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

Even a robot assistant can’t help you make sense of Japan

Tokyo The late A.A. Gill, in his notorious ‘Mad in Japan’ essay, concluded that the only way you could make sense of Tokyo was to think of it as a vast open-air lunatic asylum, with inmates instead of residents. Gill would have loved Arisa. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything more stereotypically Japanese than Arisa. She’s a multilingual robot concierge at Nishi-Shinjuku station in central Tokyo, one of the thousands of new automatons installed in the city ahead of the Olympics next month. She has a rather creepy Doctor Who look to her — she could be Davros’s girlfriend — and she’s there to assist tourists. I considered testing

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

The robot as carer: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, reviewed

The world of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel — let’s call it Ishville — is instantly recognisable. Our narrator, Klara, is arranging traumatic memories into comprehensible order. She is a robot, an Artificial Friend or AF, purchased as a companion for an ill teenager named Josie. Klara’s speaking voice, in a C3PO-ish way, is endearingly off-kilter: ‘I was instructed to ensure against hanky-panky.’ ‘I’m sorry. It’s my error. I don’t understand yet the rules about forgiveness.’ There is no backstory explaining when the robots were invented, and no metaphors except the one shining in the title. When Klara has been bought, she wonders what emotions she might experience if she ever

Sinister toy story: Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, reviewed

We often hear that science fiction — or ‘speculative’ fiction, as the buffs prefer — can draw premonitory outlines of the shape of things to come. Well, consider the case of this novel by an acclaimed Argentinian-born, Berlin-based writer, first published in Spanish last year. Little Eyes imagines a gadget (nothing fancy really, just a plush animal toy with camera and wifi implants) that creates a private but silent connection between its owner anda single, remote watcher. The ‘keeper’, who buys the $279 electronic pet known as a kentuki, doesn’t know the identity of the ‘dweller’, who pays to observe another life from afar and who can move the felt-covered

Could AI enslave humanity before it destroys it entirely?

Depending on how you count, we are in the midst of the second or third AI hype-bubble since the 1960s, but the absolute current state of the art in machine cognition is still just about being better than humans at playing chess or being about as good as human beings at analysing some medical scans. It was recently revealed that many thousands of humans were secretly hired to check recordings of people interacting with the ‘intelligent assistants’ on their iPhones or other such devices: much of what is trumpeted as ‘AI’ is still, in fact, dependent on invisible human labour in the digital sweatshop. Given all this, and the plain

Cuckoo in the nest | 11 April 2019

What kind of loyalty do we owe a robot we’ve paid for — one who exhibits a convincingly human kind of consciousness? Less loyalty than we owe to our own children? But what about to someone else’s child? And do we commit murder if we destroy him? These are the questions facing Charlie when he spends his inheritance on a robot called Adam. Charlie is a trained anthropologist with an enthusiasm for computers who hopes to give his life meaning by experimenting in ‘electronics and anthropology — distant cousins whom late modernity has drawn together and bound in marriage’. He and his girlfriend Miranda join forces in programming Adam with

More than human

Every ten to 15 years there is a technology breakthrough that really changes what it means to be human. The internet, mobile phones, social media and, most recently, AI voice assistance: all of these amplify the human experience. And with each technological game-changer we go through much of the same series of questions and anxieties. We worry both that it’s all too much, and too little. With the recent advances in artificial intelligence we leap ahead to the existential dangers, and at the same time wonder whether there aren’t more pressing issues to discuss: healthcare, climate change, education, the economy. Well, they are pressing issues — but AI has an

Adventures with robots

Imagine a world where we’re all hooked to our individual electronic devices, which feed us our music, communicate with our friends and know our needs; imagine a tech company that dominates an entire city, where your social pecking order is reflected in the devices you possess. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. It’s all there already… Apple, Google, Facebook. So Jinxed, by the young Canadian Amy McCulloch (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), is very much of the moment. It’s set in a city in Canada dominated by a tech corporation: ‘The final goal of Moncha Corp is to make life better… And to make people happier.’ Its academy is where every

Meet your makers

Older readers will perhaps recall the once popular Sunday evening TV programme Scrapheap Challenge, in which oily, boilersuited blokes competed to build machines out of materials scavenged from a scrapheap. Even older readers will recall The Great Egg Race, presented by Professor Heinz Wolff, in which bejumpered and bewhiskered engineers competed to build machines from materials scavenged from a BBC studio. These days, engineers and inventors call themselves makers, live and work on YouTube, are covered in tattoos and piercings, and the best of them are women. Laura Kampf posts videos about once a week. She makes bicycle sidecars and the sort of quirky furniture that probably seemed like a

