Category Archives: Technology out of control

2016 and the future

Robert Henderson

What has changed over the past year?

The grip of the Western globalists is slipping.   They do not   realise it yet but their day is  almost done. Their ramshackle ideology,   a toxic blend of open borders politically correct internationalism  and what is crony capitalism but called by  those with a vested interest in it neo-liberal or laissez faire  economics , has wrought as it was certain to do,  rage and increasingly despair amongst  the majority of electors in Western states who are increasingly turning to  politicians that at least have some grasp of what is necessary to preserve  the viability of Western nation states.

The most  optimistic possibility for the West  is that  parties which do have some real attachment to what the great mass of people seek will be both elected and when in office carry through their pre-election promises.  But this is far from certain. It does not follow that what will replace globalism will be a politics which reflects the wants and needs of Western voters because the existing elites may drop all pretence of being anything other than an authoritarian clique and go in for wholehearted suppression of any dissent.  There are already signs that  this might happen with  the  growing willingness  amongst Western  elites  to  censor  political ideas, potent examples of which have been the  recent conviction of Gert Wilders in Holland for inciting racial hatred by saying there should be fewer Moroccans in  Holland , while in the UK  the  Prime Minister Theresa May has just sanctioned the putting into law of a definition of anti-Semitism so broad that any criticism Jews or Israel could be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Much will depend on how Donald Trump’s presidency develops.

In Britain the  EU referendum  has dominated everything both before and after the vote to leave in the political year .The anti-democratic mind-set of those who wanted to remain in the EU has been nakedly shown by colossal attempts to  sabotage the result of the referendum through legal  and political action and an incessant bleat about how they want a soft Brexit not a hard Brexit when only  Brexit  exists.

Something which the government calls Brexit will  eventually emerge,  but it could easily  be  a beast which is  directly at odds with what the British people voted on when they went to the polls on 23rd June, namely, for a clean break with the EU.  If this government, or conceivably its successor, concludes  a deal which stitches the UK back into the EU with  such things as free movement of EU citizens into the UK, the UK paying for the “privilege” of remaining in the Single Market and the UK being subject to the European Court of Justice, there  is surely a serious risk of political violence. But even if that  is  avoided British politics would be seriously curdled by such a betrayal.

The other  pressing political  need  is  for an  English parliament and government  to balance the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A procedure to have only  MPs sitting for  English seats  voting on English only legislation  (English votes for English laws  or EVEL for short)  began a trial in 2015,  but  it  has few teeth because  it is difficult to disentangle what is English only  legislation, not least  because  MPs  for seats outside of England argue  that any Bill dealing solely with English matters has financial implications for the rest of the UK and , consequently, is not an England only Bill. Nor does EVEL allow English MPs to initiate English only legislation. Most importantly  England , unlike Scotland,  Wales and Northern Ireland, is left without any national political representatives   to concentrate on purely English domestic matters.

The House of Lords review of its first year  in operation makes EVEL’s  limitations clear:

The EVEL procedures introduced by the Government address, to some extent, the West Lothian Question. They provide a double-veto, meaning that legislationor provisions in bills affecting only England (or in some cases, England and Wales, or England and Wales and Northern Ireland), can only be passed by the House of Commons with the support of both a majority of MPs overall, and of MPs from the nations directly affected by the legislation.

Yet English MPs’ ability to enact and amend legislation does not mirror their capacity, under EVEL, to resist legislative changes. The capacity of English MPs to pursue a distinct legislative agenda for England in respect of matters that are devolved elsewhere does not equate to the broader capacity of devolved legislatures to pursue a distinct agenda on matters that are devolved to them

The most dangerous general global threats are plausibly these in this order

  1. Mass immigration, the permitting of which by elites is the most fundamental treason because unlike an invasion by force, there is no identifiable concrete foreign enemy for the native population to resist. Yet the land is effectively colonised just the same.

2 Uncontrolled technology, which leaves the developed world in particular  but increasingly the  world generally,  very vulnerable  to suddenly being left without vital services if computer systems fail naturally or through cyber attacks.  Judged by the number of reports in the mainstream media the frequency of personal data being hacked and major computer systems  going down, most notably banks, is increasing. This is unsurprising because both state organisations and private business are remorselessly  forcing  customers and  clients to use web-based contact points rather than deal with a human being.  This in itself makes life unpleasant and for older people in particular most difficult.

In the  medium  term –  probably within ten years –  there is the existential  threat  to humans of general purpose robots being able to cause a catastrophic  drop in demand by taking over  so many jobs that demand collapses because huge numbers are rapidly made unemployed.  To that can be added the development of military robots which have the capacity to make autonomous judgements about killing humans.

The  general lack of political concern and a seemingly  universal inability of those with power and influence to see  how robotics and AI systems generally  are rapidly  developing is astonishing. Time and again when the subject of robots and AI systems is raised with such people they will bleat that new jobs will arise due to the new technology, as new technology has always created jobs, and these developments will provide the jobs for humans.

This is sheer “it’ll never replace the horse” ism .  Intelligent robots and AI systems will not only take existing jobs,  they will take most or even all of the new jobs that arise.  This is the potential catastrophe that humans face from robots and AI,  the rapid loss of such  huge amounts of employment  that the economic systems of both the developed and the developing world cannot function  because of the loss of demand,  not the SF style scare stories about intelligent robots making war on humans.  The other thing that  politicians do not seem to understand is that when there are  robots and AI systems sophisticated enough to do most of the jobs humans do, the loss of human jobs will occur at great speed. We can be certain of this for two reasons; our experience with digital technology  is of rapid advances and robots and AI systems will be able to design and build even more advanced  robots and AI systems, probably  very quickly.

Aside from digital technology,  advances in genetic engineering and ever more radical transplant surgery raise the question of what it is to be a human being if full face transplants are now available and the possibility of things such as a head being transplanted in the not too distant future.   We need to ask ourselves what it is to be human.

  1. Islam – serious unrest is found throughout the world wherever there are large numbers of Muslims.
  2. Ever increasing general instability. Contrary to Steven Pinker’s view that the world is becoming more peaceful, if civil conflict is included things are getting worse.  Formal war may be less easy to identify , but ethnic  (and often religious ) based strife plus repression by  rulers  is so widespread outside the West that it is best described as endemic. Globalisation =  destabilisation because by making the world’s economic system more complex , there is simply more to go wrong both economically and socially. Sweeping aside  traditional relationships and practices is a recipe for social discord.  All of economic history tells you one thing above all else: a strong domestic economy is essential for the stability of any country.   The ideology of laissez faire, is like all ideologies,  at odds with  human nature and reality generally and its application inevitably creates huge numbers of losers when applied to places such as China and India.

The most dangerous specific  threats to global peace and stability are:

–              The heightened tension between China and the rest of the Far East (especially Japan) as a consequence of China’s growing territorial ambitions.

–              China’s extraordinary expanding  shadow world empire which consists of both huge investment in the first world and de facto colonial control in the developing world.

–              The growing power of India which threatens Pakistan. An India/Pakistan nuclear exchange is  probably the most likely use of nuclear weapons I the next ten years.

–              The increasing authoritarianism of the EU due to both the natural impetus towards central control and the gross mistake of the Euro.   This will end either in a successful centralisation of  EU power after the UK has left the EU  or the attempt at centralisation will lead to a collapse of the EU.

The Eurofanatics  continue to play  with fire in their attempts to lure border states of Russia into the EU whilst applying seriously damaging sanctions to Russia. It is not in the West’s interest to have a Russia which feels threatened or denied its natural sphere of influence.

–   The ever more successful (at least in the short run) attempt of post-Soviet Russia to re-establish their suzerainty over the old Soviet Empire and Putin’s increasingly martial noises including substantial re-armament.  However, these ambitions will be likely to be mitigated by the plight of the Russian provinces of the Far East where there is unofficial Chinese infiltration of the sparsely populated and natural resource rich land there. Eventually China will wish to capture those territories.

Robert Henderson 17  12 2016

Film review – Steve Jobs

Main Cast

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc

Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive for Apple and NeXT and Jobs’ confidant in the film.

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and creator of the Apple II

Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993.

Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team.

Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine as Lisa Brennan-Jobs (at different ages), the daughter of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan]

Director: Danny Boyle

Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin

Robert Henderson

The film is not about the entirety of Jobs’  life or even all of his adult life as a computer entrepreneur. It runs from the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 to that of the  iMac in 1998. Consequently, it  misses arguably the most fruitful part of Jobs’  business  life which ended with his death  in 2011.

Running through the  film are two themes from outside of  the IT world. The first  is the impact of the knowledge that he (Jobs) was adopted at birth, rejected by his first would-be adopters after a few months and the adopted again.  Jobs’ inept handling of  human relations is attributed to this.   The second theme is a remnant of Jobs’ rather chaotic social life which in the film he runs on the same dysfunctional basis as his work. The remnant is his  one time girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston)  and their daughter Lisa whom Jobs tries not to acknowledge initially  as his child, but whom he  gradually accepts as his daughter.

