Author Archive: Eamonn Fitzgerald
Ex-pat Irishman keeping an eye on the world from the Bavarian side of the Alps.
In 1973, the late, great Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park androids that malfunction and begin killing visitors. With stories about job-stealing robots and fears of rogue artificial intelligence reaching fever pitch, HBO has decided that what the world needs right now is an upgrade of Westworld. The story has been reengineered for our new century and this time round we’re expected to sympathize with the sentient bots enslaved by their scary creator, Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). The first trailer contains hints of Ex Machina, Black Mirror, Blade Runner, Jurassic Park and Crichton’s original.
HBO blurb: “The one-hour drama series Westworld is a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin. Set at the intersection of the near future and the reimagined past, it explores a world in which every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged.”Tweet
That’s the question posed by Joi Ito, the Japanese entrepreneur, venture capitalist, academic and Director of the MIT Media Lab. Ito is concerned that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other technologies might create a “productivity abundance” that would end the the financial need to work. On the face of it, this should not be a cause of great concern, given that many people hate their jobs. But there’s more to work than labour, Ito argues. It confers social status and gives a purpose. The solution? Disassociate the notion of work from productivity. The role model? Periclean Athens, which Ito terms “a moral society where people didn’t need to work to be engaged and productive.” In a post titled The Future of Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Ito asks:
“Could we image a new age where our self-esteem and shared societal value is not associated with financial success or work as we know it?… A good first step would be to begin work on our culture alongside our advances in technology and financial innovations so that the future looks more like Periclean Athens than a world of disengaged kids with nothing to do. If it was the moral values and virtues that allowed Periclean Athens to function, how might we develop them in time for a world without work as we currently know it?”
To his credit, Ito appends this note to his suggestion: “There were many slaves in Periclean Athens. For the future machine age, will be need to be concerned about the rights of machines? Will we be creating a new class of robot slaves?”
We looked at that very issue in our Monday post here: When will the e-people be allowed to vote?Tweet
This is the third and final post in a series about the choices made by the England manager Roy Hodgson during the course of his team’s erratic odyssey through the Euro 2016 tournament, from the opening shambles against Russia to last night’s humiliation at the hands of gallant Iceland. The post dated 12 June was scathing, while that of 17 June was positive, mainly. “Later, he brought on the gifted young Marcus Rashford,” we noted on 17 June and last night Hodgson waited until the 86th minute to take off a fatigued Wayne Rooney and replace him with the dynamic Rashford. Too late.
It wasn’t all the manager’s fault, of course. Many of his players served up truly shabby performances. Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Joe Hart, were especially awful throughout.
Roy Hodgson made baffling, damaging, wrong choices from the start to the finish of England’s tournament and must now make the right one. He’s yesterday’s man.Tweet
On the surface, at least, the world was still in order on 31 May. Yes, it was World No Tobacco Day, but it’s been that since 1987 and smoking remains popular in many parts of the world. Change comes dropping slow, as the poet said. But quiet can be deceptive; it can lull us into a false sense of security and that’s why very few noticed a draft motion “with recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics” (PDF) drawn up by the European Parliament’s committee on legal affairs that was discussed on 31 May in Brussels. People should have paid more attention, however, because it is revolutionary.
No taxation without representation! That slogan led to violent change 250 years ago and what the European Parliament is asking the European Commission to do is equally radical. According to the draft motion, the commission should consider “that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause, and applying electronic personality to cases where robots make smart autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently.” The motion also says organizations should have to declare any savings they make in social security contributions by using robotics instead of people, for tax purposes.
On the face of it, then, while Europe’s robot workers would be classed as “electronic persons,” with rights and obligations, they would still be regarded as property (slaves?) and their owners subjected to additional taxes for having the initiative (temerity?) to deploy them. The realities of a new industrial revolution suggest that different thinking and terminology is needed.
Today, robots are being used in ever-greater numbers in factories and they are also taking on tasks such as personal care and cardiac surgery. The result is that all kinds of fears about unemployment, wealth inequality and alienation are being raised. The growing intelligence, pervasiveness and autonomy of robots demands a debate involving citizens, lawyers, accountants, ethicists and legislators. In the end, e-votes by e-people might play a decisive role in any referendum on these tectonic changes.Tweet
The shockwaves from the decision on Thursday by a majority of UK voters to leave the European Union continue to reverberate. The governing Tory party was bitterly divided on the issue before the campaign and now the aftermath turmoil is ripping the Labour party apart. Collateral damage has been caused to language, too.
