ignored point that the Brave New World nightmare CRISPR is said to usher in is a very old and well-worn future indeed. Sterilisations, genocide and mass enslavement have been around a lot longer than CRISPR, she says, and if the new tech is politically abused, we will only have our ourselves to blame.

There is, of course, the possibility that CRISPR will let loose some irresistibly bad ideas. Consider the mutation in a gene called ADRB1, which allows us to get by on just 4 hours’ sleep a night. I would leap at the chance of a therapy that freed up my nights – but I wonder what would happen if everyone else followed suit. Would we all live richer, more fulfilled lives? Or would I need a letter from my doctor when I applied for a 16-hour factory shift?

The point, as Human Nature makes all too clear, is that the questions we should be asking about gene editing are only superficially about the technology. At heart, they are questions about ourselves and our values.

Now we use guns

Talking to Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (better known as the sci-fi writer James S. A. Corey) for New Scientist, 20 November 2019

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck began collaborating on their epic, violent, yet uncommonly humane space opera The Expanse in 2011 with the book Leviathan Wakes. The series of novels pits the all-too-human crew of an ice-hauler from Ceres against the studied realpolitik of a far-from-peaceful solar system. The ninth and final book is due out next year. Meanwhile, the TV series enters its fourth season, available on Amazon Prime from 13 December.

The Expanse began as a game, became a series of novels and ended up on television. Was it intended as a multimedia project?

Ty Franck Initially it was just a video game that didn’t work, then it evolved into a tabletop role-playing game.

Daniel Abraham And then books, and then a TV show. I think intention is a very bold word to use for any of this. It implies a certain level of cunning that I don’t think we actually have.

What inspired its complex plot?

TF I’m a big fan of pre-classical history. I pull a lot of weird Babylonian and Persian and Assyrian history into the mix. It’s funny how often people accuse you of critiquing current events. They’re like, ‘You are commenting on this elected politician!’ And I’m like, ‘No, that character is Nebuchadnezzar’.

How have the humans changed in your future? Or is their lack of change the point?

DA If you really want a post-human future, change humans so that they don’t use wealth to measure status. But then they wouldn’t be human any more. We are mean-spirited little monkeys, capable of moments of great grace and kindness, and that story is much more plausible to me and much more beautiful than any post-human tale.

TF I find that the books that I remember the longest, and the books that I’ve been most entertained by, are the ones where the characters are the most human, not the least human.

You’ve mentioned Alfred Bester’s 1959 novel The Stars My Destination as an influence…

TF Exactly, and there you have an anti-hero called Gully Foyle. Gully is everything that we fear to be true about ourselves. He’s venal, and weak, and cowardly, and stupid, and mean. Watching him survive and become something more is the reason we’re still talking about that book today.

You began The Expanse nine years ago. What would you have done differently knowing what we know now about the solar system?

DA We would have made Ceres less rocky. We imagined a mostly mineral dwarf planet, and then it turned out there’s a bunch of ice on it. But this sort of thing is inevitable. You start off as accurate as possible, and a few years later you sound like Jules Verne. That the effort to get things right is doomed doesn’t take away from its essential dignity.

Other things have happened, too. Deepfake technology was still very speculative when we started writing this, and now it’s ubiquitous. One of our plot points in Book Three looks pretty straightforward now.

I don’t see many robots

DA We’re in real danger of miseducating people about the nature of artificial intelligence. Sci-fi tells two stories about AI: we made it and it wants to kill us, or we made it and we want it to love us. But AI is neither of those things.

TF What people mean is: where are the computers that talk and act like people? Robots are everywhere in The Expanse. But when you build a machine to do a job, you build it in a form that most efficiently does that job, and make it smart enough to do that job.

Is your future dystopian?

DA When Season One of the TV version came out in the US, we were considered very dystopian. Then the 2016 election brought Donald Trump to power, and suddenly we were this uplifting and hopeful show. Of course we’re neither. The argument the show makes is that humans are humans. We bumble through the future the way we bumbled through the past. What changes is technique: what we learn to do, and what we learn to make.

TF We don’t murder each other in a jealous rage with pointy sticks any more. Now we use guns. But the jealous rage and the urge to murder hasn’t gone away.

DA What we’ve managed to do is expand what it means to be a tribe. From a small group of people who are actually physically together…

TF …and mostly genetically related …

DA …we’ve expanded to nation states and belief systems and…

TF …fans of a particular TV show.

DA The great success of humanity so far isn’t in abolishing tribalism, because we didn’t. It’s in broadening the size of the tribe over and over. Of course, there’s still work to be done there.

Fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade

Visiting Flop: 13 stories of failure at The Octagon, University College London, for New Scientist, 6 November 2019

Quitting your job? Then remember to clear out your locker. One former employee of University College London left a bottle of home-made plum brandy in a drawer. The macerated plum was eventually discovered, mulled over (sorry), misidentified as a testicle (species unknown), and added to the university’s collection. Now that same collection fuels Flop, in UCL’s tiny Octagon gallery.