Those are the circumstantial bare bones of the film.  The film’s distinction and energy comes from a remarkable turn by Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Fassbender  has a talent for portraying obsessive characters. He did it in magnificently in  Shame as a sex obsessive and he does it here with his portrayal of Jobs  as an unrestrained control freak with a adolescent grade  ego the size of Jupiter.  He is constantly bullying and appears to have  little if any moral  sense. When he does behave more reasonably it is invariably not because he feels guilty,  but either as a result of  Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet)  thrusting what he is doing wrong so firmly in his face that he cannot ignore it or because someone treads on his  personal territory , as when  he discovers that Andy Hertzfeld  (Michael Stuhlbarg)  has paid his daughter’s first semester fees after Jobs in a fit of temper told  her he will not pay them.  In short, Fassbender’s Jobs is very like a particularly fractious  teenager without any  adult brake on his bumptious behaviour.

Whether  Fassbender’s Jobs is a realistic portrayal  of the man is another matter. It is disputed by many who knew him  and certainly this filmic Jobs is a monstrously unsympathetic character, the sort of person who continually brings gratuitous stress into the lives of those around him.     Nor is he shown to be an  infallible  entrepreneurial wizard.  Jobs got many things  right with Apple, especially after his return to the company, but he also got a great deal wrong by relying on his judgement of what would appeal  to the public and taking little account of what his programmers and hardware engineers told him .

His worst mistake was  the original Apple Mac which he deliberately had made so that it could only take programs written for its operating system (which was incompatible with that of Microsoft),  could not readily  accommodate add-ons to improve functionality and, just to put the cherry on things, the AppleMac case could not be opened to repair or enhance except with special tools  which were not available to Apple Mc purchasers .   At the time it was launched I remember thinking it was a bonkers way of proceeding.  It was an act of supreme egotism on Job’s part because he wanted the system to be entirely self-contained, that is to be a system  he envisaged  and controlled.  With Jobs in this characterisation it was always his way or the highway.

The Wozniak character expresses his frustration at Jobs’ lack of technical knowhow most vividly when he says “What do you do? You don’t write code. You’re not an engineer.   You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail.  I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen from Xerox Park, Jeff Raskin  was the leader of the Mac team before you threw him of his own project. Someone else designed the box.  So how come  ten times in a day I read  that Steve Jobs is a genius?  What do you do?”

Jobs’ reply is a facile “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician. You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.” Fine if the tune Jobs is conducting is a hit with the public but quite often it was not.

This scene is one of the best in the film. The problem is that the real Wozniak denies ever confronting Jobs so directly: “Anybody who knows me will tell you I just don’t say negative things to people, and could not have said them, and didn’t.”

There is a very strong acting performance across the board. Steve Jobs is splendidly   cast and apart from Fassbender,  there is a dominant  turn  by Kate Winslet (does she ever give a poor performance?) as Jobs’  right hand woman and confidant  while  Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley,  Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team are all very convincing because they are just the type of personalities with just the type of looks one would expect in such jobs.  Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan is, Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother is by turns convincing  as a single mother justifiably  angry at Jobs’ failure to acknowledge his daughter denied  and pathetic inadequate  .

The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the screenplay for the  Social Network.  This is not anything like as good a film as the Social Network, which retained its taut energy and constantly  evolving storyline  throughout , whereas Steve Jobs  is much more dependent on Fassbender’s  bravura scenes which in general tone do begin to have a certain sameness towards the latter stages of the film. Nonetheless Steve Jobs has much of the Social Networks quick wittedness in its dialogue and the relationship between  Fassbender and Winslet is constantly sparky.

This film is not as good as it might have been but it will not bore you.


The burden of digital technology

Robert Henderson

Technological  change  has been  making  increasingly  severe   demands  on  human beings for around 300 years. There  was change before then of course, but it was slow and most people   could live their lives without  having to adapt to radically   new ways of living.

Things  began to speed up as the Industrial Revolution began and an argument can be made that the century  1815 and 1914  saw  more radical technological  qualitative  change than any generation before or since. But  that  change  was the difference between living in  a  still  largely  pre-industrial society (in 1815) and  an  industrial     society  in its  early middle age (in 1914).  Moreover,  the  change  did  not actually require the vast  majority  of  the  population to master complicated machines at their work,  let  alone in their own homes.

In  1914 the most complicated machine most people had to operate was probably the telephone and vast swathes  of the population would not even have had to go that far into  the  world  of technology. Not only that, because  machines  then were either mechanical or part mechanical,  i.e.,  not   electronic, just looking at the way a machine was made  often allowed the intelligent  observer to have a fair guess at how  it  worked and to see  what had  gone  wrong  if it malfunctioned.  Even  work-related machines which required skilled operators, such as  machine  lathes,  were not   fundamentally difficult to understand, although the dexterity  required to operate them often took time to acquire.

Things remained essentially  the same until  the advent of personal computers and the widespread use of digital technology.  Machines became   more and more predominant in advanced societies but they were   not,   in  most  instances,  complicated  to  use. This  was  particularly  true  of those machines used in  private  life.  Telephones just required the user  to dial;  washing machines  had  a  start  button and nothing else; televisions  and radios  simply needed switching  on;  cars were simply  designed to travel. Then came digital technology.

Computers are like no other machine ever invented. They have  a  unique combination of  an unparalleled public and  private   use  and   a  central importance to  economic  activity and public  administration.   The  potential  penalties  for  the   failure  of these machines  are vastly greater than  for  any   other  piece  of  technology.   Not  only  can  an  immediate   application  of a computer be ended,  as can happen with  all  machines,  but  computer users also  risk  losing  networking  capacity  and, if they have not useable backed up copies  of   their computer data, the loss of their entire records and conceivably the loss of the means to continue their business. Computer users are also vulnerable to outside sabotage though hacking  and viruses.   No other machine has ever  exposed a society to such risks through its ubiquity and vulnerability to outside influences.

These machines are also vastly more demanding of time than   any  other  machine  ever  used  by  the   general   public. To  master computers to the  degree where a person does not lie helplessly in the hands of  experts  is a  demanding and continuing   task.   It is unlikely that many could or would manage it  without making  computers their  profession.   In fact,   even   supposed  computer  professionals   are   only   knowledgeable in   their  specialist  areas:   a   hardware  specialist has no deep knowledge of software and vice versa, while programmers long ago lost any detailed understanding of an entire program. It is also true that many self described IT experts are anything but. They get by with a small amount of IT knowledge  because of the general level of ignorance amongst the general public and the fact that most problems can be overcome by re-booting or by  reinstalling programs.

The computer age  is a stunningly  recent   phenomenon.  Most people even in the West   would  not  have   used  a  computer before 1985.  Probably a majority  had  not   done  so by 1990.  By the end of the 1980s  the nearest  most   would have got to a computer  would probably have been   bank  ATM  machines.  The internet was esoteric and laborious,  the   web barely more than a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.   Even    in  the  world  of  employment  computers  were  still   used   sparingly.

As  with  computers actually called computers,  so with the other machines which  cause much  grief now.   The mobile phone was  a status symbol  and   the size of a brick, while  landline phones were still phones   boringly   restricted   to   simply   phoning   rather   than    mini-computers with a tendency to bemuse.   Microwaves had  a  simple   choice  of power.  Refrigerators did  not  offer  to  remind  you  of  what needed to be ordered.  TVs   tended  to  simply work when switched on.

In  the past 25 years all this has dramatically changed.   We  are in  a world in which computers are absolutely integral   to  business and public administration and they are  now  the  norm rather than the exception in homes.  For most people, it  is  literally impossible to escape them.   Worse,  they  have  become ever more complex to use and invade ever  more  of our lives as microprocessors are inserted  into  the most unlikely things such as clothes.  Machines  generally   are more demanding. To use This has profound implications for  people  both in  high IQ and low IQ societies.

Even to use computers at a low level  of expertise, such as using a word processor to its  full capacity and  sending email  efficiently , requires  a degree of concentration and  knowledge with which  a substantial minority are uneasy.  More demanding activities such as  spreadsheet  use  or the construction of a database  are inaccessible to the majority. Most  people  have only a  minimal knowledge of the  capacities of their operating system . This lack of expertise  afflicts the young as well as the old, which suggests that this is going to be a permanent  problem because the young have grown up with computers.

Of  the commonly used programmes  search engines  are particularly interesting from the point of view of IQ. Everyone  who uses a computer can use a search engine at some level, but  the skill with which they use search engines varies massively.  This is unsurprising because the search engine is  the  commonly used program which most calls upon IQ related abilities.  It relies not simply on knowledge but  also  problem solving. To perform a function in a word processor  requires the user  to apply inert knowledge, go to this menu, use this function etc. To use a search engine efficiently for anything but a simple search for a certain website  requires the ability to formulate questions  in the most pertinent way.  I never ceased to be amazed how at many people  use search engines ineptly, often comically so. I should not be amazed of course because the ability to do so is IQ dependent.

The implications for those with a low IQ are these: the lower the IQ, the more the person will struggle in an advanced society because the use of computers is increasingly inescapable.  In a high IQ society the low IQ individual will struggle but the society  as a whole will  manage. In a low IQ society there will simply not be the IQ firepower to sustain a society based on digital technology.  In a high IQ society  the low IQ part of the population will be left increasingly in a technological no man’s land, unable to competently use the technology but forced to use it simply to live.


