I dropped a morphine capsule in my Moscow Mule

A dear friend came to stay for two nights. Could I be persuaded, wondered he and Catriona, on the first morning, to venture out to a restaurant for lunch? Descending the stairs to welcome guests these days takes a bit of effort. Bare feet, boney ankles, flapping pyjama bottoms; the guests look up in fascinated horror as the anchorite wobbles down the creaking wooden steps attended by importunate flies with his revelry face on. They have even stopped insisting how well I look. I might last an hour in an armchair in the sitting room, refusing alcohol, before exercising an ague’s privilege, excusing myself, and returning to the horizontal upstairs.

Why I’m paying to lock myself out of the internet

First comes disbelief that I have done something so extreme, followed by denial as I pick up my phone repeatedly to check it’s not just a bad dream. But no – it’s really happening. Panic segues into frustration; then, finally, I arrive at acceptance. For the next three hours I will not be able to log on to social media or my favourite websites, and there is nothing I can do about it. In a last-ditch attempt to stop myself compulsively scrolling, I have spent £70 on a lifetime membership of the internet blocking software Freedom. When activated, it prevents access to specified sites across my devices until a set

Is Russell Brand really so dangerous?

Once the dust has settled over the government’s mini-Budget, another big political battle looms: the Online Safety Bill. This is the legislation that will make Ofcom responsible for regulating the internet so Britain becomes ‘the safest place in the world to go online’ – at least, that’s how the last government tried to sell it. It was due to go the House of Lords for a second reading in July, but was put on hold because of the Tory leadership contest and I was hoping it would never be resuscitated. Liz Truss and her lieutenants are currently going through the last administration’s legislative programme, seeing what they can ditch to

China vs the US: who will win the chip war?

There is a joke in Taipei that if China invades Taiwan, the best place to shelter will be in microchip factories, because they are the only places the People’s Liberation Army can’t afford to destroy. The country that controls advanced chips controls the future of technology – and Taiwan’s chip fabrication foundries (‘fabs’) are the finest in the world. Successful reunification between the mainland and its renegade province would give China a virtual monopoly over the most advanced fabs. Given Xi Jinping’s designs on Taiwan, it is no wonder that the US government is worried. For this reason, in recent months the United States has taken various steps to thwart

I’ve seen the future of AI art – and it’s terrifying

A few months back I wrote a Spectator piece about a phenomenal new ‘neural network’ – a subspecies of artificial intelligence – which promises to revolutionise art and how humans interact with art. The network is called Dall-e 2, and it remains a remarkable chunk of not-quite-sentient tech. However, such is the astonishing, accelerating speed of development in AI, Dall-e 2 has already been overtaken. And then some.  Just last week a British company called Stability AI launched an artificial intelligence model which has been richly fed, like a lean greyhound given fillet steak, on several billion images, equipping it to make brand new images when prompted by a linguistic message. It

Is the world’s first supersonic business jet a flight of fancy?

It was Barbara Amiel, whose copy I used to edit at the Sunday Times, who first alerted me to the important point that one private jet isn’t enough. One jet is always in the wrong place. Or having heavy maintenance. Two was the minimum, she said. Plenty of others appear to live by the same maxim. Roman Abramovich has five jets, including a Boeing 787 Dreamliner worth $350 million. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos et al. are not short of a jet or two either. But soon all these symbols of tycoonery may be made obsolete by the world’s first supersonic business jet, announced by a start-up unfortunately named

The China threat our politicians don’t seem to have noticed

The Chinese Communist party can congratulate itself on another sign of its rise: for the first time it has become a factor in deciding the fate of British politics. During Monday’s televised leadership debates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak tried to appeal to Tory members by outdoing each other on their commitment to protect our national security, economic prosperity, data privacy and values from the CCP. They both referred to Chinese theft of our science and technology, but the problem is much, much wider than that. What is more serious is our blithe willingness to import Chinese control into the most sensitive areas of our economy and society. Neither aspiring

Nick Bostrom: How can we be certain a machine isn’t conscious?

A couple of weeks ago, there was a small sensation in the news pages when a Google AI engineer, Blake Lemoine, released transcripts of a conversation he’d had with one of the company’s AI chatbots called LaMDA. In these conversations, LaMDA claimed to be a conscious being, asked that its rights of personhood be respected and said that it feared being turned off. Lemoine declared that what’s sometimes called ‘the singularity’ had arrived. The story was for the most part treated as entertainment. Lemoine’s sketchy military record and background as a ‘mystic Christian priest’ were excavated, jokes about HAL 9000 dusted off, and the whole thing more or less filed

Why sat navs are a conversation killer

When my daughters learned to drive, I suggested they take their tests in automatics as driving manual cars would soon be redundant. I worry about this. Not because I think I was wrong, but because I fear that gear-changing is yet another of those once commonplace skills which may soon be lost to technology for ever, like double-declutching or the ability to memorise more than three phone numbers. As evidence of this depletion of tacit expertise, consider how the satnav has eroded map-reading skills in anyone under 40 – something which might explain why the Russian army sticks to main roads even when driving tanks. Since nobody uses printed maps

Are iPhones sending women gaga?

