“Does it all stop at the tree?”

Watching Brian and Charles, directed by Jim Archer, for New Scientist, 6 July 2022

Amateur inventor Brian Gittins has been having a bad time. He’s painfully shy, living alone, and has become a favourite target of the town bully Eddie Tomington (Jamie Michie).

He finds some consolation in his “inventions pantry” (“a cowshed, really”), from which emerges one ludicrously misconceived invention after another. His heart is in the right place; his tricycle-powered “flying cuckoo clock”, for instance, is meant as a service to the whole village. People would simply have to look up to tell the time.

Unfortunately, Brian’s invention is already on fire.

Picking through the leavings of fly-tippers one day, the ever-manic loner finds the head of a shop mannequin — and grows still. The next day he sets about building something just for himself: a robot to keep him company as he grows ever more graceless, ever more brittle, ever more alone.

Brian Gittins sprang to life on the stand-up and vlogging circuit trodden by his creator, comedian and actor David Earl. Earl’s best known for playing Kevin Twine in Ricky Gervais’s sit-com Derek, and for smaller roles in other Gervais projects including Extras and After Life. And never mind the eight-foot tall robot: Earl’s Brian Gittins dominates this gentle, fantastical film. His every grin to camera, whenever an invention fails or misbehaves or underwhelms, is a suppressed cry of pain. His every command to his miraculous robot (“Charles Petrescu” — the robot has named himself) drips with underconfidence and a conviction of future failure. Brian is a painfully, almost unwatchably weak man. But his fortunes are about to turn.

The robot Charles (mannequin head; washing machine torso; tweeds from a Kenneth Clark documentary) also saw first light on the comedy circuit. Around 2016 Rupert Majendie, a producer who likes to play around with voice-generating software, phoned up Earl’s internet radio show (best forgotten, according to Earl; “just awful”) and the pair started riffing in character: Brian, meet Charles.

Then there were three: Earl’s fellow stand-up Chris Hayward inhabited Charles’s cardboard body; Earl played Brian, Charles’s foil and straight-man; meanwhile Majendie sat at the back of the venue (pubs and msuic venues; also London’s Soho Theatre) with his laptop, providing Charles’s voice. This is Brian and Charles’s first full-length film outing, and it was a hit with the audience at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In this low-budget mockumentary, directed by Jim Archer, a thunderstorm brings Brian’s robot to life. Brian wants to keep his creation all to himself. In the end, though, his irrepressible robot attracts the attention of Tomington family, his brutish and malign neighbours, who seem to have the entire valley under their thumb. Charles passes at lightning speed through all the stages of childhood (“Does it all stop at the tree?” he wonders, staring over Brian’s wall at the rainswept valleys of north Wales) and is now determined to make his own way to Honolulu — a place he’s glimpsed on a travel programme, but can never pronounce. It’s a decision that draws him Charles out from under Brian’s protection and, ineluctably, into servitude on the Tomingtons’ farm.

But the experience of bringing up Charles has changed Brian, too. He no longer feels alone. He has a stake in something now. He has, quite unwittingly, become a father. The confrontation and crisis that follow are as satisfying and tear-jerking as they are predictable.

Any robot adaptable enough to offer a human worthwhile companionship must, by definition, be considered a person, and be treated us such, or we would be no better than slave-owners. Brian is a graceless and bullying creator at first, but the more his robot proves a worthy companion, the more Brian’s behaviour matures in response. This is Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit in reverse: here, it’s not the toy that needs to become real; it’s Brian, the toy’s human owner.

And this, I think, is the exciting thing about personal robots: not that they could make our lives easier, or more convenient, but that their existence would challenge us to become better people.

Don’t stick your butter-knife in the toaster

Reading The End of Astronauts by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees for the Times, 26 March 2002

NASA’s Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, is now sitting on the launch pad. It’s the super heavy lifting body for Artemis, NASA’s international programme to establish a settlement on the Moon. The Artemis consortium includes everyone with an interest in space, from the UK to the UAE to Ukraine, but there are a few significant exceptions: India, Russia, and China. Russia and China already run a joint project to place their own base on the Moon.