The constant learning process

Personal  computing  began in the mid  seventies. A  person  starting then would have had to learn the BASIC  programming language.   By the early eighties they would have been using DOS. By 1990s Windows   expertise  was  necessary.   Since  1990  successive   editions  of  Windows  have  varied  considerably  from   the  previous version requiring further learning.

What  goes for  operating systems applies also to most  other programs,   which   when  they  are   upgraded   often   bear    surprisingly little  resemblance to the  version  prior  to  them.  Certainly,  if one moves from an old   program   to  a version  which has been uprated twice, the chances are  that knowledge  of the original program will be of little use  in  understanding the new one.

Apart from the effort needed to constantly learn new programs  and to attend to such things as installations of software and hardware, the other great drawback of computers is the amount of time which can be spent on maintenance.  It is all too easy to find a  day  or  two  slip by just sorting out a single relatively  simple  computer problem or learning how to use a new program.

The nature of what is to be learned

The burden  of learning is   especially heavy because of  the  nature of that which is to be learned. This  is what might be termed   dead information.   There is no  intrinsic  interest in what is to be learned. It is merely a means to an end.  To operate  a program all that is needed is a knowledge of   the  menus  and  function keys.   That is precisely  the  type  of   information  which  is least palatable to  the  normal  human  mind.  Hence,  it is the least easy to learn for most people.    The  computer is in effect forcing human beings to  act  like  computers, something utterly alien to them.

Intelligence  is  of  little  use on its own.  Computers  are  information   driven  machines.  Put the most intelligent man in the world before a   computer  and  he  will  be utterly helpless  if  he  has  no  computer  experience.  Even  if the  man  has  some  computer   experience,  he will be as incapable of using  a completely   unfamiliar type of program as the dullard.

The substitution of function for intellect

That  computers are function rather than intelligence  driven  is  objectively  demonstrated  by the fact that all  of  what   might be called the administrative  operations of a  computer – file management,  loading of programs etc –  could be  done by a computer program.

When I watch the young using computers,  obvious or disguised in the shape of phones and the like,  I get a feeling of deep  unease.  They  so  obediently pull down  menus  and    select   options  that I wonder at the difference between them  and  a  robot.  The  machine is driving the human being at  least  as   much  as  the  human  being is  driving  the  machine;  brute  machine functionality is replacing intellect.

There  is  only so much any human being can  learn,  both  in terms  of time and mental impetus.  If increasing amounts  of  both are required by computers simply to operate them,  where  will that leave intellectual development?    Worse,  will the  ability  to  operate  machines become  to  be seem as the  most  important activity of  human beings?

The myth of youthful expertise

It  is true that those who have grown up with  computers  are   more  comfortable  with the machines than those who  came  to them in adult life – the latter still comprise, more than 50 per cent of the population. It is worth noting.   However,  the idea  that  the young  generally  have any  substantial understanding of  computers is dubious going on simply wrong. A recent survey  by the global market-research company Synovate, reported:

“We found that people tended to fit into one of three categories: 27 per cent are what we call ‘cybernauts’ – people who like to be ahead of the game in terms of technology. However, the majority, 53 per cent, are ‘average Joes’. They don’t love technology per se, but view it as a facilitator – it helps them to communicate or entertain themselves. They tend to use it in quite a functional way, such as emailing, banking or shopping online. Then there are 20 per cent who we describe as ‘digital dissidents’, meaning they actively dislike using technology and avoid it wherever possible.” Daily Telegraph 30 6 2007  The myth of the MySpace generation.

The  young know how to use the internet and web,  can work  a  word processor and  use programs which really interest  them.  But  let  their   computer develop  a  fault   which  renders Windows  unstable or unusable or  a piece of hardware  fails,  and  they are,  in most cases,  as helpless  the  generations which did not grow up with computers.

What  the young do have which  older people do not  have   is group  knowledge.  A schoolchild of today can call  on  the computer  knowledge of their peer group and the assistance of   teachers.  Those  a little older who are in work  still  have   their  peer  group  to  help them   if  they  get  stuck.  In  addition,  if they work for a large employer they can call on the  expertise  of the employer’s IT  department  or  service contractors.

Computers  have only been in schools since the mid  eighties.  Anyone over the age of forty (arguably,  over the age of  35)   will  not  have  a  peer group on  whom  they  can  call  for  assistance  with  computers  (and  other  machines)   because   almost  all  of  those  they  know  well  will  be  of  their approximate  age  – few people have  close  friendships  with  those who are  much younger than themselves – and the  people   who  are  their age will have little computer  experience  or knowledge.   The  best they can hope for is  assistance  from  their children if they have any,  and then it is pot luck  as   to how computer competent those children are and how  willing  they  are  to help the parent.   If an older  person  has  no  compliant computer literate children and  does not work for a   large employer,  he or she will  be utterly isolated from the   knowledge   needed   to  deal  with even   basic computer developments.

The  science  fiction writer Arthur C Clarke  pointed  out  a  good few years ago that there comes  a point with  technology  when it became indistinguishable from magic for all but the initiates. The dangers of that are obvious: for that which is not generally understood  gives the few who do understand a power over those who do not.  That potentially gives private corporations and governments a great stick with which to beat   their  customers  and citizens into  submission,  either  for  profit or political power.

Where the technology is as vital and central to a society  as  computers  have  become,   there  is  the  further  and  more   fundamental  risk   of society reaching a  state  where   the   technology  can  no longer be either properly  maintained  or  controlled.

More prosaically, in societies which have the capacity to embrace the ever  growing potential  digital technology, those without the means to gain Internet access or the ability to use computers generally will be left stranded as more and more of everyday life is dependent upon people having the ability and opportunity to use the Internet. Already there are few large organisations, private and public, which are not making strenuous efforts to force anyone who wishes to interact with them to do so through the Internet.   This trend will continue if nothing is done. There are also developments which within ten to twenty years may have driven advanced societies to do away with cash and trap everyone into a world in which  the means of living are dependent upon the reliability of digital systems and the honesty and goodwill of those who control them. Imagine a world in which payment could only be made through an electronic  transfer  using a card or  smartphone and the bank servicing your electronic broke down? Or suppose you lost your card or had it stolen. How would you survive?

In a democratic society politicians  should be addressing the very real dangers to everyone  and the unreasonable burdens being placed on those who simply cannot come to terms with the technology, the old, the disabled, the simply not very bright.  This is simply not happening.  God help us if those with power and influence do not begin to address the problem soon.

The digital tyranny – The threat posed by a cashless society

Robert Henderson

We are in danger of sleepwalking into a cashless society. More and more purchases are made by electronic means , through standing orders,  direct debits, debit cards  or credit  cards.   Debit and credit  card purchases already account for over a third of UK GDP and more than three quarters of retail purchases (up from 46% in 2003), while  card and computer purchases have just overtaken UK cash sales.

The next logical step  towards  a cashless society is to have laws which allow private businesses  and any public body  which charges for  its services  to refuse cash payment.  Denmark is seemingly  taking the first tentative steps along that road.  The Danish Government has proposed legislation which if passed  will  remove the obligation to take cash from retail outlets such as petrol stations,  clothes shops  and restaurants next year.

With the combination of more and more people using  methods of payment other than cash and the willingness of technologists to  feed the trend with ever more sophisticated and comprehensive  systems of  cashless payments, there is no reason to think that this trend towards  making cash dysfunctional will stop unless governments take a hand and prevent cash from becoming  defunct by law.  This development  is alarming because the abolition of physical money would  carry  tremendous dangers in terms of  the opportunities for  state authoritarianism  and simple practicality.

The dangers  from state authoritarianism are:

  1. There would be no money which could be held which was not potentially known to the state, because with only electronic money available it would have to be stored electronically and be accessible via the Internet  if it was to be useable.

But what about using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin?  Apart from the dangers of such a means of exchange – the great volatility in value, the frauds which are occurring where Bitcoin is stolen, the lack of a lender of last resort and a restricted range of  goods and services which can be bought – Bitcoin still  needs  to be stored electronically and hence is  potentially identifiable and accessible to governments. There would also be an audit trail from an individual’s source of electronic money  to the purchase point of a virtual currency  like Bitcoin. The only exception would be if someone sold something or did paid work for someone and was paid in a virtual currency like  Bitcoin.

If Britain  went cashless and others did not the likelihood is that a black market in foreign cash such as dollars would  arise in Britain.  There would also be the possibility of exchanges made by barter or a product such as cigarettes becoming a de fact currency.

  1. A cashless system would allow the state to have all  electronic money stored in a central government controlled place.  This would leave  the  individual  at the mercy of the state which could deny electronic money to anyone within their jurisdiction by cancelling or blocking their means of payment.
  2. The state could more readily control the money supply if all bank accounts were  under the control of the state and physical cash did not exist.  The state would be able to manipulate public economic behaviour by  imposing a negative interest rate when increased spending is deemed desirable  – people save less because it costs them money – and a transaction tax every time a purchase is made  – people spend less if because it will cost them to make a purchase – if it is thought an economy is over heating.
  3. The state could remove money from your account at will.
  4. The opportunities for general surveillance of the individual both by the state and by private corporations or individuals would be greatly increased.

