Thursday, 25 February 2016

We Need The Three Laws Now!

One of the more interesting aspects of getting older is seeing science fiction transmute into science fact. One of the things that first got me interested in Artifical Intelligence as a kid was Isaac Asimov's classic robot stories. These tales, written in the 1940s, foresaw the coming of humanlike robots in the early 21st century.

In the 1980s, robotics was developing fast but was still in the developmental phase. Often, you'd see a film of a robot wobble and fall over, which seemed very different from Asimov's stories, and oddly disappointing.

I must admit to a feeling of awe (perhaps technological sublime) watching this video of Boston Dynamics' next generation of Atlas Robots; it seems as though Asimov's robots have strode from the pages of fiction into reality.

The central rationale of Asimov's stories, was, of course, the three laws of robotics, which were supposed to prevent robots harming humans. Asimov began writing these stories in opposition to a common trope in SF at the time -- a mad scientist creating a robot, that runs amok and kills its creator.

Instead, Asimov saw his robots as engineering devices. 'I made them tools,' he wrote, 'I made them machines to serve human ends. And I made them objects with built in safety features. In other words, I set them up so that a robot could not kill his creator (Robot Visions, p. 360).'

But a central character in the robot stories is Susan Calvin, a robot psychologist. How long, I wonder, before we need one of those?

Friday, 19 February 2016

Three Tomorrows

What would a better future look like? Most of us have different ideas.

Some, for example, anticipate improved gadgets and exciting projects like travel to Mars. Others look forward to the eclipse of capitalism, and the birth of more equal societies. Conversely, some want hypercharged capitalism and eternal life. Still others like to imagine the surface of the Earth re-wilded, and a better balance between technology and the natural world.

The appeal of these visions – or otherwise – depends on your worldview, your ideology, and the paradigm – or world-model – that you’re using. And there are a whole range of these; perhaps one for every person.

W. Warren Wagar’s book ‘The Next Three Futures’ contrasts what he calls ‘three major modern futurist paradigms’ that have shaped thought. The first of the paradigms he calls Technoliberal.

This is a dominant paradigm in the mainstream, and is often assumed without much thought. It is an ‘abiding faith in the power of technology and managerial technique to solve problems and help preserve liberty(p. 36, op.cit).' This view also includes both the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ (‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’) of much current mainstream thinking.

The second major paradigm is the radical or ‘socialist’ paradigm. This includes Marxism, and Wagar describes it as a ‘reasoned hope for the demise of capitalist world system with all its festering injustice and its replacement by some form of workers’ polity or commonwealth(p. 38).' 

He includes green politics in this paradigm, but acknowledges that it’s an uneasy fit. I'd say green paradigms sit somewhere between the radical and countercultural ones; and there have even been recent attempts to assimilate them into technoliberalism.

The third major paradigm he terms ‘countercultural.’ Counterculturalists are primarily concerned with a rethinking of values and social decentralization. Their values are based on the question; ‘[w]hat if, instead of more urbanization and the centralization of power, humankind chose a different dream, concerned more with the quality of life than with its quantities? (p. 41, op.cit.)'

Counterculturalists, following thinkers like Aldous Huxley, see the need for inner transformation. To them, social reform is not enough. Without inner development, civilization will continue to slide into confusion and chaos. And right now, it seems hard to argue with this.

We all have an idea of what a better future might be. Where do you stand?

Friday, 12 February 2016

Ed Mitchell

"We Are One" - Edgar Mitchell 1930-2016 from Institute of Noetic Sciences on Vimeo.

I was very sad to hear of the passing of Ed Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut who also founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS).

I was born a year or so after the Apollo missions ended, but they had a kind of mythic status in my childhood. In the late 1970s, between the end of Apollo and the first launch of the shuttle, space was something that had happened in the past and would happen again in the future, but was not in the present.

Still, I loved reading about human space exploration in Usborne and Ladybird books. But whilst these books effectively communicated the excitement and romance of space travel, they did not really convey that the astronauts had been human beings, with feelings and lives.

I first heard about Ed Mitchell in the context of the ESP experiments he'd done on Apollo 14.  The last page of the Usborne World of the Future (Robots) had a page on 'Mind Over Matter -- the Final Frontier,' which was basically about possible applications of psi phenomena in the future.

