Fitbitters of the world, unite!


for The Guardian, 2 November 2016

At this year’s Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, I happened upon a robot made of hacked and 3D-printed surgical components that can perform DIY keyhole surgery. Its builder, the Dutch artist Frank Kolkman, was inspired by YouTube videos in which impoverished hackers and makers, largely without insurance, share medical tips and tricks. No money for bridgework? Try Sugru moldable glue.

A revolution is afoot in medicine. And like all revolutions, it is composed of equal parts inspirational advance and jaw-dropping social catastrophe. On the plus side, there are the health and fitness promises inherent in the artefacts of a personal health surveillance industry – all those Jawbones and Fitbits and Scanadu Scouts, iPhones and Apple Watches – that promises to top $50bn in annual sales by 2018. The devices aren’t particularly accurate (yet), and more than half of them end up at the bottom of a drawer after six months. Still, DIY devices are already spotting medical problems before their users do, raising the likelihood of a future in which illness and medical conditions are treated long before the patient gets sick.

On the minus side, there is Kolkman’s terrifyingly practical robot, and its promise of a future in which DIY medicine is the only medicine the ordinary individual can afford. The sunny west coast self-reliant rhetoric of the “making” and “hacking” and “quantified self” movements disguise the disturbing assumption that they can be a substitute for civic life.

We have been here before. Not much more than a century ago the Russian empire was a ramshackle agglomeration of colonies, held together by military force and hooch. There were no institutions for reformers to reform: no councils, no unions, no guilds, no professional bodies, few schools, few hospitals worth the name; in many places, no roads.

The responsibility for improvement and reform inevitably fell on the individual. Utopia was a personal quest in Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? – according to Lenin, “the greatest and most talented representation of socialism before Marx”. Even more hysterical, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata prefers the prospect of human annihilation to its current unreformed (read: lustful) condition. Outside the library and drawing room, pre-revolutionary Russia floundered in a sea of cults, from machinism and robotism to primitive reticence, antiverbalism, nudism, social militarism, revolutionary sublimation, suicidalism … One outfit called itself the Nothing, its members neither writing, reading or speaking.

Into this stew came the railways and the clock and all of a sudden self-regulation became easy and practical. In Leningrad in 1923, a theatre critic, Platon Kerzhentsev, founded the League of Time, in order to promote time-efficiency. Eight hundred “time cells” were set up in the army, factories, government departments and schools. The “Timists” carried “chronocards” in order to monitor time-wasting, wasted motion and lengthy speeches. Without watches, they tried to guess the passage of minutes and hours, and were awarded medals for spontaneous “time discipline”. They kept meticulous diaries of their every daily action. Lenin had the league’s personal productivity posters pasted up on the wall behind his desk.

“Man will finally begin to really harmonise himself,” Leon Trotsky prophesied in 1922: “He will put forward the task to introduce into the movement of his own organs – during work, walk, play – the highest precision, expediency, economy, and thus beauty.”

The poet Alexei Gastev – whose forbidding toothbrush-moustache and crew cut concealed a lot of mischief – took Trotsky at his word. He built a “social-engineering machine”. This giant structure of pulleys, cogs and weights was a thing of no fathomable use whatsoever, yet Gastev insisted that a few hours’ workout would turn you into a new kind of human being. He rolled these machines out across the young Soviet Union, as a sort of mascot for his Central Insitute of Labour which, with Lenin’s personal backing, taught peasant workers how to behave in modern factories. A class at the Central Institute of Labour was a sort of drill practice: pupils stood before their benches in set positions, with places marked out for their feet. They rehearsed separate elements of each task, then combined them in a finished performance. (Judging by the sheer popularity of the classes, and the speed of the institute’s expansion, the classes must have been quite enjoyable.)

Joining Gastev at the beginning of his career was the young Nikolai Bernstein, whose childhood spent assembling radios and building models of steam engines and bridges, set him in good stead when it came to mechanically registering the movements of the human body. He developed a high-speed camera called the kymocyclograph. The shutter, a round plate with holes in it, rotated before the camera lens, so that the photographic plate would record multiple images, each exposed a fraction of a second after its neighbour. (Motion-capture cinema, VR – and all the other technologies that keep Gollum actor Andy Serkis on the talkshow circuit – begin here.)

By the end of these studies, Bernstein had good evidence that motion could not be a simple matter of Pavlovian “reflexes”. His more nuanced model of motor responses amounted to a fully fledged theory of cybernetics, decades before Norbert Wiener coined the term in 1948.