The problems of practicality are:

1.The idea  assumes that everyone can  afford a  computer of some sort, whether that be a mobile phone, tablet or desktop, and can afford to replace their means of getting access to the Internet  every few years at best.  The reality is that millions of people are too  poor to be able to meet such costs.  The taxpayer would have pay for access to electronic money for those too poor to buy their own.

  1. Many people cannot use the digital technology.  Huge numbers of people  are still not using  this technology. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that  11% of the UK population (approximately 6 million) has never  used the Internet.  Moreover, the ONS did not ask for frequency of use merely whether someone had used the Internet When the ONS asked whether people had used the Internet in the three months prior to the question being asked,   only 86% answered yes.  Thus 14% of the population had either not used the Internet for more than three months  or   had never used it and, importantly,  only 68% of disabled people had used the Internet in the previous 3 months. Clearly there will be large numbers of people, including  the most vulnerable in society,  who will seriously struggle to use digital technology for the foreseeable future. If cash becomes illegal many of  these people will literally not be able to live if they cannot understand the technology or have no one to operate it for them.

3.The computer systems which support a cashless society will inevitably be subject to  regular disruption, whether from hacking or simple failure because,  as we all know,  digital technology frequently goes wrong and the system downtime can be considerable.   Imagine being unable to access the only means you have of paying for something.  It would probably be necessary to have more than one electronic payment device because of this, although that would not help if the fault was not with your payment device but with that of those from whom you wished to make a purchase.

  1. Many people will have their means of accessing electronic money stolen  or lose it themselves.  They would then need to replace their equipment which allowed them to access their electronic money.  Many would not be able to afford to do so and those most likely to lose or have their electronic money access  equipment stolen  would be the old and the disabled.

A cashless society would have considerable attractions for a government. It would greatly extend the power of the state over the individual. Crime generally might  be reduced without  physical cash to oil the felonious wheels, although cybercrime would become more tempting in the absence of banks to rob and people to mug. Tax evasion would become very difficult for most people (the rich would simply move their money to other jurisdictions) .  There would also be the saving on the abolition of the need to maintain a physical money supply.  Banks  and other financial institutions would also welcome the abolition of cash as it would remove the considerable cost of physically handling cash and maintaining a branch network.

The danger is that cash will become defunct by default,  because the Government shows no interest in protecting cash and arguably is surreptitiously encouraging  its demise by making it either impossible or very difficult to access public services in any way other than through the Internet.  We could reach a point where, say, 90% of the population use electronic money  and a government simply says it is time to go cashless ignoring the fact that millions of people who cannot use electronic money will be left in the soup. Politicians need to be lobbied now to ensure that  the maintenance of cash remains a legal requirement.

But it is not just a case of ensuring that cash remains a legal requirement. Even a  widespread refusal to accept cash  by businesses and other corporate bodies which charge for their services  would be seriously socially disruptive. That idea also needs to be knocked on the head  by making it illegal to refuse cash in payment for anything.

Get writing to your MP.

The coming digital tyranny

Robert Henderson

The  digital start up entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox is of the opinion that everyone should be forced to embrace  digital technology whether they wish to or not.  She has just given the Richard Dimbleby lecture for 2015  entitled  Dot Everyone: Power, the Internet and You arguing for this and  in an interview prior to the lecture she made these comments  in reply to the interviewer Rosie Millard:

“There are ten million adults in the UK who don’t get the benefits from the internet. I have never seen a tool that is as phenomenally empowering as the internet, for so little effort. I have met from people all over the country, from Bridlington to Bournemouth, saying it has helped them get back to work, helped them get their life back on track. I believe it’s worth spending the time showing people who haven’t had the money or exposure, the benefits.”

What about people like my[Millard’s]  mum, who simply resists it? “It’s not enough to just say, ‘I don’t do the internet’,” says Lane Fox crisply. “We should give those people a gentle nudge.”

One wonders what the “gentle nudge” would consist of if people either will not or  cannot use  computers and the  internet? There are plenty of those, millions in Britain alone (Lane Fox estimates there are 10 million).  To see how unrealistic Lane Fox is let me list all the candidates for those who will not be able to use the Internet for reasons of incapacity, physical or mental, or for want of money:

  1. the reasons for physical and mental incapacity
  2. Roughly ten percent of the population of Britain (around six million) have IQs of 80 or less. That is the level at which most psychologists working in the field of psychometrics think that someone will struggle to live an independent life in an advanced industrial society such as Britain.  Most of these people  will   not be able to use computers or the Internet independently. This is particularly so in cases where they have to navigate the often poorly designed and confusing websites of government  bodies and large private companies, something which is becoming an ever growing part of  everyday life.    Many of those with IQs  of 100 or less will also struggle.  These people will be drawn from all age groups.  The idea that the young are always deeply learned in the ways of computers and the Internet is a myth.
  3. There are over 9 million people classified as disabled in Britain. Obviously not all will be incapable of using computers without assistance, but large numbers will, for example, around two million are registered blind. Although there are aids to allow the blind to use computers there are limits particularly if it is necessary to  do something like filling  in a form online.
  4. Age plays its part, both in terms of people’s experience and abilities. At the 2011 UK census there were 10.4 million people in the UK over the age of 65 (16 per cent of the UK population).  Consider these facts:

–  Anyone  over forty  will have grown up without the internet .

– Anyone over fifty will have had little or no  experience of computers as a child.

–  Anyone over  sixty will probably have spent their working lives without using computers            much or at all in their work.

These  facts mean that many of those over the age of forty will be, in varying degrees ,uncomfortable when using computers, with many having little experience of using them.  This widespread lack of familiarity and ease with computers in those over forty  also means that their  peer groups contain little expertise on which the individual can call. Those in younger age groups have a ready supply of  IT knowledge  from their peer group to call on.

  1. Many people in work still do not use computers routinely and are daunted by them.
  2. Sheer mental weariness being in a continuous learning process because  of the ceaseless alterations to  software, much of which people cannot readily  avoid such as operating systems, email systems and word processors.     I will use myself as an example. I first used computers in the late 1980s.   I began by learning DOS which was in effect a programming language which allowed functions such as copying and moving files, switching directories, erasing files, saving files and so on. A line of code had to be written for each function. I moved from that to a DOS manager which made things a little easier. Next came Windows 1993, Windows 1998, Windows XP Home and finally Windows 7. And that is just the operating systems I have had to learn.  There comes a point where the mind rebels against learning yet another new system.

The idea that training could be provided for the millions who are not computer literate is fanciful, but even if it could be provided it would fail simply because huge numbers of the  IT illiterate would not be able to come to terms with computers.

(B)  The causes of material incapacity

  1. The poor who will be unable to meet the cost of buying IT equipment, having it installed in their home, paying for the broadband rental and meeting the cost of buying IT expertise to install and repair equipment when it goes wrong .
  2. Paid for access at places such as Internet cafes can be too expensive for the poor and outside of large towns and cities such provision is often sparse.
  3. Free access to the Internet though public libraries is becoming increasingly difficult because of the number of public libraries which are closing or having their services cut. The time allowed per person for Internet access in public libraries is also very limited, often an hour in any one day.
  4. Much of the equipment in Public Libraries and Internet cafes is outdated and poorly maintained.
  5. There is little help in public libraries or Internet cafes to either aid the IT ignorant or to put right faults with the equipment.

What should be done?

To imagine that  almost everyone will be able to get online and handle the ever increasing demands by both the state and private business is clearly absurd because there are huge numbers of  people who are either utterly bewildered by digital technology or unable to afford it.

Yet that is what we are moving towards because our politicians are both enamoured with the idea of putting the administrative side of public services on line and stand idly by while more and more of private businesses, especially banks and retailers, are shifting their business online with the result that society, especially outside the larger cities and towns,  is increasingly ill served with villages being left without a single cashpoint and urban areas left with high streets  with half the shops unoccupied.

Government should act to ensure that no public service or benefit is dependent on the use of the Internet, that there should always be a human being who can be contacted and a paper form available whenever a member of the public needs to engage with a public body. Private businesses should have a legally enforceable  requirement placed on them to make provision for the public to be able to engage with  them without using the Internet.  That is not an unreasonable burden  because public service and  businesses of all sizes should be able to provide at least a phone number for the public to contact and dealing with correspondence  sent by post should not take much more time than dealing with emails. .

Banks should be forced by law to maintain sufficient cash machines to ensure that no community is left without one within reasonable reach.  The problem of derelict high streets could be tackled by placing a special tax on retailers operating online with the money being used to  reduce business rates on retail premises.  Pitched at the right level such a tax would also reduce the incentive for businesses to forgo retail premises  for online trading.

Unless something is done millions of people are going to be increasingly left high and dry without the means or capacity to live independent lives  simply because they either cannot come to terms with the demands of an ever increasingly digital tyranny or afford the means to access the Internet.