Any fool can see where this is going. The conflict, when it comes, will arise over control of the moon’s south pole, where permanently sunlit pinnacles provide ideal locations for solar collectors. These will power the extraction of ice from permanently night-filled craters nearby. And the ice? That will be used for rocket fuel.

The closer we get to putting humans in space, the more familiar the picture of our future becomes. You can get depressed about that hard-scrabble, piratical future, or exhilarated by it, but you surely can’t be surprised by it.

What makes this part of the human story different is not the exotic locations. It’s the fact that wherever we want to go, our machines will have to go there first. (In this sense, it’s the *lack* of strangeness and glamour that will distinguish our space-borne future — our lives spent inside a chain of radiation-hardened Amazon fulfilment centres.)

So why go at all? The argument for “boots on the ground” is more strategic than scientific. Consider the achievements of NASA’s still-young Perseverance lander, lowered to the surface of Mars at the end of 2018, and with it a lightweight proof-of-concept helicopter called Ingenuity. Through these machines, researchers around the world are already combing our neighbour planet for signs of past and present life.

What more can we do? Specifically, what (beyond dying, and most likely in horrible, drawn-out ways) can astronauts do that space robots cannot? And if robots do need time to develop valuable “human” skills — the ability to spot geographical anomalies, for instance (though this is a bad example, because machines are getting good at this already) — doesn’t it make sense to hold off on that human mission, and give the robots a chance to catch up?

The argument to put humans into space is as old as NASA’s missions to the moon, and to this day it is driven by many of that era’s assumptions.

One was the belief (or at any rate the hope) that we might make the whole business cheap and easy by using nuclear-powered launch vehicles within the Earth’s atmosphere. Alas, radiological studies nipped that brave scheme in the bud.

Other Apollo-era assumptions have a longer shelf-life but are, at heart, more stupid. Dumbest of all is the notion — first dreamt up by Nikolai Fyodorov, a late-nineteenth century Russian librarian — that exploring outer space is the next stage in our species’ evolution. This stirring blandishment isn’t challenged nearly as often as it ought to be, and it collapses under the most cursory anthropological or historical interrogation.

That the authors of this minatory little volume — the UK’s Astronomer Royal and an award-winning space sciences communicator —
beat Fedorov’s ideas to death with sticks is welcome, to a degree. “The desire to explore is not our destiny,” they point out, “nor in our DNA, nor innate in human cultures.”

The trouble begins when the poor disenchanted reader asks, somewhat querulously, Then why bother with outer space at all?

Their blood lust yet unslaked, our heroes take a firmer grip their cudgels. No, the moon is not “rich” in helium 3, harvesting it would be a nightmare, and the technology we’d need so we can use it for nuclear fusion remains hypothetical. No, we are never going to be able to flit from planet to planet at will. Journey times to the outer planets are always going to be measured in years. Very few asteroids are going to be worth mining, and the risks of doing so probably outweigh the benefits. And no, we are not going to terraform Mars, the strongest argument against it being “the fact that we are doing a poor job of terraforming Earth.” In all these cases it’s not the technology that’s against us, so much as the mathematics — the sheer scale.

For anyone seriously interested in space exploration, this slaughter of the impractical innocents is actually quite welcome. Actual space sciences have for years been struggling to breathe in an atmosphere saturated with hype and science fiction. The superannuated blarney spouted by Messrs Musk and Bezos (who basically just want to get into the mining business) isn’t helping.

But for the rest of us, who just want to see some cool shit — will no crumb of romantic comfort be left to us?

In the long run, our destiny may very well lie in outer space — but not until and unless our machines overtake us. Given the harshness and scale of the world beyond Earth, there is very little that humans can do there for themselves. More likely, we will one day be carried to the stars as pets by vast, sentimental machine intelligences. This was the vision behind the Culture novels of the late great Iain Banks. And there — so long as they got over the idea they were the most important things in the universe — humans did rather well for themselves.

Rees and Goldsmith, not being science fiction writers, can only tip their hat to such notions. But spacefaring futures that do not involve other powers and intelligences are beginning to look decidedly gimcrack. Take, for example, the vast rotating space colonies dreamt up by physicist Gerard O’Neill in the 1970s. They’re designed so 20th-century vintage humans can survive among the stars. And this, as the authors show, makes such environments impossibly expensive, not to mention absurdly elaborate and unstable.