The section had a painting of the Apollo spacecraft on the way to the Moon, and a caption that said that Mitchell 'tried to communicate telepathically with  friends on Earth.' J.B Rhine, apparently, thought the results 'encouraging.' Naively, I thought that this was an official NASA experiment; actually, he sneaked it in between his other duties and didn't tell management about it at all.

What the book failed to add was that Mitchell had had a mystical experience on the way to Moon, and that this had changed the direction of his life. On his return, as he reported in his biography The Way of the Explorer, his consciousness shifted and...well, watch the video above, for his own description. This experience led to the founding of IONS, and a long, involved attempt to understand what had happened to him.

For me, Mitchell's life is a perfect illustration of the fact that the exploration of outer and inner space are two sides of the same coin. There is the Universe -- vast, mysterious and wonderful -- and there are the often hidden inner aspects of themselves that who knows, may also extend into the infinite.

So goodbye, Doctor Mitchell, and thank you for leading the way in humankind's exploration of the Universe.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Mulder N'Scully

It's hard to underestimate how influential the X-Files was for me.  It was part of the psychedelic '90s and provided a mythic framework for a long-standing fascination with Fortean Phenomena that has (probably to my overall disadvantage, professionally) persisted since childhood.

The X-Files got the quest aspect of this fascination exactly right. In his book Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur speaks about the quest as an 'extroverted' version of the Shaman's inner journey. The quester is 'active, single-minded, almost obsessive,' (p. 250), which describes Mulder to a tee. Check out this quote from season 3's 'Quagmire;'

Scully: It's funny, I just realised something.... How much you're like Ahab. You're so... consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or its mysteries, that everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.
Mulder: Scully, are you coming on to me?

Harpur likens the quest to a pilgrimage, stating that the danger for the quester is that 'the Otherworld is too close to him, threatening to overwhelm and possess him (p. 250).' And this is exactly what happens to Mulder and his companions over the course of nine seasons and two movies; the Otherworld, represented by Aliens, monsters and conspiracies did, on a weekly basis, threaten to overwhelm the staid realities of FBI procedure.

The dyad of Mulder and Scully, too, seem to me very effective representations of polarities within ourselves. Each of us, I think, harbours an inner believer and a sceptic, or one side that's expansive and imaginative and another side that's critical and analytical. What the X-Files taught me is that our rational side cannot live without the imaginative, romantic side, and vice versa. And contrary to those who claim the X-Files to be anti science, here's a quote from the first movie:

Mulder: But you saved me. As difficult and frustrating as it's been sometimes, your God-damned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over. You kept me honest. You made me a whole person.

So the first episode of the six part event series is broadcast in the UK on Channel 5 tomorrow night, and, whatever the quality of the episodes, I must admit to being hopelessly biased. Just seeing Scully and Mulder back on the quest will be enough, for now. From the pilot:

Mulder: When convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?
Scully: ...What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.
Mulder: That's why they put the I in FBI.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Ramsey Campbell and the Cthulu Mythos

Some writers start young. I've been reading an early collection Ramsey Campbell's, the Inhabitant of the Lake, which was published when he was 18.

It's a collection of Cthulu mythos stories; the mythos being a shared fictional universe based on  the writing of H.P. Lovecraft.

I'm a great fan of the mythos stories, both Lovecraft's originals and the various pastiches that followed. Like many others, including Campbell, Lovecraft's style of cosmic terror and awe made a deep impression when I was a teenager (However, and unlike Campbell, I had neither the wit nor the confidence to translate this influence into stories at that age).

Campbell's youthful stories seem to me remarkably accomplished. On the whole, they successfully capture the sense of creeping dread and otherworldliness that were a feature of Lovecraft at his best, although Campbell himself complains that they are too derivative.  This might be true, but they still work as stories and are very entertaining.

The edition I've got (Indian Drugstore Press, 2013), also includes some correspondence between Campbell and August Derleth, who, under his imprint Arkham House, first published these stories in 1964.

Derleth was a writer, editor and a friend of Lovecraft's who was also his literary executor. He was responsible for the Cthulu mythos stories after Lovecraft's death, and published several anthologies featuring contributors like Robert Howard, Clarke Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch and Colin Wilson.

The best mythos stories all contain what Campbell described in an interview as the notion of alienage as a 'metaphor for something barely glimpsed, something larger than the text -- a cosmic horror with a visionary quality.' (In Looking for the Aliens by Jenny Randles and Peter Hough, 1991, p. 18).

This 'visionary quality' seems to be the summit to which any writer of weird fiction should aspire.