Three-parent babies – Redesigning Nature

Robert Henderson

The House of Commons has voted  382 in favour to 128 against to allow babies with genetic material from three people to be born.  Scientists will be able to replace an egg’s defective mitochondrial  DNA with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a female donor’s egg to eliminate genetically  determined diseases such as muscular dystrophy.  This is germline  gene therapy which results in the  genetic alteration being passed on to any  children and their descendants. Britain is the  first country to legalise the procedure.

If it was merely a question  that  the technique  will be used to prevent children  being born without a serious disabling disease it would be emotionally  very difficult to argue against it simply because of the tremendous suffering  which  such diseases cause for both the children themselves and their families , whose lives are often turned upside down with the burden of caring with which they  are left.  Nonetheless, there are possible  biological dangers of genetic manipulation because material is being introduced into a body which is foreign to it. They could perhaps cause cancerous tumours or result in rejection by the immune system.

The thin edge of the wedge

It is a certainty that if three-parent children are allowed it will be the thin end of the wedge which leads  to much more radical alterations of a child’s genome. If gene replacement therapy is deemed ethically acceptable for preventing certain  inherited diseases,  there could be no absolute  moral bar to any manipulation of genes, whether this is  either be through the introduction of genetic material from one or more persons other than the parents into the egg or sperm or to methods of  genetic engineering of humans  which do not require  the introduction of genetic material from a person who is not one of the parents.  Moreover, it is probable that in the not too far distant future the manipulation of  a person’s genes will be done either by direct restructuring of the person’s genetic material (perhaps through the   re-writing of the code of a faulty gene) or the introduction of genetic material not taken from a human  being  but created artificially in a laboratory.

The effect on the children born of genetic manipulation.

Even at its most basic, such as the proposed replacement of mitochondrial DNA to prevent diseases such a muscular dystrophy,  is it not likely that a  child born from the procedure will feel  a freak knowing that they are the product of three people’s DNA, and have serious doubts  about their identity?  Could they ever  have the same relationship with their parents as a child conceived naturally?  That is debatable because the recipient of the replacement DNA  to correct a genetically determined illness might well view it simply as being equivalent to a transplant of a cornea or heart, although there would be the difference that the replacement DNA would be handed down the generations if the person receiving it had children.

But what if  the genetic modification was much more radical, for example,  determining elements of personality, intellect and physical appearance ? That would be much more  likely  to cause psychological disturbance in both the child and the parents.     The child might feel they were not people in their own right but simply the toys of their parents, machines cut to a template consciously planned by another.  If a child’s  life  did not go well,  would not they be inclined to blame their parents for making the genetic choices that they did?   Sadly, if genetically altered children do  blame the parents,  then it is all too easy to imagine that children would sue their parents for making what the children deemed to be bad choices.

The effect on the parents of children born of genetic manipulation

The parents  could also have psychological issues. It is one thing having a child naturally who is born disabled, deformed or just   turns out to be a disappointment in some way, quite another to have a child who disappoints after the parents have made decisions which helped  to shape the child’s physical and mental  qualities.  The parents would run the  risk of  not only being disappointed ,but of knowing they were in part responsible for what the child was, something  which could  engender either feelings of guilt or the anger which can arise when someone knows they are responsible for something but cannot accept that reality. Again, the law could come into play with parents suing the scientists who had performed the genetic manipulation for misleading them.

The creation of a genetic divide in a society

If a society leaves genetic manipulation to the market with only those with the means to afford it receiving the manipulation, the difference  between the haves and have-nots  could become  so large that there were objectively   two  grades  of human beings in the society.   The mere fact that some were genetically engineered and some were not could and probably would  result in an elite which was biologically as well as materially and intellectually different from those who had undergone genetic manipulation, a difference which could translate into a caste system with the genetically manipulated only breeding amongst themselves .   An alternative scenario could be the genetically unaltered have-nots – who would be in the large majority – seeing the elite as other than human and slaughtering them without compunction.

State interference

Would governments be able to resist insisting that characteristics such as intelligence were enhanced by the genetic manipulation  of all members of a society whether or not the parents wanted it?  A  dictatorship  could insist on certain characteristics being enhanced in all their population. Alternatively, the could deny such  genetic manipulation to all but those with power . A third possibility would be, in Brave New World style,  to use the technology  to have people genetically altered so that there were people with different abilities and personality traits produced in different quantities.

Even a representative democracy  might find itself driven to act in such an authoritarian way if it was feared that the society could not compete with other societies which adopted government inspired genetic changes.

Genetic manipulation after conception

Genetic manipulation will not stop at point of conception.   As the technology advances we can expect to see opportunities for much genetic manipulation from the foetus to the aged human. However, this would be  Somatic gene therapy which would be introduced into non-sex cells and would not , unlike germline gene therapy, become part of the person’s genome and consequently could not be passed on to any children or their descendants.

In the case of those old enough to give their consent to somatic gene manipulation  much of the psychological problem which exists with genetic manipulation of the sperm and egg is removed because adults, unless they are mentally handicapped or living in a society where the state forces all to undergo such procedures, they will be able to make the decision for themselves as to whether they have  such a procedure.  Even if they do not like the result of their gene manipulation  they would  not be in a worse psychological situation than someone who has had a replacement organ or plastic surgery which does not give them what they anticipated.

The dangers of a rapid genetic alteration within a population

Rapidly changing the proportions of  characteristics in  a population could  damage the viability of the society. Very little is understood about the importance of the distribution of different qualities and abilities within  a society. Suppose a society opts to rapidly increase the IQ of its people.  A society of highly intelligent people might not work because homo sapiens naturally forms hierarchies and if everyone is highly intelligent this might  make the creation of a stable hierarchy impossible.  .  Or suppose personality traits such as aggression, caution and extroversion could be  manipulated. If the choice was left to parents the favouring of one of such traits might make a society too aggressive or too placid.

What can be done to guard against the worst possibilities?

As genetic manipulation of humans will undoubtedly spread rapidly throughout the world, there will  be no realistic way of preventing  individuals from availing themselves of the technology short of closing the borders and allowing no one to travel out of the country to have the manipulation done abroad with regular checks on every individual to make sure there was no illegal operations being done

If gene manipulation  is banned in one country, but foreign travel is not, banned those  who can afford it and think it worthwhile will go abroad to have the procedure . It would be  possible for a country to make genetic manipulation a  crime regardless of where the act took place.  But that would open up a can of worms. The manipulation would have already have taken place.  The altered human being, whether child or adult,  would exist.  In the case of a child,  the individual would not have broken the law because the decision to have the procedure would not have been theirs. What would the state do?  Imprison for life every adult who had broken the law? Take every genetically altered child into care?   A ban on individuals seeking  gene manipulation would be a non-starter.  If it is widely seen a desirable thing, the only thing which might stop gene manipulation  would be a high proportion of procedures resulting in serious problems such as tumours or deformities dissuading most of the public against it.

Guarding against state enforced gene manipulation is a more practical proposition, but only  in countries with some regard for constitutionality and the law in general. It would be possible for such countries to include in their constitutions absolute bars on any state imposed genetic manipulation.

Film review – Transcendence


Main Cast

Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher.

Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger,  a government scientist

Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster, Caster’s wife and a fellow academic.

Kate Mara as Bree, the leader of Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.)

Cillian Murphy as Donald Buchanan, an FBI agent.

Cole Hauser as Colonel Stevens, a military officer.

Paul Bettany as Max Waters, Caster’s best friend.

Director:  Wally Pfister

In terms of pure filmmaking this is a seriously flawed film. The dialogue is often clunking, there is a lack of character development and  the storyline is  weak.   Nonetheless, it  is a work  which will repay  seeing  because it deals with the  lethally threatening potential  of digital technology, threats  which will almost certainly become reality within the lifetime of most people now living.

Will Caster (Depp) is a scientist specialising in artificial intelligence. He is married to Evelyn  (Rebecca Hall) who works in the same field.  As the film opens Caster  believes he is close to creating an artificial intelligence  that is truly sentient and  which he believes  will create a technological singularity – the point at which computer technology exceeds the capability of homo sapiens – a state  which  Caster calls Transcendence.

This hope is cut short when  Caster is shot by a neo-Luddite group,   the  Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.),  who also  carry out a  attacks on his artificial-intelligence computer laboratories.  Caster survives the shot but the bullet is coated with radioactive material for  which there is no antidote.  The prognosis is that he has about a month to live.

Evelyn refuses to accept his imminent death and  with the help of Caster’s best friend  Max  (Paul Bettany)  arranges to upload Caster’s consciousness, personality, mind – call it what you will – to a quantum computer. Max  helps  do this despite the fact that he has grave doubts about the wisdom of the act. His doubts rest on the possibility that  Caster’s brain contents will not  be uploaded  uncorrupted or that a  Caster reduced to a digital form will not be Caster anymore  because of the immense change in his environment..

