Auld Reekie robots

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Anyone who read my previous blog-post won’t be surprised to hear that my opinion of humanity is not terribly high at the moment.  So here’s a post that’s about the opposite of humanity.  It’s about artificial, mechanical and / or synthetic humanity rather than the flesh-and-blood variety.  Robots, in other words.

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Robots is the name of an exhibition that’s been in progress at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  A few weeks ago I got a chance to visit it.  Containing more than 100 exhibits, it tells the story of, to quote the blurb, ‘our 500-year quest to make machines human’ and it ranges ‘from early mechanised human forms to today’s cutting-edge technology.’  The exhibition runs until May 5th which, come to think of it, is today.  So if you’re in the Edinburgh area, haven’t seen it yet but fancy giving it a try, you’d better grab your coat and hat and run to the museum… now!

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The first sections of the exhibition chart the progress made by human science and technology towards the creation of robots prior to the 20th century.  This progress includes automatons, which were ‘mass-produced for the first time’ during the Industrial Revolution and ‘were not toys, but reflected their owners’ prosperity and fascination with exotic places.’  Among the automatons on display are a mechanical monkey, a mechanical bird in a cage and an eye-rolling, cigar-puffing human face that once adorned the wall of a tobacconist’s.  They’re charming, but I was disappointed that there weren’t more items like these on show.

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There’s also a section about the development of clockwork and it features some antiquated devices running on elaborate systems of springs and gearwheels.  These include a huge, multicoloured time-keeping dial with Roman numerals, the months and the signs of the zodiac on it; an orrery with long, straight, horizontal ‘branches’ and vertical ‘twigs’ supporting various planets and moons; and another orrery consisting of metal balls (the sun, earth, moon) and metal rings (their orbits).  Again, I wished the exhibition had had more space to exhibit more of these because I found them fascinating.

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After walking past some factory machines that helped to make the Industrial Revolution so revolutionary, you arrive at a section devoted to robots of the cinema screen, printed page and comic strip.  No doubt contrary to many visitors’ expectations, this section is quite brief.  There are some display cases with movie posters, pictures, books and toys and two life-sized representations of robots from two classic films, and that’s it.  The life-sized representations are of the utterly iconic Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), who stands in the middle of a circular, segmented, flower-like stage drenched in an unsettling purple light; and, leering across at her from a glass case, the fearsome mechanical endoskeleton of T-800 from the original and best Terminator movie (1984).

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I was pleased to see T-800 on display because he – sorry, it – is a very rare example of the cinema getting robots right.  Too often, filmmakers anthropomorphise robots, i.e. invest them with human traits and emotions, just as we do with animals in children’s books, fables, cartoons and so on.  Hence, you get movie robots fretting like camp English butlers in the Star Wars franchise or acting as gruff, wisecracking sidekicks to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81).  And don’t get me started on bloody K9.

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T-800, however, properly behaves like a machine.  It never deviates from its programming, which means it relentlessly pursues Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) with the purpose of destroying her, whilst eliminating anything or anyone else that gets in its way and threatens to impede its mission.  And that’s it.  Like a genuine machine, it does what it’s designed to do.  Other rare but honourable examples of cinematic robots that do only what it says on the tin (or on the packaging case), without any interference from human emotions, include the deadly, self-assembling, self-repairing war-droid M.A.R.K. 13 in Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) and Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1974).  Actually, the Brynner android follows its programming, which is to allow human tourists to shoot it ‘dead’ in mock Wild West gun battles at the Delos amusement park, up to a point.  Then it malfunctions and follows what the malfunction tells it to do, which is to hunt those tourists down and kill them…

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But back to the Robots exhibition.  After the viewing those glamorous movie robots, you get to see some ‘real’ robots from the 1950s and 1960s, which look so clunky they make the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (1939) seem sleek and elegant.  By ‘real’, I mean they were built by inventors but steered by controls and were incapable of autonomous movement.  Actually, I felt rather sorry for them, with their bucket heads, slit mouths, wedged noses, boiler-shaped torsos, clamp-like hands and massive slabbed feet.  Compared with what’s just ahead of them in the exhibition, they resemble old folk sitting uncomprehending and lost in a corner of a party predominantly attended by youngsters.

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And then it’s into the realm of modern robotry and we get to see the results of how scientists, engineers and technicians have attempted to replicate the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory and other systems of the human body in machine form, using intricate networks of rods, pistons, levers, wires, cables, tubes and so on.  There are some truly odd things on display here.  The designs of a couple of the robots have been so modelled on human anatomy that they – vaguely – resemble flayed or dissected cadavers.