The early Soviet Union gathered unprecedented amounts of data on human motion, fitness, behaviour and genetics, making it a world leader in the field. A new kind of human being – healthy, fit, psychologically integrated and free of heritable disease – seemed, for a few heady days in the 1920s, an achievable aspiration.

Then, in 1927, a miner called Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov went to work in a mine. He was no superman, but he was energetic and intelligent, and he could see ways of organising his work crew to increase the amount of coal they were able to dig in a single shift. On 31 August 1935, it was reported that he had mined a record 102 tonnes of coal in four hours and 45 minutes – 14 times his quota. Barely three weeks later, on 19 September, Stakhanov and his crew more than doubled this record.

Others rushed to follow Stakhanov’s example, and newspapers and newsreels across the Soviet Union celebrated their efforts. In Gorky, a worker in a car factory forged nearly 1,000 crankshafts in a single shift. A shoemaker in Leningrad turned out 1,400 pairs of shoes in a day. On a collective farm, three female “Stakhanovites” proved they could cut sugar beet faster than was thought humanly possible. Such workers were awarded higher pay, better food, access to luxury goods and improved accommodation. Stakhanovism soon became a mass movement. “In factories and even in scientific institutes,” wrote the American psychologist Richard Schultz, “the workers’ names may be posted on a bulletin board opposite a bird, deer, rabbit, tortoise or snail relative to the speed with which they turn out their work. A great deal of prestige is attached to the ‘shock brigade’ worker.”

For as long as human beings labour for others, their lot will improve only so far as their productivity rises. Investment beyond this point makes no sense. The Soviet Union of the 1920s was an impoverished state dotted with institutes of labour, health and maternity clinics, mental health services, housing offices and countless censuses. Coming to power at the end of the decade, Joseph Stalin replaced all this social engineering with, well, engineering. Magnitostroi, which is still the largest steelworks in the world, housed its workers in tents downwind of the chimneys. The construction of the White Sea Canal cost 12,000 lives – around a 10th of the workforce.

Drunk as we are on the illusion of personal control, we should remember that data trickles uphill toward the powerful, because they are the ones who can afford to exploit it. Today, for every worried-yet-well twentysomething fiddling with his Fitbit, there is a worker being cajoled by their employer into taking a medical test. The tests are aggregated and anonymised, and besides, the company is giving the worker a cut of the insurance savings the test will make. So where’s the harm?

Well, for a start, anonymising data is incredibly hard to do. The bigger the datapool, the easier it is to triangulate data sets and home in on an individual. And while people can get thrown in jail for this sort of thing, algorithms are a lot harder to police. Has the computer said “no” to your mortgage application? Well, sorry, but there may simply be no human to blame: the machine has figured things out on its own.

An even bigger worry is the way that, in our smartphone-enabled and meta-data-enriched world, complete knowledge of human affairs is becoming increasingly possible, making redundant the entire gamble of insurance. At that point the scope for individual self-determination shrinks to zero and we are living in the world of Andrew Niccol’s excellent 1997 film Gattaca.

Unregulated wellness programmes are begging to be used as tools of surveillance, and that’s not because anybody’s actually doing anything wrong. It’s because we have taken control of our own data, while at the same time forgetting that data ultimtely belongs to whoever can make the most use of it.

And it need not even be a problem, unless the class in power decide to replace social engineering with, well, engineering, health services with “making” and “hacking”, and civic societies with a desert, littered with the grinning skulls of people who aspired to west-coast “radical self-reliance” – and failed.

A comic novel about the death of God


F by Daniel Kehlmann reviewed for the Guardian

It cannot be an easy thing to write a comic novel about the death of God. Still, the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann may just have pulled it off. “F” is the protagonist of a book within a book, the debut novel of Arthur Friedland, a rather disorganised buffoon who never had any success as a writer until an encounter with a hypnotist gave his life its chilly purpose: “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want me to give the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs. Repeat!”

My Name Is No One is so exuberantly nihilistic, its readers are throwing themselves off TV transmission towers. As Kehlmann says: “The sentences are well constructed, the narrative has a powerful flow, the reader would be enjoying the text were it not for a persistent feeling of somehow being mocked.”

