In the Critics this week

Richard J Evans on Michael Gove, Amanda Foreman on Lina Prokofiev and A L Kennedy interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, examines Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history. Evans notes that this has been “greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum”. The latter point is particularly important. Even the conservative historians who had previously rallied to Gove’s cause – that of focusing the curriculum on “supposedly key personalities and events within the British past” – were dismayed, Evans notes. The new curriculum, which appears to be the work of Gove alone, “tells pupils what to think”. It is, Evans argues, “preparation for Mastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education … If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.”

This week’s lead book reviewer is the historian Amanda Foreman. She reviews The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison. Morrison, Foreman argues, has “told the story of a woman who was a desperate little nobody when she was married, and became a courageous heroine when she was single”.

Also in Books: Nicholas Timmins, former public policy editor of the Financial Times, reviews God Bless the NHS by Roger Taylor (“[Taylor] manages to grapple with … some of the most difficult issues in modern health care”); Sophie Elmhirst reviews The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon (“Hemon tries to work out what to call his life throughout these essays. He doesn’t come up with an answer”); Amanda Craig reviews Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Life After Life (“I would be astonished if it does not carry off at least one major prize”); Vernon Bogdanor reviews Mr Speaker: the Office and the Individuals Since 1945 by Matthew Laban (“Given the centrality of the speakership to the Westminster system, it is surprising that so little has been written about it”); Max Liu reviews How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields (“Shields wants to forge a literary form that can articulate experience and assuage loneliness”).

In the Books Interview, Philip Maughan talks to A L Kennedy about her new book On Writing. Writing, Kennedy tells Maughan, is like “walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey reviews Lee Daniels’s film The Paperboy (“no one in The Paperboy gives a hoot about anything not related to sex. This movie is in heat”); Rachel Cooke reviews A History of Syria with Dan Snow on BBC2 (“In Syria, your enemy’s enemy is your friend”); Antonia Quirke listens to Baroque Spring on Radio 3 (“who cares for Purcell’s words?”); Andrew Billen reviews The Audience with Helen Mirren and Patrick Marber’s repurposing of Arthur Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar (“mostly [The Audience] gets by, and gets its laughs from, libelling prime ministers”); Alexandra Coghlan reviews the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera as part of the Southbank Centre's "The Rest of Noise" festival (“I wonder whether a better dramatic compromise could have been found than the semi-staging offered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Vladimir Jurwoski”).

PLUS: "Obit", a poem by Blake Morrison, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Education Secretary Michael Gove (Photograph: 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