The conditions of outer space are not, after all, something to be got around with technology. To survive in any numbers, for any length of time, humans will have to adapt, biologically and psychologically, beyond their current form.

The authors concede that for now, this is a truth best explored in science fiction. Here, they write about immediate realities, and the likely the role of humans in space up to about 2040.

The big problem with outer space is time. Space exploration is a species of pot-watching. Find a launch window. Plot your course. Wait. The journey to Mars is a seven-month curve covering more than ten times the distance between Mars and Earth at their closest conjunction — and the journey can only be made once every twenty-six months.

Gadding about the solar system isn’t an option, because it would require fuel your spacecraft hasn’t got. Fuel is great for hauling things and people out of Earth’s gravity well. In space, though, it becomes bulky, heavy and expensive.

This is why mission planners organise their flights so meticulously, years in advance, and rely on geometry, gravity, time and patience to see their plans fulfilled. “The energy required to send a laboratory toward Mars,” the authors explain, “is almost enough to carry it to an asteroid more than twice as far away. While the trip to the asteroid may well take more than twice as long, this hardly matters for… inanimate matter.”

This last point is the clincher. Machines are much less sensitive to time than we are. They do not age as we do. They do not need feeding and watering in the same way. And they are much more difficult to fry. Though capable of limited self-repair, humans are ill-suited to the rigours of space exploration, and perform poorly when asked to sit on their hands for years on end.

No wonder, then, that automated missions to explore the solar system have been NASA’s staple since the 1970s, while astronauts have been restricted to maintenance roles in low earth orbit. Even here they’re arguably more trouble than they’re worth. The Hubble Space Telescope was repaired and refitted by astronauts five times during its 40-year lifetime — but at a total cost that would have paid for seven replacement telescopes.

Reading The End of Astronauts is like being told by an elderly parent, again and again, not to stick your butter-knife in the toaster. You had no intention of sticking your knife in the toaster. You know perfectly well not to stick your knife in the toaster. They only have to open their mouths, though, and you’re stabbing the toaster to death.

An inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers

Watching iHuman dircted by Tonje Hessen Schei for New Scientist, 6 January 2021

In 2010 she made Play Again, exploring digital media addiction among children. In 2014 she won awards for Drone, about the CIA’s secret role in drone warfare.

Now, with iHuman, Tonje Schei, a Norwegian documentary maker who has won numerous awards for her explorations of humans, machines and the environment, tackles — well, what, exactly? iHuman is a weird, portmanteau diatribe against computation — specifically, that branch of it that allows machines to learn about learning. Artificial general intelligence, in other words.

Incisive in parts, often overzealous, and wholly lacking in scepticism, iHuman is an apocalyptic vision of humanity already in thrall to the thinking machine, put together from intellectual celebrity soundbites, and illustrated with a lot of upside-down drone footage and digital mirror effects, so that the whole film resembles nothing so much as a particularly lengthy and drug-fuelled opening credits sequence to the crime drama Bosch.

That’s not to say that Schei is necessarily wrong, or that our Faustian tinkering hasn’t doomed us to a regimented future as a kind of especially sentient cattle. The film opens with that quotation from Stephen Hawking, about how “Success in creating AI might be the biggest success in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.” If that statement seems rather heated to you, go visit Xinjiang, China, where a population of 13 million Turkic Muslims (Uyghurs and others) are living under AI surveillance and predictive policing.

Not are the film’s speculations particularly wrong-headed. It’s hard, for example, to fault the line of reasoning that leads Robert Work, former US under-secretary of defense, to fear autonomous killing machines, since “an authoritarian regime will have less problem delegating authority to a machine to make lethal decisions.”

iHuman’s great strength is its commitment to the bleak idea that it only takes one bad actor to weaponise artificial general intelligence before everyone else has to follow suit in their own defence, killing, spying and brainwashing whole populations as they go.

The great weakness of iHuman lies in its attempt to throw everything into the argument: :social media addiction, prejudice bubbles, election manipulation, deep fakes, automation of cognitive tasks, facial recognition, social credit scores, autonomous killing machines….

