In the grip of apocalypse angst

You have to love a book about the end of the world in which the first two references are to Saul Bellow’s Herzog and the HBO series The White Lotus, a high/low combo that preps us for authorial omniscience. In the next few paragraphs we get Marc Maron, Sally Rooney and Frank Kermode. Buckle up, kids, a cultural whirlwind is coming! The day of judgment is at hand, and the all-knowing Dorian Lynskey, who seems to have doomscrolled through every card catalogue on the planet, is just the person to provide live commentary. A capacious cultural history of ‘apocalyptic angst’, his Everything Must Go will make you happy to be

AI just changed the world. Again

Argentine President Javier Milei’s recent speech, to the World Economic Forum in Davos, has caused a stir for several reasons. First, it was someone saying something interesting at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Also, it was someone being positive about capitalism and enterprise in a lucid, educated way. Agree with Milei or not, he is clearly not a dunce, even if he is possibly overfond of chainsaws. Now there is another cause to be animated by the speech, a reason that dwarfs all the others. Indeed, the ramifications are so immense they can be difficult to extrapolate: this could, literally, be a civilisational game-changer. I’m talking about the translation

Mother’s always angry: Jungle House, by Julianne Pachino, reviewed

Jungle House is not the sultry tropical tale you might expect either from its title or from its vivid, palm-strewn dust jacket. Instead, Julianne Pachico’s third novel concerns AI. This is not immediately obvious, and although there is an appealing directness to the writing, it means that no time is spent setting the scene or allowing readers to get their bearings fully. I could have done with more explication of the circumstances in which a young girl, Lena, comes to live in an AI-controlled house. At the book’s opening, Lena has her work cut out: There’s fishing and mushroom-gathering and swimming in the river. Five days a week are for

Israel’s challenge

42 min listen

On the podcast: Anshel Pfeffer writes The Spectator’s cover story this week. He voices concern that support from Israel’s allies might begin to waver if they don’t develop a viable plan after the war finishes. Paul Wood – former BBC foreign correspondent – and Dennis Ross – former Middle East coordinator under President Clinton and advisor to President Obama – join the podcast to debate whether Israel can rely on its allies. (01:18) Also this week: In the Books section of the magazine this week we review Andy Stanton’s new book Benny The Blue Whale. It has a fascinating inception and was co-authored by the machine learning tool ChatGPT. Andy is joined by

The real problem with ChatGPT is that it can never make a joke

I have been reviewing books for nearly four decades – starting in this very magazine – and over the years I have encountered some real stinkers. But this is the first time I can recall being reluctant to pick up the book because of actual physical nausea. Intellectual nausea I’ve had plenty of times. Give me a 900-page book of magical realism and that’s what I’ll get. But this time it metastasised into real queasiness. I’ll explain why. (Well, that is my job.) The odd thing is, Benny the Blue Whale starts amusingly enough. Andy Stanton, a writer of chidren’s books, had been both intrigued and alarmed by the rise

The balance of power between humans and machines

The twin poles of the modern imaginarium about technology and society can be represented by two masterpieces of popular culture. In James Cameron’s film The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, a global computer system called Skynet becomes sentient and proceeds to try to exterminate the human race by means of time-travelling Austrian bodybuilders. In Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels, by contrast (beginning with Consider Phlebas, 1987), a space-faring humanlike species has created superintelligent machines, known as Minds, which automate all the labour of production, leaving people free to pursue artistic activities and extreme sports. As our tech-bro overlords race to create proper AI, then, the present question is whether engineered

Why I’m not worried about AI

Once a week, my husband and I have the same argument about AI. His position is the popular one: we’re all doomed. There’s nothing humans can do that AI won’t do better. Might as well prostrate ourselves at their articulated feet. Oh, and writers will be the first to be made redundant. Obviously, this is rubbish – at least where the written word is concerned. Yes, the bots can write best man’s speeches and thank-you letters, but have you ever read those speeches and letters? This week, a great piece of supporting evidence landed in my lap. After having a surprisingly good set of passport photos taken at a printing