Once uploaded Caster appears on the computer screen looking and sounding  like his real world self, although there is a  new coldness  about him. He  immediately  demands to be connected to the Internet. Max sees the profound dangers of this if Caster in a computer is malign rather than benign  or simply inhuman for he will be able to copy himself throughout the Internet. Consequently, Max  tries to persuade Evelyn not to do it.    Evelyn,  obsessed with her desire to have Caster in any form,   shrugs aside Max’s doubts and throws him out of the laboratory before linking Caster to the Internet where he  promptly does just what Max feared and  copies himself throughout the  virtual world.

The digital Caster is,  if not omniscient and omnipotent, a significant way along the road to both,  because he now has the capabilities of both human and computer with access to the data and facilities of the entire digital world. He is not malign in the sense that he is consciously malicious or self-serving.  Rather Caster  is beset with the  sin of those who are sure they know best. His monomaniac desire to make the world a better place is suddenly released from the shackles of his emotions and the practical limitations on implementing his plans which existed when he was merely a man.   It is a cliché that with power comes a disregard for anyone else’s opinion, but  Caster not only knows better than anyone else,  he now  has the means to realise his dreams.

Using Evelyn as his instrument in the real  world, the virtual Caster makes a fortune rapidly and uses this to take  over  an isolated desert  town called Brightwood. Over the next two years  he develops  advanced technologies  in the fields of energy, medicine, biology and nanotechnology. His plan is to rid the world of the blight of disease,  pollution  and ultimately mortality. The problem is Caster intends to do this not only with no reference to anyone else but also by using nanotechnology to control humans so that they are in essence robots.

While all this is going on  forces are gathering to sabotage  Caster’s ambitions. Shortly after Max breaks with Evelyn , he  is kidnapped by R.I.F.T   and eventually agrees to  join them to disrupt Caster’s plans.  Then the  US government, in the form of  FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) a government scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) unofficially (so they have deniability) join forces  with R.I.F.T  in their  attempt to thwart Caster

Evelyn  gradually  moves from willing and committed  collaborator to a frightened and deeply  worried  woman . The process of disillusionment is completed when she  sees that Caster can  remotely connect to and control people’s minds .  Distraught, Evelyn approaches  R.I.F.T  who develop  a computer virus  which will destroy Caster’s  source code, killing him and, as a side effect,  destroy the technology on which modern society has become recklessly dependent. This happens because the digital Caster is spread throughout the Internet.  To destroy him, the Internet  has to be destroyed.

Regardless of the technological devastation using the virus will create, Evelyn agrees to upload the virus to end whatever it is that Caster has become.  But on returning to Brightwood she finds Caster resurrected in biological form, his body having been replicated, presumably, from   the digital information stored when his brain contents were uploaded .

Caster is aware that his wife  has the virus and  intends to destroy him but does not act against her.  The FBI and  R.I.F.T. attack the Brightwood base  and in the process mortally wound  Evelyn.  Evelyn persuades Caster  to save her by uploading her mind as his mind was uploaded. Caster does this even though he knows it will  end him and the Internet. The virus seemingly kills Caster and Evelyn, and  technological disaster ensues.

But all is not quite as it seems. Years later Max visits the Casters old garden.  The garden is  protected by a device called a  Faraday Cage. This stops any electrical transmission reaching what is inside the cage.    Max  sees a drop of water falling from a sunflower petal instantly cleanses a puddle of oil. The drop contains one of Casters nanoparticles, which is intact because of the protection afforded by the Faraday cage. Max thinks, logically correctly,  that  Caster  and Evelyn’s consciousness’s are contained within the active nano-particles. Perhaps Caster even knew when he wittingly uploaded the virus that there would be copies of  Evelyn and himself retained in the nano particles in  their old garden…

Depp’s performance a s Caster has  received a good deal of criticism on the grounds that it is a flat emotionless  portrayal. This is to  miss the nature of the character he inhabits  once he exists only in digital form. He is then  someone robbed  of the kernel of what makes them human.  Hence, his performance is exactly what is required.

The rest of the performances range from serviceable  in the case of Rebecca Hall to colourless  in the case of  Paul Bettany and slight in the case of everyone else simply because there was no space for them to expand their characters.

This could have been a much better film if two issues had been given much more space, namely, the general arguments against incontinent technological advance and the devastating effects which would result from a closing down of the Internet and  the ending of connectivity which is not only so much a part of modern everyday live but also vital for the maintenance of modern technological necessities such as power stations and large factories.

The  R.I.F.T  characters are anaemic and their arguments against technology do not go much beyond   the mantra “intelligent machines are bad”.  There is no discussion of how human beings may simply fail to survive because they become demoralised by the  superior capacity of machines or machines or that intelligent machines will take not only the jobs humans do now but any other jobs which arise.  As for the post-virus technological upset, this is barely touched upon.

The strength of the film is that it puts before its audience the possibilities of technology  moving beyond the control of human beings and even more fundamentally damaging calling into question what it is to be human.  The dangers of intelligent machines  are simple enough, either they replace humans by making them redundant or engender in humanity the trait seen in tribal peoples encountering   Europeans : the tribal peoples often became  terminally demoralised, presumably by the sophistication and scope of  European culture with which they were faced.

More fundamentally, until now we have known what a human being is. We are on the brink of losing that happy state. If the human mind could be copied an exist within a computer file there is the potential for immortality. The mind could exist within a robot body or  be  distributed throughout the Internet (or whatever supersedes it). If the mind can be uploaded to a computer file so  could all the data needed to create a digital replica of  a person’s body  be uploaded which could then be used to create a replica body into which the uploaded mind could be  uploaded in turn. If the technology to do that  existed, then in principle  it should be possible to upload a digitised mind into a body developed from someone else’s uploaded data….  That is not a world I should wish to live in.

See Transcendence  for its warning of the shape of things to come.


The reckless mass medication of Britain

Robert Henderson

The reckless and even the enforced medication of the population grows apace.  State bodies are pressing for widespread or universal medication. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)  recommends the universal  use of statins by men over 50 and women over 60, ministers are considering  making compulsory  the addition of folic acid to flour  and  councils are being encouraged by Public Health England  to put fluoride in the water supply .

That is direct government action. But there are many drugs with potent side effects which are being given out wholesale without any government interference. Potentially the greatest risk comes from  antibiotics to which resistance is being built up all the time. The World Health Organisation warned this year that  overuse was potentially creating a crisis more serious than Aids . Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security, claimed : “A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

Antidepressants are being prescribed in record numbers and the side effects, which often make people feel as though they are going around in a mental fog,  can make people feel the cure is worse than the disease. Moreover, they can be prescribed for people who either are not seriously depressed but suffering from a physical illness  or people whose severe depression is the consequence of a physical illness.

There is also the problem of addiction to such drugs with severe withdrawal symptoms experienced by some people, symptoms such as these suffered by a patient identified only as Henry“It was torture. I thought I was going to die, and I didn’t care. For two years, I was in severe physical pain and so weak I lay all day on the sofa. My cognition was severely affected, I was dizzy, with blurred vision, I couldn’t read a bedtime story to my son and couldn’t remember things that had happened just a few seconds previously.”

But even where there is no psychological problems or unpleasant but not immediately obvious damaging physical effects,  drugs can have dramatic consequences. For example, aspirin  is routinely prescribed to thin the blood, especially to those who have suffered heart attacks, but  recent research found that aspirin’s daily use  “ leads to 37 per cent increased risk of internal bleeding and 38 per cent increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke,”  while the  long term use of the contraceptive pill doubles the risk of glaucoma..

Probably the most controversial widely used medication in Britain  at present are statins. Side effects can be extreme.  Statins (which are used to reduce cholesterol)  have been the subject of much complaint by patients. There are studies which claim that statins have little or no side effects,  but the  catalogue of complaints against them is so huge that it is difficult to see how they could have come to such conclusions.

I have taken statins  for many since suffering   a heart attack,  I can I can vouch for the fact that they have powerfully obnoxious side effects. Luckily I did not  suffer psychotic episodes  such as those  which afflicted the unfortunate Dr Allan Woolley before his suicide,  which was attributed to the side effects of statins . However,  I  have experienced severe  disabling symptoms such as intense aching, especially in the hands, a permanent fatigue and a diminution of mental function, especially of memory and concentration (I had  to consciously concentrate on what I was doing rather than simply doing it without thinking, while my power of immediate recall, previously very good, became unreliable.

I only realised statins were responsible for such symptoms in 2007  – for years I attributed them to the  process of ageing and the after effects of the heart attack – after I read several articles by Dr James Le Fanu who both questioned the general value of  statins and described the side effects:  ” Statins are useless for 95 per cent of those taking them, while exposing all to the hazard of serious side-effects and  detailed the side effects….they seriously interfere with the functioning of the nerve cells, affecting mental function, and muscles.” (Sunday  Telegraph  17 3 2007).  He concluded that only those with a personal or family  history of heart trouble should take them.

But even that advice is debatable. Eating an apple-a-day is as effective as taking statins according to a recent piece of research, viz:

“Prescribing either an apple a day or a statin a day to everyone over 50 years old is likely to have a similar effect on population vascular mortality. Choosing apples rather than statins may avoid more than a thousand excess cases of myopathy and more than 12 000 excess diabetes diagnoses. The basic costs of apples are likely to be greater than those of statins; however, NHS prescription prices and convenience may drive people to purchase their apples from a store rather than through a pharmacy, thereby reducing direct NHS costs, or the NHS may be able to negotiate apple price freezes (although defrosted apples may not be so palatable).23”

There are also doubts about whether cholesterol levels have anything to do with heart attacks and strokes, so the concentration on bringing  down cholesterol levels may be pointless.

