How I incurred the wrath of my iPhone

As I sat down to dinner in a lovely old country pub my reservation was cancelled by my iPhone, which was having a tantrum. The owner of this restaurant was serving us with a smile, we had been shown to our table, drinks and menus had been brought. But the buzzing lump of metal in my bag was adamant this was not happening. My iPhone had packaged up a montage surprise, complete with a replay of our private conversation I was experiencing one of those moments where reality splits into two: the one you are experiencing and the one your phone claims you are. A lot of people obediently accept

Light bulb moment: the flaw in the petrol car ban

This week, writing in the Daily Mail, Matt Ridley produced a devastating takedown of the government’s 2030 ban on the sale of new conventionally powered cars. He plans to pre-empt the ban himself by buying a brand-new petrol car in 2029. Innovation happens gradually and delivers its benefits unevenly – therefore it is stupid to impose it on everyone all at once  I thought he was right about almost everything, except perhaps that final prediction. He’s right to be sceptical about the environmental benefits of electric cars – especially in countries such as China (and, to a lesser extent, Germany) where electricity is largely generated from the filthier forms of

Should we fear AI? James W. Phillips and Eliezer Yudkowsky in conversation

James W. Phillips was a special adviser to the prime minister for science and technology and a lead author on the Blair-Hague report on artificial intelligence. Eliezer Yudkowsky is head of research at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. On SpectatorTV this week they talk about the existential threat of AI. This is an edited transcript of their discussion. JAMES W. PHILLIPS: When we talk about things like superintelligence and the dangers from AI, much of it can seem very abstract and doesn’t sound very dangerous: a computer beating a human at Go, for example. When you talk about superintelligence what do you mean, exactly, and how does it differ from

Is the glucose monitoring craze really so healthy?

At £300 a go, the Zoe is a reassuringly expensive accessory. It has a recognisable logo and even had a 200,000-strong waiting list at one point. That wouldn’t be so unusual if Zoe was a must-have handbag or jewellery, but it is  a continuous glucose monitor that you stick to your arm. Some charities ask non-diabetics to donate their wearables to be reused by people who actually need them Continuous glucose monitors have been available to diabetics for a few years, but now non-diabetics without any particular reason to worry about their pancreas are also getting in on the act. Like the fear of gluten a few years ago, glucose

Whose job is it to keep airport e-gates open?

Do you hate airport e-gates? Me too. The instructions are poor, the facial recognition frequently fails and the ‘Don’t abuse our staff’ posters tell you you’re trapped in a system that’s bound to annoy. Last Saturday it went from bad to worse, when all 270 e-gates at UK entry points stopped working. ‘A technical nationwide border system issue’, the Home Office called it. But I think we should know who’s responsible – and a Hollywood-hacker-style trawl has led me to a 2021 report by David Neal, ‘independent chief inspector of borders and immigration’. Neal reveals that a single-supplier contract for UK e-gates was awarded in 2013, until 2023-24, to a

I know how AI will bring us down

On the smooth marble concourse by the exit doors at Heathrow Airport I met my first cleaning robot. It was purple, made by a company called Mitie and about waist-height – the size and shape of a park bin. It ran on wheels, dragging a grubby mop behind it, and it was polite. As my small son and I stumbled into its path, it backed off smoothly like a well-trained butler. I apologised to it instinctively, after which it appeared to follow us. My son said: ‘Mum, it likes us!’ Then, when we reached the door: ‘Mum, can we take it home?’ Then: ‘Mum, wait! I don’t think it wants

How to fake it till you make it

Not to sound too much like Kamala Harris during one of her peregrinations on the nature of time, but the thing about the future is that it catches up with you awfully fast. For a while we have been warned about the dangers of artificial intelligence and the special hazards of ‘deepfakes’. It seemed so futuristic when we saw a deepfake of Barack Obama some years ago, which demonstrated how easy it was to put words into someone’s mouth that they did not say. Well, now we have had an example in real time. Or at least the electorate in Turkey have. Personally I am not persuaded that Turkey’s election

The villains of Silicon Valley

Historians joke that some parts of the world – Crete and the Balkans, for instance– produce more history than they can consume locally. The California town of Palo Alto produces more economics than it can consume, and therefore more politics, and therefore more culture. But this comes at a price. Malcolm Harris, a thirtysomething Marxist writer who grew up there, begins his book by citing the alarming rate at which his high-school classmates committed suicide, and argues that Palo Alto is haunted by the historical crimes on which it is built. He then itemises them across two centuries of history, tracing their influence from Stanford University and Silicon Valley out

The power of Penny Mordaunt

The police have said sorry for arresting anti-monarchy protestors under the wrong legal rubric on Coronation Day, but is that really a lead news story, as it was on Tuesday’s Today programme? If the police had failed to contain the mini-mob and a couple of them had, as they intended, obstructed the processional route, there would have been a huge and justified outcry. Coverage like that of Today makes no allowance for the fact that these protestors are not ordinary citizens. Protest is their full-time job, as is making a monkey of the law. Every week, I receive notice in my inbox of protests by this coalition of organisations which

Tale of the tape: how cassettes made a comeback

Move over vinyl: the cassette tape is back. According to the British Phonographic Industry, sales of this retro piece of technology last year came close to a two-decade peak. Having been the top-selling format for albums in the UK from 1985 to 1992 and then seemingly disappearing (selling only 4,000 units in 2012), last year saw more than 195,000 cassette tapes shifted. HMV, which recently announced that it will reopen its flagship store on Oxford Street after a four-year closure, plans to bring out cassettes for ‘specific new releases’ and has credited its return to profit with a growing interest in ‘collectable’ music from an analogue era. As a child of

The new technocracy: who’s who in the chatbot revolution?