In a result that was driven by contempt for the establishment, demands to restore sovereignty and fear of mass migration, puzzled pundits have been looking for explanations. This is trickier than it sounds because it’s clear that the majority vote for leave was made possible by those who live outside London. What to call these people? We’re in tippy-toe area here because many in the commentariat would like to say the leavers are “English” in a manner that implies “little Englanders,” but the Welsh voted for leave as well, so a bigger umbrella is needed. Behind the hand, racist and populist and all the other pejoratives are being thrown around, but they cannot be used in public as they say almost as much about the speaker as the subject.
Here’s a solution: chav. And before people reach for the off button, consider this: “Chavs are supposed to wear a lot of flashy jewellery, white trainers, baseball caps, sham designer clothes. Girls expose a lot of midriff. Nothing racial about it all, I should say.” So says linguistics expert David Crystal. They live mainly on council estates in middle England and they love their telly and tabloids, do the chavs. Perfect.
And those who opted to remain? How about guardians? They wanted to guard Britain’s membership of the European Union more than their own union, and the Guardian newspaper is their intellectual platform. London is their base and they consider themselves post-national. But as Megan McArdle points out in ‘Citizens of the World’? Nice Thought, But …:
Journalists and academics seemed to feel that they had not made it sufficiently clear that people who oppose open borders are a bunch of racist rubes who couldn’t count to 20 with their shoes on, and hence will believe any daft thing they’re told. Given how badly this strategy had just failed, this seemed a strange time to be doubling down. But perhaps, like the fellow I once saw lose a packet by betting on 17 for 20 straight turns of the roulette wheel, they reasoned that the recent loss actually makes a subsequent victory more likely, since the number has to come up sometime.
In the referendum on Thursday, the chavs voted and the guardians tweeted. Now, the guardians are petitioning. That’s the difference. Or, put another way:
When people vote the way of the IYI elite, it is "democracy". Otherwise it is misguided, irrational, swayed by populism & lack of education.
— NassimNicholasTaleb (@nntaleb) June 26, 2016
We’re talking football, here, not referendum results. This evening in Parc des Princes in Paris, Wales and Northern Ireland are set for an historic meeting as they each attempt to reach their first European Championship quarter-final. Given the backstory of the players, the football on offer will be will be more like that seen in Premier League fixture, rather than a continental style game and, keeping it in the family, as it were, the match has an English referee in Martin Atkinson.
Wales have a trump card in Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive footballer. With a goal in each group match he is tied with Spain’s Álvaro Morata as the tournament’s joint top scorer on three, one ahead of his Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo. The prediction here is that after Martin Atkinson blows the final whistle, Bale’s Wales will be in and Northern Ireland out of the competition.
It was a different story with Thursday’s EU referendum. The Leave side won in Wales, where 52.5% voters chose to depart the EU, compared with 47.5% supporting Remain. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, voted to stay in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44%.Tweet
The anthem of the European Union is based on the final movement of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor by Ludwig van Beethoven. His famous Ode to Joy was inspired by the 1783 poem by Friedrich Schiller, which says the kind of romantic things that German Romanticism said: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder / Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.” (All people become brothers / Where your gentle wing abides).
“There are no words to the anthem; it consists of music only,” says the EU, which deleted the message and reduced the lyric to a nebulous, insipid sentiment.
It’s an ode to less today.Tweet
History will be made today in Great Britain. Regardless of result of the referendum, we will witness the slow-motion crumbling of two Unions: the UK and the EU. If the British vote to leave, the EU will begin to crumble because the audacious act of departure will mortally wound the “project” and will encourage others to hold similar referendums. If the British vote to remain and England’s desire for independence is defeated by an alliance of multicultural Londoners and Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Union will be gravely damaged.
A European Union without Great Britain would be forced to confront its founding fallacy of Germany pretending to be weak and France pretending to be strong. Neither Paris nor Berlin wants to face this embarrassing reality, but the absence of London as a diversion will lead to sobriety. Then, there’s the fragility of the eurozone. It may be possible to keep Greece on life support indefinitely, but not so Italy. Its debts are alarming, the unemployment rate is frightening and there’s no growth. As well, Italy straddles that other great EU fault line: immigration. Italy is the country of choice for African migrants and their numbers will keep on growing for the rest of this century.
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” So says a character in that great Anglo-Irish-European novel Ulysses, by James Joyce, and the nightmare of history will return with a vengeance if the “Leave” side wins. Ireland’s borders, internally and externally, will take on new significance and the country may have to rethink its political relationships. The same goes for the Scots, whose nationalists would demand another referendum that might take them out of a non-European Britain. And the Welsh? They play Northern Ireland in Parc des Princes in Paris on Saturday, with a quarter-final place in Euro 2016 at stake.