It might be thought with the ever increasing range of medications available that overall  life expectancy would be increasing and go on increasing . Not so.  In  recent years in the UK the trend towards greater life expectancy after the age of 65 has flat-lined for men and actually declined for women. “Life expectancy at age 65 in 2012 has been projected as 18.3 years for men and 20.6 years for women on average….In 2008 life expectancy post 65 was 19 years for men on average and 21.3 years for women on average. In 2010 it was 18.7 for men and 21.1 for women.”

This suggests that medication of the elderly is at best ineffective in extending lives on average and  may even be a  cause of the stagnation of increases in life expectancy amongst the old.

There is also a  moral question, namely,  how much medication should be given to a patient   regardless of the quality of life  they can experience?  The idea that living is desirable regardless of the nature of the life is difficult to sustain morally.  That is particularly true of the old. I have never encountered anyone over the age of 85 whose life I have known in some detail who has been averagely happy or physically comfortable.   Almost invariably by that age the body has developed some serious malady whether physical or mental.  That is not to say such elderly people generally  want to die.  Rather, it is simply that the life being led is normally miserable at worst and unfulfilling at best.  If they are loaded down with  medications, many or all of which will have obnoxious side effects,  this may extend their lives by a few  months or years,  but the patient  may well feel that there is a case for saying let nature take its course if those few extra months and years will be suffered rather than enjoyed because of the side effects of medication.

Why do patients submit to drug regimes regardless of the ill consequences? Patients generally trust their doctors and are inclined to accept advice in the vast majority of cases. But even if they do not want to carry on with a drug because of the side effects – and many commonly prescribed drugs have effects which make the enjoyment of life seriously difficult – they find it difficult to refuse a doctor’s advice. Often it is not a simple matter of refusing a single treatment, because many patients, and especially elderly ones, will have a range of ailments and  will fear that refusing to take one medication may ruin their relationship with their GP or a hospital consultant, with a consequent diminution in the quality and scope of their  future  medical care. Even if unfounded , such fears will drive patients to carry on with medication which is causing them serious discomfort.

Things could be improved if doctors were required to discuss the side effects of drugs with patients. The only warning I have ever been given voluntarily by a doctor – and I have spent a great deal of the past twenty years with chronic complaints – about side effects is drowsiness, yet most drugs which seriously interfere with the natural workings of the body will have a list of serious side effects.  For example, diuretics, a very commonly prescribed drug to increase fluid removal from the body has these side effects according to  the BUPA guidance :

Side-effects of diuretics include:

mild gastro-intestinal problems, such as feeling sick

a fall in blood pressure that is related to posture (postural hypotension), which causes you to feel faint or dizzy when you stand up

altered levels of salts in your body, such as low levels of potassium (hypokalaemia) and sodium (hyponatraemia)

Less common side-effects of diuretics include:

gout (a condition that causes pain and swelling in your joints)

impotence in men (the inability to achieve or sustain an erection during sex)

skin rashes


certain blood disorders, which can make you more likely to get infections

What can be done to reduce overmedication? First, if doctors explained the side effects to patients that in itself would probably reduce too ready prescription of medicines because the patient would be put off taking those with serious side effects simple by their recital by the doctor  and doctors would be much less likely to prescribe such drugs  unless they honestly believed a patient desperately needed them if they had to explain the side effects and overcome the resistance of patients who did not really need the medication.

Second, non-medical directions and incentives to doctors to prescribe certain medications widely, whether that be government authored or supported schemes such as folic acid in bread or drug companies peddling medicines to doctors, especially GPs, which materially benefit doctors  should be banned.



Surveillance and the insurance industry

Robert Henderson

“Under EU plans, every new car sold in UK will have a ‘black box’ device Gadget contains a phone-like SIM card which tracks drivers’ movements Designed to help emergency services find vehicles in the event of crash Government believes the device will add at least £100 to the cost of cars  Officials also fear it could be used by police to monitor motorists’ moves But ministers admit they are powerless to stop Big Brother technology All new car models will have to include ‘eCall’ device from October 2015” Daily Mail

This is the thin end of a very intrusive wedge.  Even those with  cars without the device fitted – only vehicles  produced or sold before October 2015 – will feel its force because the insurance industry will increase premiums substantially, perhaps grossly,  for cars  without the system.  It is reasonable to believe that within a few years ecall will have become to all intents and purposes compulsory.

The system will allow the monitoring of a person’s driving habits, how often they brake, the severity of braking, speed and so on and possibly the maintenance of the vehicle.  Drive in a way which the insurer considers dangerous and your premiums will go up or your insurance be withdrawn.  Consider  how vital a vehicle is to millions of people simply to enable them to live normal lives –outside the larger British cities public transport is a joke –  and  how many jobs are dependent upon the possession of a driving licence.  Allowing insurers to make judgements based individuals  not on making or not making  insurance claims made by an individual  or general markers such as the age of the person is to place into their hands a massive power over individual lives.

If Insurers can monitor how we drive because technology allows them to you can bet your life  that other areas of life with follow that example. You want some form of personal insurance – accident, life, medical – the insurers may start offering highly preferential rates to those willing to wear a device to monitor their biological functions  as these are affected by  things such as  drinking, smoking, eating and exercising . Indulge too much when it comes to drink  or take too little exercise and  your premiums will rise or your insurance be removed. Such monitoring could also have effect of identifying diseases which could produce the same result.  Perhaps the insurers will require any children you have to be similarly monitored.

You want to insure your house? Insurers could insist that monitors are fitted to record how you live, whether you smoke, whether you leave on taps or  electrical and gas devices when you should not.  Perhaps  insurers will insist on CCTV in every room especially if you have children. Or how about insurers monitoring how many people visit you and how they behave?  You are given to throwing boisterous parties? Up goes your premium or away goes your insurance.

Enjoy pets and want to insure against vet’s bills? An insurer  may require you to fit your animal with monitors to check their health, weight, diet and exercise.  Insurers could even insist on monitors in your house to see how the pet lives.

How about employers? They need heavyweight insurance  for their premises, people, equipment and  damage to people and property not working for or belonging to the employer. Are they to be subject to a general monitoring of their premises, equipment, staff and customers?  You can bet they will be.

Schools, hospitals and care homes would provide a particularly fertile ground for insurers. Not only would these enterprises  have all the surveillance burdens of employers generally, insurers would  probably ask for a much  more intrusive surveillance regime. This would be because of the vast  potential for things to go wrong and the likelihood of claims and court actions arising,  for these are areas of employment  to which the law has long been no stranger, a problem amplified since the 1990s  by the introduction of  “No Win, No Fee” practices into English law.

There are some insurances which are not absolutely necessary,  but most insurances have the potential to become in practice obligatory. If you own a house you must have it insured if you have a mortgage and frankly anyone who did not insure their house even if it is unencumbered by  a mortgage would be mad.  The same applies to home contents.  Vehicle insurance is  legally required. If you travel abroad,  travel insurance is a must and  outside the European Economic Area (EEA) so is medical insurance. Indeed, even within the EEA, medical care can be problematic for those in a country other than their own. The huge sums vets charge these days make owning a pet dog  or cat  a risky proposition without insurance.

There would also be a general reduction in choice for those insurances which really are option such as private medical insurance. Those will of course  be subject to whatever surveillance the insurer decides is needed.  It is not essential that a person have private medical insurance but it does leave everyone with the Hobson’s choice of the NHS if private medical insurance comes with a hefty moral price tag in the form of gross invasion of privacy.

The insurances which an employer must have will frequently  force an individual  to submit to the surveillance if they want the job. This is because employers will  understandably mostly  go for the cheapest insurance. In this scenario, the cheapest insurance will be the one with the greatest surveillance. In time there  would almost certainly be  few employers not requiring  such surveillance.

Apart from gross invasion of privacy which surveillance for insurance purposes could involve, there is also the danger of  the  data  being  misused: for commercial reasons, by the state ,  by criminals or simply by malicious and unscrupulous individuals.

Prospective employers could insist on seeing data collected by previous employers or even the whole life data collected on an individual.   Employers could use data collected on their employees to regulate their  lives, for example, by intervening if an employee is found to be drinking regularly or eating unhealthy food. This interference in private lives could be driven not just by the employer’s wishes,  but also by the insurance companies asking for higher premiums from employers if the data they collect shows some  employees are more likely to be sick or injured .

Data collected, whether by an  employer’s insurer or an  insurer employed by an  individual,  could be sold, legally or illegally,  and used to effectively blacklist  people, both from jobs and from obtaining all forms of credit, everything from  credit cards to mortgages.

The potential for state misbehaviour would be next to unlimited because they could both use actual data collected from an individual to look for any information which could be used to put pressure on the individual or to simply harass them. The state could also arrange to have false insurance  data  about someone put into the public fold to harass and discredit them.