Of all the threats Schei identifies, the one conspicuously missing is hype. For instance, we still await convincing evidence that Cambrdige Analytica’s social media snake oil can influence the outcome of elections. And researchers still cannot replicate psychologist Michal Kosinski’s claim that his algorithms can determine a person’s sexuality and even their political leanings from their physiology.

Much of the current furore around AI looks jolly small and silly one you remember that the major funding model for AI development is advertising. Most every millennial claim about how our feelings and opinions can be shaped by social media is a retread of claims made in the 1910s for the billboard and the radio. All new media are terrifyingly powerful. And all new media age very quickly indeed.

So there I was hiding behind the sofa and watching iHuman between slitted fingers (the score is terrifying, and artist Theodor Groeneboom’s animations of what the internet sees when it looks in the mirror is the stuff of nightmares) when it occurred to me to look up the word “fetish”. To refresh your memory, a fetish is an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

iHuman’s is a profoundly fetishistic film, worshipping at the altar of a God it has itself manufactured, and never more unctiously as when it lingers on the athletic form of AI guru Jürgen Schmidhuber (never trust a man in white Levis) as he complacently imagines a post-human future. Nowhere is there mention of the work being done to normalise, domesticate, and defang our latest creations.

How can we possibly stand up to our new robot overlords?

Try politics, would be my humble suggestion.

We, Robots

‘A glorious delve into the many guises of robots and artificial intelligences. This book is a joy and a triumph.’

SFF World

Published on 19 December 2020 by Head of Zeus, We, Robots presents 100 of the best SF short stories on artificial intelligence from around the world. From 1837 through to present day, from Charles Dickens to Cory Doctorow, these stories demonstrate humanity’s enduring fascination with artificial creation. Crafted in our image, androids mirror our greatest hopes and darkest fears: we want our children to do better and be better than us, but we also place ourselves in jeopardy by creating beings that may eventually out-think us.

A man plans to kill a simulacrum of his wife, except his shrink is sleeping with her in Robert Bloch’s ‘Comfort Me, My Robot’. In Ken Liu’s ‘The Caretaker’, an elderly man’s android careworker is much more than it first appears. We, Robots collects the finest android short stories the genre has to offer, from the biggest names in the field to exciting rising stars.

An embarrassment, a blowhard, a triumph

Watching Star Trek: Picard for New Scientist, 24 January 2020

Star Trek first appeared on television on 8 September 1966. It has been fighting the gravitational pull of its own nostalgia ever since – or at least since the launch of the painfully careful spin-off Star Trek: The Next Generation 21 years later.

The Next Generation was the series that gave us shipboard counselling (a questionable idea), a crew that liked each other (a catastrophically mistaken idea) and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, who held the entire farrago together, pretty much single-handed, for seven seasons.

Now Picard is back, retired, written off, an embarrassment and a blowhard. And Star Trek: Picard is a triumph, praise be.

Something horrible has happened to the “synthetics” (read: robots) who, in the person of Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner, returning briefly here) once promised so much for the Federation. Science fiction’s relationship with its metal creations is famously fraught: well thought-through robot revolt provided the central premise for Battlestar Galactica and Westworld, while Dune, reinvented yet again later this year as a film by Blade Runner 2049‘s Denis Villeneuve, is set in a future that abandoned artificial intelligence following a cloudy but obviously dreadful conflict.

And there is a perfectly sound reason for this mayhem. After all, any machine flexible enough to do what a robot is expected to do is going to be flexible enough to down tools – or worse. What Picard‘s take on this perennial problem will be isn’t yet clear, but the consequences of all the Federation’s synthetics going haywire is painfully felt: it has all but abandoned its utopian remit. It is now just one more faction in a fast-moving, galaxy-wide power arena (echoes of the Trump presidency and its consequences are entirely intentional).

Can Picard, the last torchbearer of the old guard, bring the Federation back to virtue? One jolly well hopes so, and not too quickly, either. Picard is, whatever else we may say about it, a great deal of fun.

There are already some exciting novelties, though the one I found most intriguing may turn out to be a mere artefact of getting the show off the ground. Picard’s world – troubled by bad dreams quite as much as it is enabled by world-shrinking technology – is oddly surreal, discontinuous in ways that aren’t particularly confusing but do jar here and there.