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The exhibition saves its trump card for the end.  Its final stretch is an identity parade composed of some of the 21st century’s most notable robots.  I’ve seen clips of individual ones on TV news reports or online videos, but it’s rather overwhelming to see so many of them together in one place.  They include Robina (‘Robot as Intelligent Assistant’), which was developed by Toyota and from 2007 to 2009 ‘was used as a museum tour-guide’.  It resembles a food-blender base with giant arms and pincer-like hands, topped with what is sometimes called a ‘classic alien face’ (i.e. oval-shaped and having big black eyes).  Also equipped with pincers is the more ominous-looking Baxter, ‘the world’s first two-armed robot designed to work together with people.’  With a part-cylindrical, part-oblong, all-black torso, a TV-shaped head and a pair of powerful red arms, Baxter looks faintly arachnid-like, despite having only two limbs.

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Elsewhere, there’s Kodomoroid, whose name is derived from kodomo – Japanese for ‘child’ – and ‘android’.  Its flexible silicon skin was sculpted ‘from a whole head cast of a female model’, its teeth sculpted ‘from a separate cast of the model’s mouth’ and each of its hairs was inserted ‘on its body by hand’.  In fact, Kodomoroid didn’t strike me as particularly child-like.  Seated on a white cube, it looks like a prim and slightly shrunken Japanese auntie, incongruously dressed in a surgical gown, white ballerina shoes and a microphoned headset.  Japanese technology has also produced the Human Support Robot, which can ‘be operated directly by home users’ and ‘obey simple voice commands, for example, to fetch medication or draw the curtains.’  Basically a long, multi-jointed arm attached to a mobile cylinder with a face-like panel on top, the Human Support Robot is aimed at elderly people who are housebound or bedbound but who feel it’s unbecoming to depend on the services of a human home-help.

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I like the thinking behind Kaspar, a little robot doll designed as a ‘social companion’ for children with autism and other communicative issues.  For example, it can tell the kids if they’re holding it too tightly, thanks to it having pressure-sensors under its skin.   However, the show-stealer when I was there was RoboThespian, who can ‘deliver its lines in over 40 languages, wink, roll its eyes and lock gazes with individuals using facial recognition technology’ and who looks like a somewhat stripped-down C3PO with a dish-shaped face and square eyes.  A couple of kids were leaning towards it over the barrier when suddenly it lurched into motion, pointed at the them and blared, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”  Those kids promptly sprang a yard backwards.

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I’d expected a longer viewing experience at Robots, having paid ten pounds for a ticket, but I guess it was a costly business filling even the relatively-small area of the exhibition with so much hi-tech hardware from so many countries.  Still, it was always absorbing – and occasionally enthralling.   

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McEwan gets a doin’

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(c) Penguin

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Earlier this week I was burning the proverbial midnight oil writing a new blog-post about a recent visit I’d made to the National Museum of Scotland, where I’d seen an exhibition with the self-explanatory title Robots.  It was a coincidence, then, when I decided to take a break from my labours, surfed a bit on the Internet and found myself reading a Observer interview with author Ian McEwan, talking about his new novel Machines Like Me: which is about robots too.  And about the general implications that come with the existence of artificial intelligence, and the troubling fact that, in McEwan’s words, humanity is “in the process of handing over responsibility for safety, but also for ethical decisions, to machines.”

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Then, half-a-dozen paragraphs into the interview, I read an assertion by the interviewer, Tim Adams, and some more comments by McEwan, which made my jaw drop.  “McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’”

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What? I thought.  Oh, come on

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I also thought: f**k off!

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I know from reading other interviews with McEwan that he’s no fan of science fiction and thus he’s unlikely to have read the very long list of sci-fi stories that do indeed deal with whether a machine that ‘seems like a human’ has ‘responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’  These include Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains (1950), Harlan Ellison’s I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream (1967), Arthur C. Clarke’s literary version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and dozens, if not hundreds of other things going back to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s (later collected as 1950’s I, Robot) and probably before that too.  But I thought McEwan would have vegged out on the sofa in front of the TV at least once or twice and let himself watch a classic science fiction movie dealing with the topic, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), itself based on the afore-mentioned Philip K. Dick novel, or Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) – so that he would have some awareness that writing about this theme is not some startlingly original idea on his part but one that has a long, long pedigree in science fiction.

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(c)Film 4/DNA Films/Universal Pictures

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Predictably, twitter was soon busy with science fiction enthusiasts pouring scorn on McEwan’s assumption that sci-fi writers had never entertained the thought that the creation of robots and artificial intelligence might have some interesting ethical ramifications.  Among them were a few modern writers of science fiction.  For example, Charlie Stross tweeted: “Famous literary author reinvents the wheel, says something profoundly stupid about genre fiction not having wheels, while standing in front of genre fiction motorway crammed nose-to-tail with genre fiction trucks.”  And Adam Roberts speculated about McEwan’s thinking if he ever decided to write an opera: “Obviously I never listen to opera because it’s all crap but I had this idea for two doomed young lovers, a duel and a fat lady singing a really high note and I thought: nobody’s ever done that before so I will.” 