If Kehlmann played this intertextual game to the hilt – if F itself were as unforgiving as Arthur’s novel – then we would be looking at a less important book, as well as a less enjoyable one: some Johnny-come-lately contribution to the French nouvelle vague. The spirit of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the movement’s greatest exponent, illuminates the scene in which Arthur takes his granddaughter to an art museum to study a picture by her missing uncle: “She stepped even closer, and immediately everything dissolved. There were no more people any more, no more little flags, no anchor, no bent watch. There were just some tiny bright patches of colour above the main deck. The white of the naked canvas shone through in several places, and even the ship was a mere assemblage of lines and dots. Where had it all gone?”

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There are many such moments, they are all as beautifully judged as this one, and they are not the point. The point of F is not its humour (though Kehlmann, like Robbe-Grillet, can be very funny indeed), but its generosity. Arthur’s three sons, in their turn, make superhuman efforts to give their lives significance, and these efforts tangle and trip over each other to generate the comic business of the book. The eldest, Martin, a Rubik’s Cube expert, embraces the priesthood despite his lack of faith. Of Arthur’s two sons by his second marriage, Eric enters the glass-and-steel world of high finance to help control his fear of cramped spaces. His twin brother, Ivan, is a would-be painter turned art dealer, and author of Mediocrity As an Aesthetic Phenomenon.

“When I was young, vain, and lacking all experience,” he recalls, “I thought the art world was corrupt. Today I know that’s not true. The art world is full of lovable people, full of enthusiasts, full of longing and truth. It is art itself as a sacred principle that unfortunately doesn’t exist.”

Ivan, like all the others, lives in a nihilistic universe, but he is not himself nihilistic. It worries him that the world cannot live up to his expectations and those of the people he admires. These people include his lover Heinrich Eulenboeck, an artist with a true calling but only mediocre ability. What kind of world is it that plays such a trick on a person? “How do you live with that, why do you keep on going?”

The answer seems to be love. In a godless world, love counts for a great deal. And failing love, ordinary human decency goes a long way. Since Kurt Vonnegut died, there has really been no one to tell us this; the reminder is welcome.

F is again translated by Carol Brown Janeway, but it is a better book than Kehlmann’s last, Fame, whose narrative gymnastics caused characters to lose or swap their identities, and even to topple into their own or other people’s fictions. Fame was knowing, driven by its own absurdity. F is about the world’s absurdity, and this makes a huge difference morally. The world is big, and ultimately unknowable, and life is short and memory pitifully limited.

In the absence of God, Kehlmann’s protagonists hold themselves to account, and they give themselves hell. Sometimes, they give each other hell. “Something terrible has happened and the people seem to be wanting to cover it up. If you were to look a little longer, hunt a little better for clues, you’d be able to figure it out, or at least you think so. But if you step back, the details disappear and all that remains is a colourful street scene: bright, cheerful, full of life.”

It is very hard to express how funny this all is. But laughter matters most in the dark.

We can only look on in horror tinged with a terrible sense of inevitability


James Flint reviews Dead Water for the Guardian

Anyone familiar with Simon Ings’s previous novel, The Weight of Numbers, which interweaved dozens of stories to show the mathematical logic behind the workings of fate, or indeed his non-fiction study of the evolution of the eye, would know to expect something discursive from this latest novel. But Dead Water, though a slimmer volume, seems to cover even more ground than its predecessors, and at a greater velocity. While Ings puts many story strands into play, it is shipping – and its dark corollary, piracy – that really drives and defines this book. Ings’s ambition is to write from the point of view of the quiet circulation of sea-borne goods that underpins our globalised economy, and the behaviour of all the characters is deliberately in thrall to these flows.
Soon we’re in a strange land where fragments of contemporary philosophy are stitched together with what feel like lost scenes from Robert Ludlum or Ian Fleming. It’s indicative of Ings’s skill that he makes this blend of adventure story and treatise thoroughly compelling.
The action revolves around three main characters: Roopa Vish, an Indian police probationer so obsessed by bringing to justice a powerful gangster that she ends up sleeping with him; Eric Moyse, a shipping magnate, whose brilliantly devious shipping line within a shipping line allows him to hide the world’s most toxic wastes; and David Brooks, an intelligence officer turned pirate double agent, whose orthopaedic shoe and total amorality make him a villain worthy of Bond.
Although the novel starts out a little awkwardly, using the alchemical symbol of the ouroborus and a magical realism device in the form of a pair of vapourised twins to link the various threads, the tale toughens up as Ings’s talents as both thriller writer and science writer come to the fore.
The ouroborus may be a convenient shorthand for the novel’s dynamic, but the central idea that Ings is trying to elucidate is much more rigorous than a mere literary device. It is the discovery, formulated in a moment of clarity by one of the characters on the doomed airship expedition to the North Pole that opens the novel, that waves form, not just at the interface of air and water, but at the interfaces between layers of water – or any gases or liquids – of different densities.
Ings uses this apparently abstruse idea as the engine of his fiction. All the characters, all the stories, are thus located at the interfaces between cultural layers of different densities. And all the characters, whatever their individual wishes and desires, have their destinies moulded by the waves that form there. While they think they are making their own choices, they’re in fact borne along by currents over which they have absolutely no control. Indeed, when they try to break away from these forces, they find themselves falling foul of another concept that Ings brings into play: that of “cavitation”, understood as what happens when a propeller finds itself turning half in air and half in water – or between two layers of water of different density. Instead of producing propulsion, it creates mere foam: “generating empty space within a solid body”.
This is one of the meanings of the “dead water” of the title; it is also the device that Ings uses to create dramatic tension in the absence of any deeper form of self-determination. While the characters are in thrall to forces beyond their ken or control, they do not know this, and as readers we can only look on in horror tinged with a terrible sense of inevitability as Roopa Vish plunges herself ever deeper into the underworld web which will eventually ensnare her; as Eric Moyse tries and fails to vocalise his feelings for the women he’s loved from afar his entire life; as David Brooks manipulates his glamorous but confused daughter for his own ends over and over again.
Dead Water is not as grand a work as The Weight of Numbers, but conceptually it is even more ambitious and once it hits its stride, it displays a subtle and persistent power that confirms Ings as one of the very few British writers to be both contemporary and genuinely challenging.