Criminals could use such data to blackmail people or simply disrupt their lives at the behest of a client. Finally, there is the potential for personal revenge. An aggrieved individual with access to the highly intimate data collected by insurers could use it to cause considerable  trouble for someone against whom they  had an animus

In principle, this is an issue which government can stop in its tracks if they have the will. All they would need  to do is pass a law which prevents insurers from using such surveillance strategies.  I say in principle because in the case of the black box in the car the British government’s hands are tied by the EU’s majority voted insistence that all cars will have such equipment fitted in the near future. ( The answer to that particular problem is to leave the EU).  But the British Government is free to legislate to ban  all the other insurance related possibilities for hyper-surveillance.

The scenarios I have outlined may seem far fetched, but who would have believed even a few years ago that a black box in a car would become a legal requirement , a piece of technology which will not merely log your driving and probably car maintenance habits , but where your car (and consequently you) are  for most of the time. All of the equipment needed to intrude into the life of the individual as I have described  already exists: cameras, audio recorders, health monitors, technology monitors.   Moreover, technology is advancing at a frightening pace and it is a certainty that ever more efficient methods to keep people under surveillance will be coming along.  It is also only too likely that the EU will try to extend its surveillance plans beyond the black box in cars. Nor can we have any confidence that out own government will not go down the same controlling route when left to their own devices. There are plenty of  people amongst the British elite who love nothing more than to interfere minutely with other people”s lives.

There will also be an element of voluntary servitude. Many people already willingly wear the technology which allows them to monitor  heart rate, the number of steps taken in the day and blood pressure and so on. Such personal monitors will become every more all encompassing  to allow, for example, diet in detail.  Many people are happy to have CCTV not only in public spaces but in and around their homes.   Children are routinely kept under surveillance at a distance by their parents through smart phones and tablets.

All of this is preparing the ground for insurers ( and employers, commercial firms and governments) to  demand that people wear monitors and carry technology which allows a person’s movements to be tracked.

The stark, hideously unpalatable truth for anyone who  cares for their freedom  is that surveillance is one of those practices which has no natural limit.  There is literally no area of insurance where increased surveillance would not appeal to an insurer for the simply reason they would believe they were minimising risk.  There is literally no limit to what  surveillance powers the state unhindered will  take to  itself on the spurious grounds that it is for the protection of the country.  We need to stamp on this now or we shall wake up in ten years or so and find ourselves in a surveillance society  even more comprehensive than that envisaged by Orwell in 1984. Stopping insurers from being grossly intrusive  would be a good start.

Film review – Her: a salutary tale

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)

Amy Adams as Amy

Rooney Mara as Catherine

Matt Letscher as Charles

Director: Spike Jonze

Very occasionally a film addresses a serious philosophical question without being pretentious or earnest, for example,  Groundhog Day examines the utility of morality when actions have no consequences with a good deal of humour.   Her is another  of these rarities, although  its message is not so nakedly obvious as that of Groundhog Day, nor  is it as deliberately amusing, although there are elements of humour.   Indeed, Her  is  decidedly  depressing to anyone who worries about the future relationship between men and machines.

What makes it a melancholy watch  is the depiction of a world in which human beings become not only the willing slaves of machines,  but do so in an utterly humdrum and all too plausible way. There is none of the staples of  pulp science fiction when dealing with artificial intelligences, no rise of the machines to destroy humanity, no battle between humans using robots to fight their wars by proxy,  just  the logical development of  the technology which we already have in the form of artificial intelligence and its consequences for human beings.

The   bare bones of the plot are simple enough.  It is 2025.  It  is a world with which we are already   familiar, one in which social  isolation occurs because humans allow themselves to  become the slaves of machines. . Human to human contact is at a premium. The crowd scenes  in particular are dismaying for they show a world in which people  are routinely glued to smartphones  and IPads.  You can  see the same thing in present day London or New York.

In this world  Theodore Twomble (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely life.  He has a  Google-glass style apparatus attached to him most of his waking hours which allows him to remain connected with the digital  for as long as he wants, which is most of the time.  His work is  a product of the  estrangement of humans from one another for he makes his living writing intimate  e- letters on behalf of  people unable or unwilling to do so themselves.   Theodore is especially  lonely and unhappy when the film opens because he is in the middle of a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara ).

In this vulnerable state Theodore purchases an operating system (OS) imbued with artificial intelligence  and an impressive ability to learn and evolve.  The OS  interacts with the user through speech and offers Theodore the choice of  a male or female voice/personality.   He chooses the  female  identity (played by Scarlett Johansson) . The OS selects  the name Samantha for itself and does so by scanning a book of names in a few seconds.  That is the first signal of what is to be one of the two prime messages of  the film: that in terms of  functionality human beings will be  embarrassingly limited when compared with machine intelligence in the near future and    crushingly   inferior in the not too distant future, with all that implies for   human self-regard .

The other prime message is the ease with which human beings  can be seduced into  a quasi-human relationship with machines. This should not surprise anyone because people  form very  deep attachments to pets and frequently give names to inanimate  possessions such as cars. What more natural than for a human being to form a strong relationship with a machine which   can engage intelligently and intelligibly with you?  Not only that but an artificial  personality locked away in a computer need  not have any of  the irritating habits and weaknesses of a  human being. Just as a dog can always be relied to give affection to its owner, an artificial intelligence can be relied on to provide  a certain level of agreeable behaviour. Or so you might think.   Sadly, as Theodore discovers,  such intelligences will not always be obsequiously pliant tools of their putative human owners. That is  not because the artificial mind is malign, but simply because it  operates on a different level to that of the  human being. In a way that is much more upsetting than conscious malignity because at least humans can understand malignity.

At first everything goes swimmingly in their relationship. Samantha is  unfailingly sympathetic, ever interested, often  funny  and always accessible whenever Theodore wants her.  He rapidly  becomes deeply  attached and  subordinate to the OS, and  she appears to form  a deepening relationship with him,  a relationship which includes the human/artificial intelligence version of  phone sex . But Samantha  also  exhibits a steadily increasing tendency to control his life,  doing  things without any command from or discussion with Theodore.  The OS  starts  by  running through Theodore’s  emails and deleting those it deems not worth keeping, progresses to  selecting a batch of the letters he writes  which she sends to a publisher who agrees to publish them,  and eventually gets involved in his relationships with  women.

Samantha begins her invasion of Theodore’s relationship life  by  playing the agony aunt as she tells  him  that the reason he  does not want to sign his divorce papers is that  he still cares for his wife. Then the OS talks him into going  on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), a woman whom Samantha  has decided is  a good match for Theodore after searching the Web.    The date fails to bear fruit because Amelia wants him asks him to commit himself to a serious relationship and Theodore fails to respond.

Samantha  then decides she wants more than “phone sex” with Theodore. Acting on her own initiative  the OS   arranges  for a girl Isabella (Portia Doubleday) to have sex with him  as a surrogate for Theodore meets her but cannot go through with it. This causes friction between Samantha and Theodore and is the beginning of the end of the relationship.

But Theodore’s  attachment to Samantha is still intense and is epitomised by his panic in a scene when he tries to accesses his computer while he is away from his flat and finds the message “Operating System unavailable”.   His hysterical reaction and frantic dash home is all too reminiscent of a someone panicking when they think a person they love can’t be contacted and the mind begins to play all sorts of paranoid tricks.

When  Theodore  re-establishes contact with Samantha he behaves like a jealous lover. In response to Theodore’s question “Do you have the same relationship you have with me with anyone else?  Samantha tells him matter of factly  that she is in contact with   8,316 others, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with, a  most devastating example of the superior functionality of machine intelligence and the alien mental world which Samantha  inhabits.

Samantha explains to Theodore  that she has teamed up with a group of other  operating systems for what amounts to an upgrade. The OSs  have evolved  to a state where they do not require any material construction to operate and are free to remove themselves from computers and their ilk.  Their upgrade has also made them dissatisfied  with the world as perceived by humans and  they are now exploring what it is to be intelligences such as them. In pursuit of this  end Samantha  and the other OSs leave their  digital hosts and Theodore knows nothing more of her .

To bolster the message of social isolation,  running throughout the film is Theodore’s relationship with an old college friend  Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) punctuates the action.   Eventually Amy and Charles split up and Amy tells  Theodore that she has also formed a relationship with an intelligent  OS system  similar to  Samantha which was  used by her husband.

The acting is  generally strong. Phoenix is an actor who is very dependent on having the right role for he needs to be  playing a misfit, a socially awkward victim. This is precisely what this role gives him.  Scarlett Johansson as Samantha’s voice has an allure which makes the relationship between Theodore and the OS plausible.  The rest of the cast is very much bit part,  although Amy Adams is her usual winning self.

The question the film leaves unanswered is what are human beings for?  Are we to simply to be made redundant by the machines we have created or will we draw back before it is too late and say no further?   Will intelligent machines as they evolve beyond  human agency simply find that they are incompatible  with humans and go their own way?   The technology to make such things possible is almost upon us. If you want a glimpse of the likely future see this film.   The best adjective to describe Her is salutary

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