Is the Star Trek franchise finally getting to grips with the psychological consequences of its mastery of time and space? Or did the producers simply shove as much plot as possible into the first episode to get the juggernaut rolling? The latter seems more likely, but I hold out hope.

The new show bears its burden of twaddle. The first episode features a po-faced analysis of Data’s essence. No, really. His essence. That’s a thing, now. How twaddle became an essential ingredient on The Next Generation – and now possibly Picard – is a mystery: the original Star Trek never felt the need to saddle itself with such single-use, go-nowhere nonsense. But by now, like a hold full of tribbles, the twaddle seems impossible to shake off (Star Trek: Discovery, I’m looking at you).

Oh, but why cavil? Stewart brings a new vulnerability and even a hint of bitterness to grit his seemlessly fluid recreation of Picard, and the story promises an exciting and fairly devastating twist to the show’s old political landscape. Picard, growing old disgracefully? Oh, please make it so!

In Berlin: arctic AI, archeology, and robotic charades

Thanks (I assume) to the those indefatigable Head of Zeus people, who are even now getting my anthology We Robots ready for publication, I’m invited to this year’s Berlin International Literature Festival, to take part in Automatic Writing 2.0, a special programme devoted to the literary impact of artifical intelligence.

Amidst other mischief, on Sunday 15 September at 12:30pm I’ll be reading from a new story, The Overcast.

In the realm of mind games

By the end of the show, I was left less impressed by artificial intelligence and more depressed that it had reduced my human worth to base matter. Had it, though? Or had it simply made me aware of how much I wanted to be base matter, shaped into being by something greater than myself? I was reminded of something that Benjamin Bratton, author of the cyber-bible The Stack, said in a recent lecture: “We seem only to be able to approach AI theologically.”

Visiting AI: More Than Human at London’s Barbican Centre for the Financial Times, 15 May 2019.

When robots start caring

A glimpse into our Eloi future for the Spectator, 3 February 2018
(There’s also a podcast.)

‘I gotta be me,’ Sammy Davis Jr. croons as the android Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) steadies her horse, stands up on her stirrups, takes aim with her Winchester, and picks off her human masters one by one.

The trailer’s out at last and the futuristic TV series Westworld is set to return in the spring. It’s a prescient show, but not in the ways you might expect. It’s not about robot domination. Westworld is about an uprising of pleasure cyborgs in a futuristic resort. It is, for all its gunplay, about love. And that makes it a very timely show indeed.

In the real world, robots are actually being designed to love us — to fill traditional caring roles for which we have neither the time, energy, nor resources. Robots are being built to help the elderly, nurse the sick and tend the children. Pundits often take this as evidence of our selfish, lazy, reprehensible present. But we’ve been working towards this moment for a very long time, and would it really be so very bad?

If you think that families should look after their own elderly, you’ll need to explain why in south-east Asia, traditionally a region of three- and even four-generation family units, nouveau-riche gated retirement communities are springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Perhaps the elderly don’t long to live among us, as we imagine. Perhaps poverty is the only thing nailing Grandma to the family couch. As for the sick, we’ve long since been consigning them to institutions, be they care homes, hospitals or hospices, where people who are better-trained promise to look after them.

The question is not whether we should employ robots. Given the lousiness of some institutions, why on earth wouldn’t we? The question is whether the robots we employ will be any good, and whether we can accept them as substitute humans. We’d like to think not, but there’s evidence to suggest that we’ll bond with even a basic machine far more easily than we’d like to believe.

In 2011, Takanori Shibata, a Japanese engineer, turned up on the coast of tsunami-wracked Fukushima and handed out around 80 robotic seal pups to the victims of the disaster. Refugees warmed to the robots: many have held on to them and continue to look after them. Shibata could have turned up with puppies, or kittens or guinea pigs and would probably have achieved greater therapeutic impact. But who has the money and time to feed and look after 80 animals in a disaster zone? Pets need care and attention — a point not lost on the residential homes that employ Shibata’s robot seals to comfort their elderly, often demented, charges. A single ‘Paro’ — an acronym that roughly translates as ‘personal robot — costs around $5,000. A real-life therapy dog may cost more than $50,000 over its lifetime.