History is in the making.Tweet
On one side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson wants Great Britain to regain its post-war sovereignty, on the other side of the ocean, Donald Trump is promising to restore American greatness. The two are charged with opportunism by their opponents; of not believing in what they say. In the eyes of their supporters, however, the message is clear: It’s the real people against the elites. Well, that’s how Michael Wolff sums up the situation for USA Today in What the Brexiters and Donald Trump have in common:
“Both views, in addition to emphasizing national pride, also target as the enemy the superstructure of remote, seemingly soulless, modern governmental management. In the case of the Brexit campaign, the enemy is Brussels and the cold-blooded, unaccountable, ever-expanding, ‘bureaucratic leviathan’… In the case of the Trump campaign, the enemy is a political establishment of complex policy abstractions and self-interested bias that is not only embodied by Hillary Clinton but that has also hopelessly tainted most figures in the Republican party.”
Donald Trump is a political lone wolf, says Wolff, and “his hyperbolic and pugnacious retro views” may, in fact, “reinforce the technocrat’s uneasy hold on the uneasy status quo.” Boris Johnson, in contrast, is “a smart, popular, charismatic, as well as opportunistic, politician with wide support in his party.” If one ends up in the White House and the other in 10 Downing Street, there might be a meeting of minds on some matters, but the conceptual gap between the world’s sole superpower and a Britain that has turned its back on “global anomie” would be huge. Unbridgeable, perhaps.
Still, says Wolff, “there is a conservative message here of return, of cultural revanchism, of a search for national meaning, of a determined deviation from the modern norm, that has gone mainstream and that is not going away.” In the end, it all comes down to how people view their world. Does the future looks bright? Is life full of promise and do most people feel like they are doing well? Or does the future seem uncertain and prosperity and security more elusive? Voters in the United States in November and tomorrow in Great Britain must decide.Tweet
10 September, 2001: The publishers of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform, Groupe Flammarion, who had been charged with hate speech in France, publicly apologized for any offense its anti-Islamic themes might have caused. The book ends with an Islamist terror attack on a resort in Thailand. On the following day, an Islamist terror attack did take place, not in Asia, but in the USA. However, the 2002 Islamist atrocity in Bali was remarkably similar to the one described in Platform.
7 January 2015: Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission is published. It depicts a not-too-distant Europe losing the cultural civil wars and France drifting towards an Islamic takeover. As fate would have it, the publication date coincided with the Islamist massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
23 June 2016: The day Britain votes on whether to leave the European Union, Michel Houellebecq’s exhibition of his own photography opens in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo. Houellebecq is cheering for Brexit: “I’d love it. I’d love it if the English gave the starting signal for the dismantling. I hope they won’t disappoint me. I’ve been against the [European] idea from the start. It’s not democratic, it’s not good,” he says in a Financial Times profile published at the weekend.
“I really like England, I really like the fact of it having been the only country, for quite a while, to have resisted Hitler. I’d really like it to leave, to signal the independence movement.” Michel Houellebecq
The first picture in his Rester vivant exhibition shows a angry reddish dusk seen from his apartment. A line from of his one of his poems: “Il est temps de faire vos jeux” (“It’s time to place your bets”) is superimposed onto the gory sky. Another image, France #014 (1994), shows the word “Europe” carved in concrete. With Houellebecq, the timing is always significant. Place your bets.Tweet
“Brexit would be irresponsible. The EU — and liberal Germans EU — need Britain in order to help contain a Germany that may have little to do with the ‘new Germany’ I saw celebrating falling borders not quite a decade ago.” So says the Anglo-German journalist Alan Posener, who writes about politics and society for Die Welt, which describes itself as “liberal cosmopolitan” but is generally labelled as conservative in the German media spectrum. In a new twist of the so-called Project Fear meme, Posener warns that “German nationalism can only be contained by a united Europe” in the Guardian today. To support his case, he cites Margaret Thatcher liberally:
“By its very nature, Germany is a destabilising, rather than a stabilising force in Europe,” Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, explaining why she had tried to get Mikhail Gorbachev to oppose German reunification. She also met with leading historians in order to understand the German “national character”. According to the memorandum of the meeting, this included “angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complexes and sentimentality”.
Note: Poesner is to be thanked for his translation of “abendländisch,” a word that’s tossed around a lot by the German talking class. It is, says Posener, “a term which is hard to translate, but basically means anti-Anglo-Saxon.”
Demanding that Britain save Germany from itself and that Britain save Europe from Germany is a big ask of the voters, but Posener seems convinced that unless they put a cross next to “Remain an member of the European Union” on Thursday, “Germany could become a danger to itself, Europe and the west.”Tweet