The Spectator Podcast: Lead or go

On this week’s episode we’re wondering whether Theresa May can weather this latest storm, speaking to a robot expert (and a literal robot), and getting the inside story of male allyship workshops. The Prime Minister’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed since her disastrous election, but a yuletide season of relative calm has been replaced by her greatest challenge yet. ‘Lead or go’: that’s what James Forsyth says in this week’s cover piece, as pressure mounts on Theresa May to cobble together something resembling an agenda. He joins the podcast along with Giles Kenningham who worked at No.10 under David Cameron. As James writes: “The Prime Minister is either unwilling or

A robot to love

‘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

Letters | 11 January 2018

Long lives and pension pots Sir: Jon Moynihan is too optimistic about the prospects for further increasing life expectancy, and too gloomy about those of the pensions industry (‘Falling Short’, 6 January). The wondrous advancements of medical science have offered little to solve the most pervasive problem we now face: declining mental health. It seems unlikely that society will chose to invest endlessly in repairing bodies to extend lifespans, when the minds relating to those bodies have already been lost. So the viability of pension providers is not as parlous as suggested. Indeed, many current fund deficits derive from the low investment yield environment that central bankers have engineered but which

We should regulate, not ban killer robots

Last week, 116 experts including Tesla’s Elon Musk and DeepMind’s Mustafa Suleyman called for a ban on autonomous weapons, otherwise known as ‘killer robots’. The experts’ aims are laudable, but they are likely to have about as much effect as King Canute ordering the sea to turn back. Whether we like it or not, autonomous weapons are coming. States like China, Russia and the US are already developing such systems. They will not want to lose the potential military advantage to the other superpowers. From a technological perspective, seeking to ban one application of Artificial Intelligence will become increasingly difficult. More and more, A.I. is multi-purpose. Just think of IBM’s flagship program,

The Spectator’s notes | 20 April 2017

The fact that nothing leaked about Mrs May’s snap election tells you much of what you need to know about her. It shows how iron is her discipline and how close her inner circle (so close, in fact, that it is a triangle rather than a circle). It suggests that she takes neither her cabinet nor her party into her confidence. It shows that if she wins the general election, her control of her administration will be much tighter than that of Margaret Thatcher (which was surprisingly loose) and even than that of David Cameron (which was surprisingly tight). Finally, it shows that if she loses, or gets a result

The descent of man

Why do humans want to build robots? It seems, on the face of it, to be a suicidal endeavour, destroying jobs and, ultimately, rendering our species redundant as more intelligent and effective beings take over. Lacking, as we now do, an agreed metaphysical justification for human specialness — for example, the soul — it must only be a matter of time before we submit to the machine ascendancy. So far, it has been a subtle, incremental process that conceals any wider significance. Take satellite navigation. This was first introduced in the 1980s and is now more or less universal. Maps have become quaint. As a result, we walk or drive

Losing heart | 3 November 2016

In 2015, the first series of Humans (Sunday) was apparently Channel 4’s most watched home grown drama since The Camomile Lawn: a programme broadcast when Neil Kinnock was still the Labour leader and given a obvious ratings boost by the tabloid outrage about its many nude scenes (and by its many nude scenes). In the case of Humans, though, the British people can’t be accused of ulterior motives, because this is a winningly intelligent piece of sci fi that ponders, among other things, the nature of consciousness and the future of the human race. Cleverly, too, it’s set, not in a domed city of jet packing commuters, but in a

Revenge of the robots

The other day James Lovelock, the sprightly 97-year-old inventor of Gaia theory, told a mildly surprised Guardian interviewer that he wasn’t remotely worried about climate change any more. A far more plausible threat, he explained, were all the killer robots that would soon emerge and find no use for us inconvenient humans. Apparently this is a fashionable worry. It has to do with something called the ‘singularity’, which is the theoretical moment when machines become so sophisticated than they can outthink us, then advance at such a pace that we become powerless to stop them. Some experts are seriously concerned, for example, about the development of ‘fully autonomous weapons’ —

Dancing with robots

Back in 2012, a team at Google built a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence network and fed it ten million randomly selected images from YouTube. The computer churned through them, and announced that it kept finding these strange things with furry faces. It had, in other words, discovered cats. Artificial intelligence has, all of a sudden, become the next big thing again. It is not so much sweeping across our world as seeping into it, with a combination of enormous computing power and the latest ‘deep learning’ techniques promising to give us better medical diagnoses, better devices, better recipes and better lives. Soon, it might even be able to give us new

Letters | 21 January 2016

Bureaucratic tyranny Sir: As James Forsyth points out (‘Scary Monsters’, 16 January), David Cameron and other ‘In’ campaign supporters wish voters to base their decision on the short term, as this enables them to highlight the uncertainty and fear factor. But this vote is about the long term, and in 20 years’ time one thing is certain: the ‘ever-closer union’, and all that it means, will exist. What I don’t understand, and what I hope every interviewer will force him to explain, is why David Cameron believes it will be better for Britain to be increasingly ruled by the bureaucratic tyranny that is the EU. Robin Grist Corton, Wiltshire Doctors