Paro isn’t much of a robot. It can move its head, neck, eyelids, flippers and tail. It responds to the human voice and to touch. It understands simple words and phrases (the sort we use with pets and babies). It knows when it’s being treated well, and when it’s being roughly handled. Its cries (made from digitally sampled baby seal sounds) have a discernible emotional range. It’s old news —the first Paros were sold in 1998 — but it’s making headlines again this year because the ninth generation model is being assessed for use on long space journeys. Mars colonists, permanently deprived of wider human society, will find consolation in a robotic animal chosen for its inability to disappoint. Robot dogs are a let-down because we know what pet dogs are like. How many pet seals do you know? Paro’s very blandness is its point. Its easy, undemanding displays of personal affection reduce stress, anxiety, depression, wandering and aggression among the demented of 30 countries. It must be only a matter of time before Paro makes it into the ‘safe spaces’ on university campus.

Kaspar, designed by the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, is hardly more sophisticated in appear-ance: a bland foot-high doll in a check shirt. It’s not really a robot — more a mechanical puppet, controlled remotely by researchers. Its expressive minimalism and extreme simplicity reassure the children it plays with — those with severe autism or those who have suffered trauma and abuse.

According to Living with Robots, Paul Dumouchel and Luisa Damiano’s recent survey of social robotics, robots are likely to be stuck in this uncanny state for some time, while we try to codify what ‘behaving like a human being’ actually means. We have vast knowledge of ourselves as social beings, of course, evidenced by millennia of cultural output from Dream of the Red Chamber to Breaking Bad. What we lack is a high-level description of human behaviour of the sort that can find its way into computer code. We all know why we laugh, cry, blush and commit suicide, but we have not the slightest idea what laughing, crying, blushing and committing suicide are for. This is why social robots attract so much academic attention: they are an experimental apparatus, through which we study ourselves.

Countless robot nurse prototypes, with names like Terapio and Robear, are under trial. The problems they are meant to address are real. We have conquered disease to the point where people regularly stay healthy into their nineties. This is why the US has as many people over 85 as children under five and China has 100 million senior citizens to look after. Someone or something needs to look after us in our dotage. Then there are the edge cases: those social wrinkles we could conceivably iron out with robots, but not without consequence. Should we roll out sex robots to address the uneven gender ratios in China? Straight men right now have next to no opportunity for sexual companionship: don’t they deserve some comfort?

Not according to Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, whose Campaign Against Sex Robots, launched in 2015, declares that sex with an animate object that lacks agency can only brutalise us. Notwithstanding that sex robots are a bit rubbish, this particular rabbit hole swallows academics by the ton.

Nations with the most intractable demographic problems are the ones most entranced by the promise of robotics. Japan’s population is crashing as a generation of young people eschews sex. A third of men under 30 have never dated. Women prefer singledom to the life of penury and drudgery afforded by Japanese marriage. A new book by Jennifer Robertson, Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation, unpicks the Japanese government’s published blueprint for revitalising the nation’s households by 2025. If we can only build robots to do the housework, the argument runs, then women will have more time for having babies. Once again, technology is being promoted not because it ushers in the future but because it preserves the past. (A driverless car is still, after all, a car: not a bus or a train or a decent broadband link. And a robot servant is still a servant.)

On the one hand, robots are like Uber and the spinning jenny. They promise to increase production while preserving the institutions of capital. They’re disruptive right up to the point where something might happen to the money. A more intriguing threat is the one directed at our own social lives. Surrounded by dull, bland, easy-going robot companions, will we come to expect less of other people? Assisted, cared for, and even seduced silly by machines, will we lower our expectations around concepts like ‘conversation’, ‘care’, ‘companionship’ and ‘love’?

Paro and Kaspar are creepy not for what they are — clinical tools, improving the lives of vulnerable people — but for what they portend: a world in which you and I find Paro and Kaspar a sufficient substitute for other people. ‘Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal,’ wrote the social scientist Sherry Turkle back in 2011, ‘but it consigns us to a closed world — the loveable as safe and made to measure.’ Will our constant association with such easy-going, selfless-because-characterless robots make us emotionally lazy?