Decades are happening in weeks in the world of artificial intelligence. A fortnight ago, OpenAI released GPT-4, the latest model of its chatbot. It passed the bar exam in the 90th percentile, whereas the previous model only managed the tenth. Last week, Google introduced its own chatbot, Bard. Now, the British government is announcing plans to regulate AI for the first time, as well as to introduce it into hospitals and schools. Even some of the biggest technophobes are having to grasp this brave new world. We’re familiar with some of the technology by now, but we know little about the humans in the world of AI. From Steve Jobs to Bill

My type: a love note for the typewriter

The last manual typewriter, after 150 years of commercial production, was manufactured in the UK in 2012. Yet like all design classics, it refuses to lie down and die. There is a roaring trade in old models on eBay, and dealers such as the Typewriter Man in the UK and in the US sell them to hipsters and steampunks, among whom they are cult objects. The latter store, awash with Hermes, Remingtons and Underwoods, even has a list of famous writers and the machines they used – from John Ashbery to P.G. Wodehouse – so that you can buy a model to match your literary tastes.  They’re also, in

How the Kindle lost its spark

With the recent news that Kindle and other e-readers are automatically updating Roald Dahl’s books to sanitised versions, an entire era has come to an end for readers like me. Who in future will feel safe buying an electronic copy of anything? Publishers’ plans here may be modest, but the point about the puritan is that their work is never done. Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, George Orwell, Charles Dickens – any one of them feels vulnerable now. If in copyright, the author and their estate can be strong-armed by the publishers; if out of copyright, laying your hands on the right edition will be a minefield. Nor does

It’s time to make friends with AI

As a rule, ‘I told you so’ is an unattractive sentiment – simultaneously egotistic, narcissistic and triumphalist. Nonetheless, on this occasion: I told you so. Specifically, I told you so on 10 December last year, when I predicted in Spectator Life that 2023 might see humanity encounter its first non-human intellect, in the form of true artificial intelligence – or something so close to it that any caveats will appear quite trivial.  My particular thesis was that this encounter might happen in the first months of this year, and that it might involve a new iteration – ‘GPT4’ – of the now infamous Generative Pre-Trained Transformers, which are behemothic computers force-fed

In defence of Spotify

‘Pitiful.’ That’s the verdict of Damian Green MP, acting chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, on the payouts that streaming companies such as Spotify and Apple Music provide to musicians. An update to the group’s Economics of Music Streaming report, published on Friday, calls on the government to take a ‘proactive strategic role’ to make sure Britain’s music industry – one of the few that truly is world-beating – gets the cash it deserves. With streaming now accounting for 84 per cent of UK recorded music revenues, its businesses model really matters. Spotify controls up to 60 per cent of the British streaming market (Apple Music and

AI is the end of writing

Unless you’ve been living under a snowdrift – with no mobile signal – for the past six months, you’ll have heard of the kerfuffle surrounding the new generations of artificial intelligence. Especially a voluble, dutiful, inexhaustible chatbot called ChatGPT, which has gone from zero users to several million in the two wild weeks since its inception. Speculation about ChatGPT ranges from the curious, to the gloomy, to the seriously angry. Some have said it is the death of Google, because it is so good at providing answers to queries – from instant recipes comprising all the ingredients you have in your fridge right now (this is brilliant) to the definition

The tyranny of voice notes

Ping! My phone vibrates with a message from a new friend. A mild spike of dopamine dissipates on seeing she’s left me a WhatsApp voice note. However, it’s short and, hopefully, it’s a one-off.  I reply with a text message, hoping she’ll register the switch in communications. Ping! Oh no. She’s a voice-noter. She’s a bloody voice-noter. And this one is well over two minutes long and I don’t know her very well, so I’m going to have to listen to the whole thing without speeding it up. It’s an invitation to dinner, but this does nothing to quell my mounting frustration and irrational thoughts of disengaging myself from this nascent

What are the best alternatives to Twitter?

From the moment Elon Musk suggested buying Twitter, users began threatening to leave – and the Tesla kingpin’s erratic behaviour since he took over hasn’t exactly helped his case, with thousands of workers laid off and hundreds more resigning. The MIT Technology Review estimates that more than a million Twitter users have jumped ship since Musk took the reins. Today the social network is launching a revamped version of Twitter Blue, its paid-for verification system, after a previous attempt last month was marred by a flood of imposters and fake accounts. So for those who decide not to stick around to see how this one turns out, what alternatives are

How Australian rock art warns us about 2023

If you had to choose an obvious place to look for clues about what will happen in the coming year, it probably wouldn’t be the lush, green, watery tropic wilderness of Mount Borradaile, West Arnhemland, in the Northern Territory, Australia, hard by the sizzling blue reaches of the Arafura Sea. For a start, this lost, ancient chunk of Oz is almost empty – there are far more saltwater crocs than cars, and far more rare and exquisite wading birds than people. How can this lovely place speak of modernity? Of the future? And yet if I am right, the clues hidden in this Edenic wilderness suggest that we are about

Will Elon Musk’s Starlink cause a mutiny on Pitcairn?

What difference does the internet make? Critics blame it for a range of ills, from social collapse and child abuse to obesity. So shouldn’t we greet with some caution and even sadness the recent announcement that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite broadband is to reach tiny Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean, home to the handful of descendants from the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty? Will the advent of Zoom calls and the ability to stream The Crown turn this idyllic tribe into socially fractured, screen-obsessed time-wasters? Is high-speed connectivity the beginning of the end for this Pacific paradise? I think not. Because this 38-strong community collapsed long before Musk was