Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Cambridge Film Festival, 13 – 23 September

The Cambridge Film Festival is, simply put, a celebration of cinema’s past, present and future. Well-regarded enough to attract big names yet still intimate and approachable, you won’t get a better opportunity this year to discover some brilliant new work and then find yourself chatting to the writer or director afterwards at the bar. CFF takes over the Arts Picturehouse in the centre of the city for the duration of the festival, but their real passion is bringing cinema to spaces that would not normally be used for that purpose. The outdoor spaces are always used to maximum effect, so if you fancy seeing some films en plein air at venues such as Grantchester Meadows, the steps of Cambridge University Library or even an open-air swimming pool, now is your chance.  

Theatre

This House, National Theatre, 18 September – 22 December

The only original play to feature in the National Theatre’s autumn season, this political drama by James Graham starring Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, Eastenders) and Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes), should be big hit. Set in 1974 as the country faces economic crisis, the play opens up the engine rooms of Westminster to reveal the Labour whips behind the scenes and their attempts to coerce a hung parliament.

Dance

God’s Garden, Laban Theatre, London SE8, 19 September

Back by popular demand, award-winning choreographer Arthur Pita’s God’s Garden is a darkly comedic, Madeira-set family drama based on the parable of The Prodigal Son. It includes design by Jean-Marc Puissant as well as live fado music and, incredibly, the ages of the cast range from 23 to 84. An absorbing tale of jilted lovers and revenge, it’s like magical realism in dance form.

Events

The People Speak, The Tabernacle, London W11, 16 September

The People Speak is an international initiative which seeks to tell the events of history through the voices of everyday people – the dissenters, rebels and visionaries of the past 1000 years. This one-off event, which celebrates the publication of a new book, is led by actor Colin Firth and editor Anthony Arnove. It features names such as Rupert Everett, Ian McKellan, Celia Imrie and Emily Blunt, who endeavour to bring to life the forgotten voices included in this book. It sounds like an intriguing project.

Art

Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool, 15 September – 23 November

The 7th edition of the Liverpool Biennial, opening this weekend, will explore the theme of ‘hospitality’ as it invites artists to showcase new interpretations of this concept in our increasingly globalised times. The biennial exhibition, An Unexpected Guest, is comprised of sixty exciting international artists and, in addition to this main exhibition, pieces of artwork (both existing and newly-created) will be installed in public spaces around the city. Highlights include installations by Oded Hirsch and Jorge Macchi, and a concert presented by Rhys Chatham as part of the opening weekend.

Cambridge provides beautiful outdoor spaces in which to enjoy films. Photo: Getty Images
GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution