Monday, 30 June 2008

Hubris and Nemesis

Commentators reflecting on the massacres committed by the communist regimes of the 20th century were fond of quoting the 16th century proverb ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. What is true of Marxist genocide is also true of plastic pot plants. Whoever masterminded the decoration of the lobby of the contemptible 1960s office building I work in was in all probability motivated by feelings of human solidarity and desired to create something that would infuse the buildings inhabitants with something akin to a state of spiritual nirvana. This, they reasoned, could best be achieved by creating a display of fauna in the entrance hall that would bring Mother Nature’s wonders to an otherwise soulless patch of concrete. Something was lost in the execution. Instead, following a series of compromises, the space was populated with a series of grotesque plastic trees, which resemble cast-off props from ‘Day of the Triffids’. Over the years the dust has accumulated so that this ghastly spectacle has even lost its kitsch appeal. Far from attracting onlookers towards its beauty and away from the boxy architecture of the building its blackened forms present themselves as a forest of death. The ghastly display fulfils the same role as the decaying victims of medieval hangings, chilling onlookers with its spectacle of decay and forcing them to reflect on the transience of existence.

Recent events have forced me to reflect on the plausibility of robot sex slaves. If, like me you follow the scientific press with a sort of horrified fascination, you can hardly have failed to notice the surge in wildly speculative literature regarding the imminent symbiosis between man and machine. This trend is best embodied by the figure of David Levy, author of such titles as ‘Love + Sex with Robots’ who claims that by 2050, machines will be able to serve as human like lovers and ‘not just mechanical sex slaves’!?!. He predicts that within the next four years advanced robots will be sold as sex toys and will possess sensors and electronic speech abilities to make them seem real, when a human touches their ‘sensitive zones’. All this gives you some idea of what St Augustine was talking about when he spoke of ‘the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible’ from which arises ‘incitements to vice and, indeed, vicious desires’. Leaving ethics to one side for the moment, I find myself worrying that the introduction of this additional household appliance might result in a number of nightmare scenarios, such as returning home to find your mechanical husband embedded in your fridge in an act of ill-conceived copulation. It also requires a tremendous leap of faith just to trust a computer to take care of my sales proposals let alone let it in close proximity to my genitalia; especially if it is running Vista. Another commentator, Kevin Warwick of the university of Reading has gone in a slightly different direction, claiming in his book ‘The March of Machines’ that by 2050, if current progress continues, the robots will have taken us over. Presumably in this scenario, the tables will have turned and the remains of humanity will be subjugated and bred as sex slaves to the robots, thus leaving David Levy with egg on his face. These are the consequences of hubris.

Happily the current state of play in artificial intelligence gives one no reason to worry about such alarming predictions. In the preface of Mark Tilden’s book ‘Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels’ he recalls the story of his attempt to make a robot butler for his household. Having designed such a complicated and expensive machine he was bemused to discover on returning home that it had been outwitted by his pet cat which had walled it in with play furniture and left it spinning hopelessly in circles. If this anecdote is any indication, the robot menace of the future will more resemble the Daleks than Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘The Terminator’, with our mechanical counterparts capable of unspeakable evil but unable to climb the stairs without falling over. It also proves the maxim that if you really want to create artificial intelligence you would be better off having kids than fiddling with wiring and AND gates.

And so big brother has returned to our screens, a show I affectionately refer to as ‘chewing gum for the eyes’. Many people elucidate a sort of dripping elitist contempt when they hear that this programme has returned for its latest season. This I think is misconceived. Television never has been and never will be intellectually stimulating and long may it be so. Having said this, I am slightly concerned about the values it promotes, or perhaps brings to the surface. For example, it has become clear to me that amongst Big Brother contestants, being rude to someone’s face when you don’t like them or ‘telling it like it is’ is considered a virtuous act. Whilst talking behind someone’s back is considered shameful, actively confronting the object of your displease and lecturing them on faults in their personality is the height of good manners. Things have obviously moved on since Lady Troubridge’s rules of etiquette.

Once you accept this as a guiding moral principle, Adolf Hitler begins to look positively virtuous. His 1926 work Mein Kampf - or to give its original title ‘Four and a half years of struggle against lies stupidity and cowardice’ - is a perfect illustration of how one should ‘tell it like it is’, detailing his intentions to overthrow the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles, wage war against France and destroy the ‘Judeo Bolsehvik’ regime in the east to create the desired living space for the Aryan master race. No room for ambiguity there. This book by the way was not the publishing flop of folklaw. It sold over 10 million copies by 1945 was translated into many languages including Braille; it also caused alarm in 2005 by topping the bestseller list in Turkey following a flurry of sales. Despite these explicit intentions Stalin remained convinced that the Nazis would remain pre-occupied with the west and even admired Hitler for his brutality, remarking ‘What a great fellow! How well he pulled this off!’, when news came of the night of the long knives. Hitler for his part described Stalin as ‘one of the greatest human beings since , if only through the harshest compulsion he has succeeded in welding a state out of this Slavic rabbit family (Kaninchenfamilie)’. Its strange to contemplate that in another reality these guys could have been drinking buddies.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Rotten Fruits of Progress

‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ wrote Dylan Thomas while contemplating the slow decline and death of his father, ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’; but the bard was guilty of failing to practice what he so eloquently preached. The man who famously declared that ‘An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do’ stumbled into the Chelsea Hotel in New York on the 3rd of November 1953, uttered the immortal words ‘I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that is a new record!’ and expired at the tender age of 39. Reciting poetry boisterously in the pub and drinking yourself to death strikes me as a singularly ill conceived method of halting the dying of the light, in fact, its more akin to replacing every light fixture in your abode with Tesco ‘energy saving’ bulbs and then grumbling incredulously as one by one they fizzle into impotence. I tried this the other day in a brief moment of eco-religiosity and was subsequently returned to the dark ages as the purchased lightbulbs burned with the kind of feeble effervescence one would associate with manufactures assembled by downtrodden wage slaves in some god forsaken corner of the Orient. As a result of this, the eighty watt bulbs have been returned to their fittings where they will remain proudly until the day of revelation when the prophesies of Al Gore, Lord Stern and the IPCC will be fulfilled and the earth’s population will be purged for its eco-sins. The world may be engulfed in floods, tidal waves, swarms of insects and whatever new cataclysm is cooked up in the tabloid-esque pages of ‘The New Scientist’ but at least I will be able to find my pants in the dark recesses of my bedroom.

