Book Review: Beautiful Intelligence by Stephen Palmer

Robo Reads

Title:  Beautiful Intelligence
Author: Stephen Palmer
Publisher: infinity plus
Date: 2015

Quotation: “For the nexus was heavy. It bore down on humanity, never sleeping, spying into every crevice – no respecter of privacy, which was a ridiculous, old-fashoned concept anyway.”

One of the many things I enjoyed about this dystopian novel was its pacing, which manages somehow to be ponderous and frenetic at the same time. Palmer’s examination of the different potential pathways for creating sentient machines, and his wider meditations on environmental collapse, on the perils of religion and on the consequences of the modern networked life as an over-sharing cult of extrovert personality are thoughtfully rendered, expressed in passionate terms that could feel overly didactic if they weren’t constantly interrupted by the pure adrenalin rush of the book’s many heart-thumping chase scenes.  It’s a great mix of deliberation and danger.

Beautiful Intelligence book cover

Beautiful Intelligence book cover

This duality permeates the whole book. Palmer’s tone mixes the colloquial and the clinical while his narrative flits between two fugitive researchers, each employing different strategies not only to create a sentient machine intelligence but also to evade recapture by their former employer…

Continue reading

Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robo Reads

Title: Robopocalypse
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Published: 2011

Quotation: “I did not realize they communicated this much without words. I note that we machines are not the only species who share information silently, wreathed in codes.”

Scrolling back over my past Robo-Reads reviews I notice that the term “thought-provoking” crops up frequently. Perhaps I just need to expand my vocabulary but it’s certainly true that writing about robots can be an excellent way for authors to grapple with some of life’s biggest questions, both scientific and philosophical. As our artificial progeny, robots hold up a mirror to humanity that helps us ponder the nature of consciousness, the path of progress, the relationship between creator and creation, fears about control and autonomy and many other facets of what it means to be human – or not. Daniel H. Wilson has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, a prestigious pedigree that might lead you to expect his techno-thriller Robopocalypse to continue this path of intellectual inquiry. But there you would be wrong. Wilson clearly knows his stuff when it comes it comes to robotics and his novel does conjure up some interesting scenarios – particularly when it comes to the prospect of surviving a robot takeover in a technologically-saturated urban setting. But overall this is definitely the big-budget popcorn movie of robo-reads…

Robopocalypse book cover

Robopocalypse book cover

Continue reading

Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Robo Reads

Title: Speak
Author: Louisa Hall
Published: 2015

Quotation: “With or without my intervention we were headed towards robots. You blame me for the fact your daughters found their mechanical dolls more human than you, but is that my fault for making a too human doll? Or your fault for being too mechanical?”

This book popped up in my Amazon recommendations a while back and immediately piqued my curiosity. When I saw that it was about robots (one of my favourite subjects) and that critics were describing it as reading “like a hybrid of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood” (two of my favourite authors) I had to get it!

Cover art for Speak

Cover art for Speak

It easy to see the roots of both comparisons. Speak is a work of literary science fiction. Like several of Atwood’s best novels, its setting is near future and rather dystopian and the narrative has a powerful interest in marginalised voices. Turning to the voices themselves: the novel is arranged, Mitchell-like, as a series of distinct narratives, told by an extremely diverse group of characters. Mary Bradford is a young 17th-century puritan woman unwillingly married and voyaging to the New World, she pours her hopes and fears into her secret diary. Alan Turing is, well, I’m sure you know who Turing is, the AI theoretician and codebreaker is the novel’s only historical inclusion, and he expresses himself here through a series of (imagined) letters to the mother of a deceased childhood friend. Karl and Ruth Dettman are an increasingly estranged married couple, Jewish refugees and academics (respectively a computer scientist and a historian) who prepare monologues to each other as more direct forms of communication break down.  Gaby White is a teenage girl who has been left isolated and paralysed by a strange and debilitating illness, trapped within her room and within herself she converses with an online chatbot called Mary3. Finally, Stephen R. Chinn is a silicon valley whizkid composing his memoirs from prison where he has been sent for creating, “babybots” robot dolls that have been deemed illegally lifelike.

Intrigued? I certainly was. Speak‘s ventriloquism is never quite was polished as that of David Mitchell and its dystopian world building isn’t as considered or expansive as you find in works like Atwood’s Madd Addam trilogy but for a sophomore novel, it’s an impressive read. Poignant and often heart-breaking this is a gripping exploration of communication, loneliness and what it means to be human… Continue reading

Book Review: Robot Takeover by Ana Matronic

Robo ReadsTitle: Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture and Real Life
Author: Ana Matronic
Published: Octopus Books: 2015

Ana Matronic is most renowned as the female vocalist in American disco/glam rock band Scissor Sisters. Now it would take a heart of stone and feet like lead weights to remain entirely unmoved by the bands’ supremely ear-wormy toe-tap inducing tunes, but as I’m not a particular follower of their genre of music in general, I confess I hadn’t realised until recently that Matronic is also huge robot fan. On reflection, her (wonderful) choice of moniker and the large tattoo of circuity on her arm really should have clued me in already. But any gaps in my knowledge of or appreciation for Matronic’s interest in all things robot (which I very much share) have now been filled by the arrival of this stylish coffee table volume.