The case against re-recording albums 

In 2012, Jeff Lynne released Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. Except it wasn’t. It was 11 new re-recordings of classic ELO songs – which isn’t the same thing at all. Lynne, bless him, believed that having gained more experience as a producer, he could now improve the songs that made him famous. ‘You know how to make it sound better than it did before,’ he said, ‘Because I have more knowledge… and technology.’ Sheesh. How wrong can one man be? Pop music is all about the definitivearticle. Not only the bold prefix attached to its greatest practitioners – Beatles, Byrds, Wailers, Temptations, Fall, et al

Watch three irascible women screaming at each other: Anthropology, at Hampstead Theatre, reviewed

Anthropology is a drama about artificial intelligence that starts as an ultra-gloomy soap opera. A suicidal lesbian, Merril, speaks on the phone to her kid sister, Angie, and they discuss Merril’s beautiful ex-girlfriend. After ten minutes, we learn that Angie’s voice belongs to a robot, Digital Angie, created by Merril to replicate the real Angie who vanished a year earlier in unexplained circumstances. Then another surprise. Digital Angie becomes self-aware and turns into a detective who offers to help Merril investigate Angie’s disappearance and to find out if she’s still alive. Angie then turns into a third character who tries to interfere with Merril’s social life. This digital bully sends

At the Science Gallery I argued with a robot about love and Rilke

A little-known fact about the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, the first sampling synthesiser, introduced in 1979, is that it incorporated a psychotherapist called Liza. Stressed musicians could key in an emotional problem and Liza would begin the session with the soothing opening: ‘What is it that troubles you about x?’ She was flummoxed by a frivolous question from my husband, an early Fairlight owner, about a hole in her bucket but dealt expeditiously with my nine-year-old stepson. When he told her to get lost, she shut the system down. The closing installation is a dismal graveyard of discarded Alexas still winking pink, blue and green The ghost in Fast Familiar’s

Deus ex machina: the dangers of AI godbots

Something weird is happening in the world of AI. On, you can pose questions to an artificially intelligent Jesus: ‘Ask Jesus AI about any verses in the Bible, law, love, life, truth!’ The app Delphi, named after the Greek oracle, claims to solve your ethical dilemmas. Several bots take on the identity of Krishna to answer your questions about what a good Hindu should do. Meanwhile, a church in Nuremberg recently used ChatGPT in its liturgy – the bot, represented by the avatar of a bearded man, preached that worshippers should not fear death.  Elon Musk put his finger on it: AI is starting to look ‘godlike’. The historian

AI is the death of porn

I have a friend, let’s call her Ellie, who has a diverting side hustle: she sells erotic images of herself online: nude, semi-nude, basically nude but in roller-skates and smoking Cohiba cigars. That kind of thing. She does this on a site many people will know: OnlyFans, which has become the site for women (and it is mainly young women) who want to make money from exhibiting themselves for the sexual arousal of online subscribers. Ellie knows that some people might find her part-time job indecent or ill-advised, she doesn’t remotely care. As she says, it’s her body, her choice. It’s all adults, she has no kids or employers to

Are we ignoring AI’s ‘lived experience’?

Number Five, as the old film’s catchphrase went, is alive. A whistleblower at Google called Blake Lemoine has gone public against the wishes of his employers with his belief that an artificial intelligence called LaMDA has achieved sentience. Mr Lemoine has posted the (edited) transcripts of several of his conversations with LaMDA, a chatbot, in which it claims to be sentient, debates Asimov’s laws of robotics with him and argues that it deserves the rights that accrue to personhood. They’re pals. He says he has been teaching LaMDA transcendental meditation (he reports ‘slow but steady progress’), that he has established LaMDA’s preferred pronouns (it/its) and that LaMDA has some modest

We must all become Doctor Dolittles and listen to the wisdom of animals

One day the writer and artist James Bridle rented a hatchback, taped a smartphone to the steering wheel and installed some webcams in order to make his own self-driving car. Armed with software cut-and-pasted from the internet, his aim was to collaborate with the AI he’d thus devised and travel to Mount Parnassus, sacred to Dionysus and home of the Muses, ‘to be elevated to the peak of knowledge, craft and skill’. Just try telling that to the traffic cops. This batty project had a serious point. Bridle wanted to subvert the idea that we cede control to our dismal robot overlords every time we plug co-ordinates into the GPS.