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What also makes this a bit rich is another remark that McEwan made, this time in an interview for the Glasgow Herald, to the effect that he doesn’t like science fiction because he finds it unscientific: “Although I am fascinated by science in general, my toes curl when people are crossing the universe at a trillion times the speed of light because the empiricist in me is saying: ‘Well, if they’re exceeding the speed of light, then we have to have a whole new physics.’” 

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Hmm. The premise of Machines Like Me is that it takes place in 1982, though in a parallel universe where Alan Turing didn’t commit suicide in 1954 but lived on to revolutionise computer science, to the extent that artificial humans have been created. (Both male and female ones, called – amazingly original thinking, Ian! – Adams and Eves.)  These are super-intelligent and can read literature, fall in love and even, in the case of the male ones, achieve erections ‘thanks to a reservoir of distilled water’ in their buttocks.  But even if Alan Turing had still been on the go, I find the notion that human technology would have reached this advanced stage by 1982 as scientifically laughable as, well, the moon hurtling out of orbit and carrying 300 people on a moonbase away on a tour of the universe.  (Yes, Space 1999, I’m looking at you.)

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Still, maybe it isn’t so much McEwan’s fault that he’s blinkered.  Maybe it’s the fault of the literary bubble that surrounds him and his contemporaries, the fault of all the critics, publishers, agents, supplements, magazines and so on who between them create a micro-verse that’s so precious, pretentious and stuck-up it makes anyone who spends time in it blinkered.  Britain’s literary establishment despises anything that falls into the category of ‘genre’ fiction, be it science fiction, crime, horror, humour, whatever, yet when an acceptably literary ‘name’ repackages an idea that’s been knocking around genre fiction for decades, said ‘name’ is applauded for their innovation and genius.  Hence, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991) got shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its premise of a world where time runs backwards was one that’d seen duty away back in Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1967) and J.G. Ballard’s Mr F is Mr F (1961).  And I’ve heard folk enthuse about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) (a novel that, incidentally, I like) as if Ishiguro was the first writer in history to put pen to paper about the subject of cloning.  Arthur C. Clarke (author of 1975’s Imperial Earth) or Ira Levin (author of 1976’s The Boys from Brazil) might disagree.  As might a certain Aldous Huxley, who once wrote a wee book called Brave New World (1932). 

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(c) Penguin

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Ironically, this disdain for genre fiction was not shared by some of the big names in Britain’s previous generation of ‘literary’ authors.  Both Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis (Martin’s dad) were happy to write science fiction, espionage thrillers and comedies and, in Amis’s case, a ghost story.  In 1983, Burgess put together a list of what he considered the 99 best novels written in English since the start of the second World War and he found space for science fiction ones by J.G. Ballard, Keith Roberts and George Orwell – after all, 1984 (1949) is sci-fi – as well as fantasy (Mervyn Peake), crime (Raymond Chandler) and spy (Ian Fleming) ones.  Kingsley Amis was a champion of traditional science fiction (though he loathed the ‘New Wave’ school of sci-fi that surfaced in the 1960s) and once wrote a book on the subject, New Maps of Hell (1960).

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It cuts both ways, of course.  The gatekeepers of respectable literary fiction would do well to take science fiction more seriously because, over the decades, the field has seen some great writers with great ideas – Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Thomas M. Disch, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison and dozens of others – and it would be good if they were discovered by a wider readership.  But an awful lot of dire crap has been written in the name of science fiction too, often by fanboys – and they tended to be boys – who’d never read anything outside the parameters of sci-fi and who probably thought that Sir Walter Scott was the chief engineer on board the Starship Enterprise.  Even today, I suspect there are some sci-fi hacks whose work would improve (slightly) if they broadened their reading horizons and sampled something for a change that wasn’t science fiction.  (Personally, I have little time for the old-school likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, and anything that takes place in a spaceship, space station or space colony and has more than a minimum of futuristic technobabble usually leaves me cold.  That said, I’m partial to the works of the technology-loving Arthur C. Clarke.)

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It’s a shame to see McEwan make a dick of himself like this because I actually like his books, especially Atonement (2001) and the faintly science-fictional The Child in Time (1987).  I certainly prefer his work to that of his mate Martin Amis, which I find largely unreadable.  And incidentally, I was really into McEwan’s earlier writings when I was a teenager.  This was the phase of McEwan’s career that produced the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories that were gathered together in the collections First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), all of which were dark, morbid and macabre.  In fact, they gave me the impression that McEwan was a horror writer.  I wonder how the genre-disdaining McEwan would react if I ran into him now and exclaimed: “Oi, Ian, you’re a master of horror – every bit as good as James Herbert and Stephen King!”  Yeah, I bet he’d really love that.

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Indeed, one of his stories from In Between the Sheets, Pornography, was included in the 22nd Pan Book of Horror Stories (1981).  Ha!

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(c) Pan Books

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One other thing.  If McEwan is as dismissive of science fiction as he makes out, it probably wasn’t wise to let the Observer take a photo of him dressed as Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who.   

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(c) Suki Dhanda / The Observer
(c) BBC

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