Learning to love robots

London, 1977: the international grandmaster Michael Stean is losing to Chess 4.6, a computer programme developed at Northwestern University, Illinois. Stean is steamed: he is losing. Chess 4.6 is, he says, “an iron monster”. When finally he admits defeat, however, he does so with grace, declaring 4.6 a genius.

Whether we’re leaving it all to the cat, or thrashing an Austin 1300 estate with a stick, we anthropomorphise as much of the world as we can. Twelve thousand years ago we took wild animals and fashioned them in our image: domestic cats have evolved babyish complexions to appeal to our love of cute.

Anthropomorphism, although apparently a sentimental tic, is central to what makes us human. A baby’s realisation that other people are more than animated furniture develops over time, prompted and reinforced by a pattern of exchanged glances. Long before children acquire this understanding (called theory of mind), they are fascinated by eyes, and by the direction of another’s gaze. We become human only because, early on, someone treated us as human.


How complex does something have to be before it passes as human? The answer seems to be not very. A consortium led by the University of Plymouth has just won a £4.7m grant to teach a humanoid robot named iCub how to speak English. Its theory of mind may depend less on intellectual potential than on the scientists’ willingness to treat their charge like a real infant.

Let’s hope it grows into a sociable little thing. The bald fact is, we need him. The US Census Bureau has estimated that the nation’s elderly population will more than double by 2050, to 80 million. But there are simply not enough young to look after them. A study by Saint Louis University, Missouri, shows robot dogs are as much of a comfort to the elderly as real dogs. In 30 years, robot carers will be required for practical help, as well as solace, for old people.

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Domestic robots are already big business. The sale of service robots in Japan is expected to top £5bn by 2015. Mind is the final hurdle, but robots don’t have to be as clever as us to care for us, converse with us, or accompany us. They just have to be clever enough. Our instinct for anthropomorphism will do the rest.

This, anyway, is the message of Love and Sex with Robots, a book by David Levy. A chess international master, Levy was driven by his passion for artificial intelligence to lead the team that created Converse – a programme which, in 1997, won the Loebner prize, an award for the most convincing computer conversationalist.

Now in his mid-60s, Levy is bringing artificial life to sex. “Humans long for affection and tend to be affectionate to those who offer it,” he says, and predicts that prostitution has only about another 20 years to run before robots take over. Robots with credibly human bodies are already here. Add minds clever enough to handle a little language, and how could we possibly avoid loving them?

Levy argues that robots will appeal to our better natures. It has already happened. Remember those Japanese toys you had to “feed” at all hours of the night? “A remarkable aspect of the Tamagotchi’s huge popularity,” writes Levy, “is that it possesses hardly any elements of character or personality, its great attraction coming from its need for almost constant nurturing.”

His book reminds us that humanity is an act: it is something we do. When our robots become pets, carers, even companions, we will, quite naturally, feel the urge to treat them well. When it comes to being human, we will give them the benefit of the doubt, the way we give the benefit of the doubt to our pets, our children, and each other.