If like me, you were brought up on comic strips from the 50s like Dan Dare pilot of the future, where men in spaceships with improbably geometric chins did battle with the Mekon of Mekonta and travelled to faraway galaxies in search of adventure, you will probably feel more than a little twinge of disappointment at the news that our latest step in the march of progress is to send a flimsy robot to Mars equipped with a drill – not to conquer the Martian microbes in some glorious neo-colonial escapade but for the unglamorous task of looking for ice. Aside from the prospect of using this minuscule portion of the Martian Ice sheet to create the world’s most expensive dry martini, this story has nothing of the high drama and epic adventure which earlier writers expected of the 21st century. Even browsing the science journals merely hastens the onset of disillusionment. ‘Enlightened’ 18th century philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot scorned the medieval scholastics of the Middle Ages for their turgid debates on the nature of the trinity and the number of angels that could feasibly dance on the end of a pin - and yet, among the most popular scientific theories at the dawn of the 21st century are that our universe is part of an infinite multiverse in which multiple copies of Elvis exist, that human beings are ‘nothing more than’ blindly programmed sex robots infected with mind viruses and, amusingly, that the universe is shaped like a doughnut, and will presumably meet its apocalypse when it is finally spotted by a universe shaped like Homer Simpson. All these make the metaphysical musings of figures like St Thomas Aquinas look positively sane and one is tempted to reach in disgust for Occam’s Machete. According to the over enthusiastic science fiction writers of yesteryear such as Issac Assimov this was to be the time when machines finally achieved human like properties, acting as our trusted servants and making the course of our lives effortless. Well here we are in the 21st century and the closest object I have which resembles this vision is my Wii Fit and accompanying balance board. This rather paternalistic object mocks my portly frame, labels me as obese and make me insert pre-programmed excuses into my ‘weight chart’ when I consume one two many bevies at my local. Its rather like inviting a 17th century Puritan into your house and then having him chastise you while your perform sit-ups. As a result I am racked with guilt when I over indulge in life pleasures. My customary pint of Stella and accompanying packet of salted peanuts on a Friday night turns to ashes in my mouth when I reflect that the following morning, ‘the machine’ will reprimand me for my gluttony and instigate an overly harsh weight loss program. Such are the rotten fruits of progress.

When the word ‘balderdash’ is mentioned to me it conjures an image in my imagination of an elderly and eccentric character from a P.G Wodlehouse novel, who might possibly use it in the context of an unusually heated discussion at the dinner table or perhaps a dispute with his gardener. It is a quaint and seldom used expression, a remnant of Olde England, I certainly wouldn’t have expected it to be used by the world’s most unhinged oriental despotism. And yet, last month the North Korean ‘news’ agency released this gem of a statement:

“…the U.S. let loose a spate of balderdash against the DPRK, terming it "closed" and "highly militarized society" and "dictatorship." The U.S. had the impudence to find fault with the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and slander the Korean-style socialist system centered on the popular masses”

It is gratifying to see that whilst in the country we insist on polluting our own language with vulgarities, the international appeal of English is such that words which fall out of favour here are being resurrected on the other side of the planet, albeit by the axis of evil.

I was amused to see that there is a new book out written by the last surviving member of Hitler’s bunker entourage. According to the book, Hitler was always playing humorous japes on his colleagues. His favourite victim was Herman Goering, who was notoriously fond of awarding himself medals and designing his own uniforms. Hitler was fond of recounting how Mrs Goering found her husband waving his Field Marshall’s baton over his underwear in the bedroom and asked him what he was doing. "He replied: "I am promoting my underpants to OVERpants!". Evidently Hitler was so proud of this joke that he had medals made from gold and silver paper for Goering to wear on his pyjamas. Reviews of this new contribution to our understanding of the great dictator were far from impressed by his sense of humour, but its worth recalling that Hitler was a comic genius compared to Lenin. In 1920 the pompous British Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell spent five weeks in Bolshevik Russia as part of a Labour party delegation. The delegation naively expected to find a socialist utopia brimming with milk and honey and with contented workers spontaneously breaking into choruses of the Internationale. Russell first realised all was not well when a ragged group of what he presumed were beggars turned out to be distinguished mathematicians keen to pay homage. Lenin granted Russell an audience as he posed for a portrait sculptor. At first Russell thought how friendly and jolly he was. But a question cropped up about Communism and agriculture. Lenin described with gusto how he brought about a vast improvement in agricultural practices by inciting the poorer peasants to murder the richer ones – “and soon” added Lenin “the poorer peasants hanged the richer ones from the nearest tree. Ha Ha Ha!”. He then broke out into a fit of ghoulish laughter, oblivious to the fact he had just committed something of a public relations faux pas. Russell returned home in disgust to denounce communism in his ‘Theory and Practice of Bolshevism’, perhaps reflecting that on the whole it is not a good idea to meet ones heroes in the flesh.