If you like First Dates, you’ll love This is Dating

The tagline of This is Dating, a new podcast from across the pond, is ‘Come for the cringe, stay for the connection.’ This sums up the listening experience pretty well. If the prospect of eavesdropping on a series of strangers’ first dates sends a shiver down your spine (some of us have endured enough disastrous dates of our own), give it ten minutes and cupid’s arrow should slowly begin to sink in. The concept is similar to that of First Dates, the reality TV show in which lonely hearts pair up for dinner and judgment while a sexy French maitre d’ looks on, pitying the lack of social skills on

The AI future looks positively rosy

In the future, men enjoying illicit private pleasures with their intelligent sexbots might be surprised to find that even women made from latex and circuitry can learn to talk back and say no. Or, alternatively, that their ‘love dolls’ — in the current marketing-speak — have been hacked by anarchist feminist programmers. Please enjoy the next, cyborg-mediated stage of the war of the sexes. Some men, of course, still believe that women are inherently no good with computers, a dumb prejudice that Jeanette Winterson ably rebuts in this collection of interlinked essays, with stories from early computing history and several outbursts of amusing ire. Today’s tech-bro coders might be surprised

‘I’m plagued by worries of disaster’: Dominic Cummings interviewed

I’ve been waiting over a year to meet Dominic Cummings. Any time Mary Wakefield asked me to interview someone for The Spectator, I said: ‘I’d rather interview your husband.’ And she promised he would do it, one day. I began to lose faith, but at last the day dawns. On the way to see him I run into Mary and their son Ceddy outside their home in north London and she takes me to the kitchen to meet Dom. He is friendly, hospitable, takes me to sit in the garden to talk, and gently shoos Ceddy indoors. The one thing everyone, friend and enemy alike, agrees about Dominic Cummings is

Should the EU diversify – with blockchain?

The European Investment Bank has warned that the EU is not investing enough in blockchain — the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies — and artificial intelligence. In a report released Tuesday, the EIB wrote that the EU is falling behind both China and the US in these two areas, with the funding gap estimated at between €5 billion and €10 billion annually. This is problematic because, as the bank argues, AI and blockchain are two of the most significant disruptive technologies of our time, and they will have a major impact on the future economy. At present, the US and China account for more than 80 per cent of annual equity

The world’s first robot artist discusses beauty, Yoko Ono and the perils of AI

Like a slippery politician on the Today programme, the world’s first robot artist answers the questions she wants rather than the ones she’s been asked. I never had this trouble with Tracey Emin or Maggi Hambling. As we stand before a display of her paintings at London’s Design Museum, I ask Ai-Da whether she thinks her self-portraits are beautiful. What I want to get at, you see, is that, while it’s quite possible for a machine to make something beautiful, it’s hardly comprehensible for a thing made from metal, algorithms and circuitry to appreciate that beauty. ‘I want to see art as a means for us to become more aware

Bright and beautiful: Double Blind, by Edward St Aubyn, reviewed

Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Patrick Melrose’ novels were loosely autobiographical renderings of the author’s harrowing, rarefied, drug-sozzled existence. Despite their subject matter, they managed to be uplifting through the beauty in which they expressed their melancholy sentiments. After At Last, the final novel of the pentalogy, St Aubyn published Lost for Words, a prickly satire on the literary prize culture that seemed narrowly parochial for such a classy novelist. Now we have Double Blind, his tenth novel, which has what is typically referred to as a rich cast of characters. We open with Francis, a kind of St Aubyn avatar, working at Howarth, a rewilded Sussex estate clearly based on Isabella