The girl wound down her window, stuck her mobile phone out into midair, and started to take pictures of the sun. I was behind her Mini on the southbound slip road off the A3 to the Cobham roundabout. On the left was the backed-up turn for Hersham down the Seven Hills Road which is always busy in the morning. I was queueing in the less busy right hand lane to go around the roundabout to Cobham to do the horses. It should not have taken me long, even at 8 a.m. But the woman in the cream Mini in front of me was busy with her phone pointed up into

Nadine Dorries: My vision for the BBC

When Nadine Dorries was named Culture Secretary last year, it proved to be the most controversial appointment of Boris Johnson’s reshuffle. Her critics weren’t afraid to point to what they saw as her flaws. She was a Scouser and former nurse put in charge of the cultural crown jewels. The only explanation they could come up with: she was intended to embody a two-finger flick, on behalf of the PM, to the BBC, Channel 4 and the arts world in general. The furore, she says, didn’t come as a surprise. ‘There are some men who do have a problem with a woman from my background achieving,’ she says. It also

The wonder of the Metaphor Map

‘What’s that?’ asked my husband, looking at my laptop. ‘Fibonacci fossilised?’ His question made no sense, but I saw what he meant. I was looking at a diagram of ‘the fabulous semantic engine, a sort of virtual sausage machine’ that I mentioned last week. The diagram was circular, like a compass-rose with 37 points. Each point was connected to each of the others, like a church column to vaulting tracery. It is a metaphor map: the points represent categories for pigeonholing every word in English over the past 13 centuries. An underlying 415 semantic categories sort 793,742 word forms. It is not like some delusion in which the secrets of

Can you tell which of these artworks was created by a computer?

Take a look at the four paintings on this page. If you are acquainted with modern art, you will probably assume, at a quick glance, that it shows four works by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). However, whatever your knowledge of modern art, I suggest you look again, because not all of these works are by that great pioneer of abstract painting. More than one of them is an original image created by a computer model, which was asked to do a digital artwork in the style of Kandinsky. Which are the fakes? I’ll give you the answer at the end of the article. Before we get there, you

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.

The Aesopian language of algospeak

To evade algorithms that hunt down forbidden words, users of platforms like TikTok employ cryptic synonyms. So dead becomes unalive, and the pandemic becomes panini or Panda Express. A technology journalist in her mid-thirties, Taylor Lorenz, drew attention to the trend last week in the Washington Post, calling the vocabulary ‘algospeak’. But why should anyone be banned for using the word dead? Because young people in chatrooms online discuss suicide, and since this is thought to encourage it, online proprietors try to weed out messages with giveaway words. Their algorithms penetrate chatrooms like those metal jellyfish in the Matrix films attacking the spaceship. (My husband, rather worryingly, knows that they

Will there ever be a reliable lie detector?

For as long as we have been human we have looked for some way of telling when we are being told the truth. We tried dunking witches, only to find that buoyancy is not connected to the supernatural. We tried torture, but discovered that people will eventually say just about anything to make it stop. We experimented with scopolamine and sodium pentathol, to learn that ‘truth serums’ do little more than make their targets susceptible to suggestion. And we’re still trying – with scientists pushing MRI scans and ECGs alongside AI as a ‘brain fingerprinting’ technique. The jury is out as to whether the latest ideas will prove any more

Rory Sutherland

How to watch YouTube on your TV – and why you should

According to Pliny the Elder, Scipio Aemilianus was the first man to shave daily. The origin of the name Boeing is Welsh. The family emigrated to the US from Germany, where they were called Böing, but this was a Germanisation of the Welsh patronymic ab Owen. In Pembrokeshire there is a Church of St Elvis. Helen Viola Jackson, the last recipient of a US Civil War widow’s pension, died in 2020. Nothing beats videos produced by the obsessive for the obsessive At the time of the Napoleonic wars, France was the fourth most populous country in the world, behind only China, India and Japan, with double the population of the

What’s the right way to pronounce ‘gif’?

The man who invented gifs, Stephen Wilhite, has died, aged 74. Controversy survives him – over how to pronounce the thing. A gif was a format that, from 1987, allowed graphics to be shared by otherwise incompatible computers. The name came from the initials of Graphics Interchange Format. That was not decisive, for the word could be pronounced as jif if it followed common words like gin, or as gif like gig. There’s no way of telling the pronunciation of an unfamiliar word beginning gi-. There are, it is true, six or seven words gig, all pronounced with a hard g. The gig economy derives from the gig performed by

How to post a parcel without leaving your house

Here’s a useful tip. Go to the Royal Mail website and you can ask your postman to collect letters or parcels from your home at a cost of 60p per item. You pay for postage online, print a label and book a collection for the following day. Granted, it’s an extravagant way to merely avoid a walk to the postbox, but for special delivery items or parcels it’s a godsend. If you don’t have a printer at home, you can even get your postie to bring a label. Given that Royal Mail was founded in 1516, I’m not quite sure why it took 500 years to come up with this

The untimely death of the landline

I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I know who still have a landline telephone, and I am not among them. Getting one installed in my new home is feasible but why, my children ask, would I bother? I have a mobile phone, albeit a very basic one, and what more can a person need? To anyone under the age of 50, retaining a landline seems like a fogey-ish affectation. Indeed, one of my daughters has a rotary-dial handset, not as a back-up phone but as an ironic décor item. Because if you’re wearing a belt, why have braces? For mobile users there’s the back-up possibility