In the Critics this week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, a host of contributors tell us their favourite book of the year, Andrew Harrison explains the politics of Doctor Who and Rachel Cooke is enamoured by Last Tango in Halifax.

This week’s issue of the New Statesman begins with the “Books of the year”. Contributors and friends of the publication have been asked to choose their favourite reading from 2013. We feature contributions from John Gray, Ali Smith, Ed Balls, Stephen King, Rachel Reeves, Sarah Sands, William Boyd, Alan Rusbridger, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Simon Heffer, Andrew Adonis, Craig Raine, Felix Martin, Frances Wilson, John Burnside, Jesse Norman, Alexander McCall Smith, Richard Overy, Jason Cowley, Mark Damazer, Lionel Shriver, Jemima Khan, Geoff Dyer, Laurie Penny, Vince Cable, Alan Johnson, Leo Robson, Jane Shilling, John Bew, Ed Smith, Richard J Evans, David Baddiel, Michael Rosen, John Banville, David Shrigley, Chris Hadfield, Tim Farrin, Toby Litt, David Marquand, Robert Harris, Michael Prodger, Michael Symmons Roberts and Sarah Churchwell.

Have you ever wondered about the politics underlying Doctor Who? It may not be as simple as you think. In fact, it may not even be a singular political message, as Andrew Harrison explains: “Doctor Who has had plenty of nasty things to say about our society over the years but the politics and ethics of its hero has proved as malleable as its core cast.” Harrison traces 50 years of Whovian politics and assigns its political randomness to the constant reinvention of its creative team and authorship. This is a show that isn’t afraid to discuss apartheid, Thatcherism, depersonalisation through technology, tax worries and liberal interventionism. In its modern form the show is “more personal, less didactic but alive to the notion that the personal is political.” So Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is a commendation of the common people and David Tennant’s Doctor shows that “sometimes the solution is worse than the problem – a very Noughties fate.” Nonetheless, it remains that the Doctor is “the last great Enlightenment figure: egalitarian, ever curious and dedicated to reason and principle that the sonic screw-driver is mightier than the sword.”

Rachel Cooke rejoices in the BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax. She argues that whilst it may be easy to dismiss the show,

Sally Wainwrights’s drama about late-life love in the north of England – a huge hit for the BBC – is amazingly well-written and superbly acted, and reaches places and feelings ignored by quite a lot of television, which is mostly predictably metropolitan in its impulses. It’s also peculiarly gripping.

Cooke admires the complexity that derives from its simple premise – two childhood sweethearts reuniting as septuagenarians – as the show addresses the anxiety and embarrassment from their grown up daughters and even the role of social class has to play. Most of all, she is impressed with the familiarity garnered by the show’s attention to detail. This is visuals and script working harmoniously together to become “terribly touching.”

However, Cooke does dismiss the new series of Borgen coming to BBC4. She writes: “My strong feeling is that if Borgen was in English, the Twittering classes would hoot with laughter at its wooden dialogue, its circular, talky plotlines and its plodding zeal for compromise.”

Opera has been going through a bit of a revival recently with the injection of several well acclaimed theatre-makers. The most recent of these is Complicite’s The Magic Flute. Alexandra Coghlan asks why John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director, and the Met’s Peter Gelb are introducing these directors who are not well versed in the ways of Opera. She finds the answer in the sentiment that “directors with no background in opera” are “fresh pairs of eyes untainted by its tradition.” Yet, she is quick to note that music must remain central, there has to be “an instinct for that peculiar relationship at opera’s core”. When it comes to the production of The Magic Flute, however, Coghlan feels that the emotion has been lost from Mozart’s opera. The special effects and innovative stage design make it truly “magic” but lacks “humanity”. She concludes that Opera “is learning so much from theatre, but there are still, it seems, just a few things that opera can teach it in return.”

This week’s Critics section also features:

Whovian politics: cybermen don't seem to like traffic wardens. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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