It’s not so much an exhibition as a series of provocations. (A notice by the last case asks you to share your own accounts of failure on a postcard “so we can all start learning from each other’s mistakes.”) After all, what is a failure? Do failures exist outside of the realm of human judgement? (“Can animals have accidents?” is a favourite undergraduate philosophy question. Humans can: one of the more gruesome exhibits here is a human heart, fatally punctured by a sword-swallower’s blade.)

How we define failure depends on our changing needs and circumstances. There was a time, not very long ago, when the plethora of human languages seemed indicative of some deep, Biblical failure to establish amity across our species. Concerted efforts were made to establish a single, synthetic language through which we might all be understood. There’s a fascinating page here from an essay by John Wilkins, whose Royal Society language project attempted to establish an analytical language that would allow people to communicate despite not sharing the same tongue. It foundered because the Royal Society couldn’t agree on how many essential concepts existed in the world.

Now that we live among artificially intelligent agents, the best of whom are more than capable of translating even spoken speech in real time, we find failure in our reduction of linguistic diversity. We bemoan the loss of languages (3000 of them have perished since 1910) , and mourn the cultural deficit left by their demise.

Can objects fail? Only in the sense that they fail to perform an expected action. Silly Putty, a perenially popular toy, was the result of a failed attempt to produce a synthetic rubber substitute during World War II. People can “fail” in much the same way. Percy Wyndham Lewis was kicked out of the Slade School of Fine Art for arguing with his lecturers, and went on to become the foremost avant-garde artist and writer of his generation.

If these examples of failure feel a bit tenuous, well, that’s really the point Flop wants to make: what’s interesting is how we deal with failures, not how we define them.
“Perhaps contrasting failure with success is the real problem,” the introductory material explains. “If every activity has to end in either one or the other, it denies the nuanced and messy complexities of life.”

“You made a person!”

Watching Ang Lee’s Gemini Man for New Scientist, 30 October 2019 

“You made a person!” cries Will Smith (tearful, stressed, and twenty-five years younger than he ought to be). “Out of another person! And then you sent me to kill him!”

He’s facing off against his adoptive dad Clay Verris (Clive Owen) who makes perfect soldiers for a living — or tries to. (Smith’s “Junior” is his latest wheeze.)

Why Junior must kill his “clone-father” Henry Brogan, an exhausted hitman (also played by Will Smith, this time at his real age — and has a black actor ever been given a whiter name?), is never made entirely clear.

Junior wants answers, as do we all, though it’s obvious by now we’re not going to get them: not from a script that’s been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, and not from a director whose bleached, hectic, high frame-rate 3-D cinematography lends walls and machinery greater physical presence than faces.

Gemini Man hurls itself into not one, but two gaping logic holes. First, the film relies on the inherent menace implicit in the idea of human cloning. But who in their right mind would ever be afraid of a mere clone? We deal with far more serious incursions of the uncanny every day, from the bodyless ubiquity of digital personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, to the creepy co-evolutionary pals-for-ever antics of our pet dogs and cats, to the not inconsiderable challenge that is other people, many of whom look, speak, and behave quite differently to ourselves.

The only film that ever made clones scary was The Boys from Brazil (1978), in which a Brazilian clinic starts churning out copies of Adolf Hitler — and even here the hero comes to realise that the clones themselves are utterly harmless, that it’s the Nazis who should be commanding our attention.

Problem number two: by the time you’ve made your “perfect soldiers” flexible enough to do the job you want them to do, you’ve given them enough agency to disobey you.

This bind has driven the plot of much good robot-infused literature, from the synthetic human’s birth in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920), to its entanglement in some famous puzzle-stories by Isaac Asimov (who famous Three Laws of Robotics are basically three laws of slavery with a sugar coating).

Algis Budrys set the capstone on this sort of tale in 1957 with the short story “First to Serve”, in which a government engineering team are driven round the bend in the effort to create an obedient military robot. “Haven’t you got it through your head?” a researcher cries in exasperation: “Pimmy’s the perfect soldier, all of him, with all his abilities. That includes individuality, curiosity, judgment — and intelligence. Cut one part of that, and he’s no good. You’ve got to take the whole cake, or none at all. One way you starve — and the other way you choke.”

A word about Gemini Man’s de-ageing technology, which supposedly took 20 years’ development before it was good enough to halve Will Smith’s age. First, it didn’t. David Fincher made The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008. Second, it needs a script to make it work. (Scorcese’s The Irishman (still in cinemas when this was written) is so involving, you never notice that young De Niro’s face is wobbling about on a more than seventy-year-old body). Third: Will Smith looks way better now than he did as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Hit the gym, dear middle-aged readers, you have everything to live for.