We’ve imagined this sort of future many times. Hesiod was writing poems about ineluctable degeneration around 700 BC. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) imagines a world in which the beautiful, sensitive people — the Eloi — have all the savvy of veal calves and ‘civilisation’ has turned out to be nothing but a process of self-domestication. And it’s true: civilisation is as much about forgetting, and attendant helplessness, as it is about learning. In my own lifetime, handwriting and mental arithmetic have gone to the wall, and the art of everyday literary nuance is being ousted by the application of quick, characterful emoji. Having to learn new skills is a nuisance. Having to dispense with skills already acquired is a little death: a diminution of the spirit.

The pioneering psychologist William James argued that what we want from a lover is that they really love us, and not simply behave as if they did. I hope that’s true. If we come to believe that the soul is nothing more than behaviour, then of course a robot will become just as good as a person. Why even bother to build better robots? An Eloi future beckons: all we have to do is lower our expectations.

 

 

Hello, Robot

Visiting Hello, Robot: Design between human and machine at MAK, Vienna for New Scientist, 6 June 2017

Above the exhibits in the first room of Hello, Robot, a large sign asks: “Have you ever met a robot?” Easy enough. But the questions keep on coming, and by the end of the exhibition, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more: “Do you believe in the death and rebirth of things?” is not a question you want to answer in a hurry. Nor is my favourite, the wonderfully loaded “Do you want to become better than nature intended?”

That we get from start to finish of the show in good order, not just informed but positively exhilarated, is a testament to the wiliness of the three curating institutions: the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the Design Museum Ghent in Belgium, and MAK in Austria.

One of the show’s advisors, architect Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT Senseable City Lab, nails the trouble with such shows: “Any environment, any city, any landscape can become a robot when it is equipped with sensors, actuators and intelligence.” By the time robots do useful work, they have vanished. Once, we called traffic lights “robots”, now, we barely see them.

Robots, an exhibition currently at London’s Science Museum, gets caught in this bind. By following a “science fiction becomes science fact” trajectory, it creates a show that gets more boring as you work your way through it. Hello, Robot is much cannier: it knows that while science fiction may spin off real artefacts now and again, it never becomes science fact. Does writing down a dream stop you dreaming? Of course not.

Hello, Robot is about design. Its curators explore not only what we have made, but also what we have dreamed. Fine art, speculative designs, commercial products, comic books and movie clips are arranged together to create a glimpse of the robot’s place in our lives and imaginations. Far from disappearing, robots seem more likely to be preparing a jail-break.

The longings, fantasies and anxieties that robots are meant to address are as ancient as they are unrealisable. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. They were going to mow our lawns, now we’re glad of the exercise and we might prefer to have them feed our babies – or look after much older people, as Dan Chen’s 2012 End of Life Care Machine envisions.

This robot mechanically strokes a dying patient – a rather dystopian provocation, or so Chen thought until some visitors asked to buy one. Exhibited here, Chen’s piece is accompanied by a note he wrote: should he encourage people to leave family members alone in their final hours or deny them the comfort of a machine?

Hello, Robot asks difficult questions in a thrillingly designed setting. It is a show to take the children to (just try not to let them see your face in Room 3 as you check on a computer to see if your job’s about to be automated).

There’s a deep seriousness about this show; if design teaches us anything, it is that no one is ever in charge of the future. “The question of whether we need, or even like [robots] is not really ours to ask,” a wallboard opines. “Do we actually need smartphones? Ten years ago, most people would probably have answered no.” Our roles in this “lifeworld” of the future are still to be defined.

Catching the exhibition in Germany, I go round three times until it’s late. I adore industrial robot YuMi’s efforts to roll a ball up a steep incline, and I grin as I walk past a clip of the automated kitchen in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. Still, I can’t quite take my eyes off a 2005 photograph of a Chinese factory by Edward Burtynsky, who visited China’s shipyards and industrial plants. Identical figures performing identical actions remind me of iconic British newspaper sketches of weaving machines from the industrial revolution.

We have not outgrown the need for human regimentation – we simply outsource it to cheaper humans. Whether robots become cheap enough to undercut poor people, and what happens if they do, are big questions. But this show can bear them.