Robot Takeover book cover

Robot Takeover book cover

In Robot Takeover Matronic collects and discusses 100 of the most iconic robots, mixing characters from myth, history and pop-culture with real products of scientific invention. Her passion for the subject gleams like polished chrome from every page. With me, of course, she was preaching to the converted, but her enthusiasm is infectious nonetheless and the chatty warmth of her tone provides a wonderful counterpoint to the stereotypically cold mechanical reserve of some of the characters she discusses.

The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favourite things. When people ask, ‘why robots?’ I can get a bit confused. Doesn’t everybody love robots?

If you’re already one of Matronic’s “everybodies” then this book may not offer you too much in the way things you didn’t know, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride and the chance to reminisce on a few pop-cultural favourites as well meeting some new mechanical faces. If you’re a member of that hard-to-compute group who don’t love robots, well realistically I guess you’d be unlikely to pick up the book in the first place. But if you do take the plunge you’ll find a great introduction to why robots matter as well as to the important understanding that a “takeover” need not always be a negative thing…

Continue reading

Book Review: The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Robo Reads

Title: The Stories of Ibis
Author: Hiroshi Yamamoto
Translator: Takami Nieda
Published: (Kindle Edition) 2011

Quotation: Why were there so many stories about robots and humans fighting? Did they only exist because that was how mankind had always lived? Did we simply see ourselves in these humanoid machines?

The Stories of Ibis presents a sequence of five short stories and two slightly longer ones, each exploring human relationships with artificial intelligence, or with other humans in a technologically-enabled world. Hugely diverse in setting, the subjects include the following: a group of bulletin-board users collaboratively imagining the adventures of a Star Trek-like fictional space crew (“The Universe on my Hands”); a tale of told by artificially intelligent space station on the edge of a black hole that provides a final stop-off for the adventurous and the suicidal (“Black Hole Diver”); there’s even a bubblegum anime-inspired world populated by powered up AI school-kid fighters (”A World Where Justice is Just”). Each tale stands alone, but scaffolded by an introduction and series of intermissions in which characters reflect on the story they have just heard, the stories combine to offer an impressively original exploration of the possibilities and perils of humans creating artificial life.

Kindle Edition cover

Kindle Edition cover

The creation of autonomous robots and the consequences of this for humanity as a species is a topic to which sci-fiction returns time and again. Yet Yamamato’s work never feels stale precisely because of the extent to which it recognises this fact. Artificial intelligences like the titular Ibis – the female AI who narrates each of these wide-ranging tales, rather like a robo-Scheherazade – are not simply the product of technical advancements, they are also born from stories and fictions that first imagined them. More concerned with language and psychology than engineering, this collection acknowledges the creative power of story telling, particularly those yarns spun about robots…

Continue reading

Film Review: Chappie

Year: 2015
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel

Chappie is the third film by South African director Neill Blomkamp after the superb District 9 and the uninspiring Elysium. It also happens to be my third robot movie cinema trip of 2015 (after January’s Ex Machina and February’s Big Hero 6) and by the far the one I was looking forward to the most. I’d been really excited about Chappie since I first heard it was being produced, and – especially – since I saw initial designs for its expressively bunny-eared mechanical protagonist. But it was with some trepidation that I settled myself in front of the big screen as the picture seems to be garnering an awful lot of negative reviews and few things make me madder or sadder than squandered opportunities to make a decent robot flick.

So, how much does Chappie resemble the sticker on its eponymous hero’s head?

Still from Chappie official trailer: https://youtu.be/l6bmTNadhJE

Still from Chappie official trailer: https://youtu.be/l6bmTNadhJE

One of the movie’s refrains is the desire of his creator for Chappie to be himself, necessarily shaped and influenced by his world (a grimly dystopian one) and by the people around him, but ultimately free to be unique. Basically a robotic child, Chappie soaks up stimuli without always knowing what he wants or how to respond. And in this respect the film as a whole does mirrors its protagonist. Blomkamp’s influences are never hidden: with Short Circuit and Robocop being the most obvious cinematic touchstones. The film evokes these, as well as a lot of intriguing ideas about human prejudice, artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness but it doesn’t always seem to have a clear agenda or sense of what to do with these multiple threads, and I can see how this would frustrate many critics.

Yet even if it can feel muddled, Chappie, like its protagonist, should not be rejected but embraced as very much its own thing. And that thing just happens to be a violent, bubblegum sci-fi robot fairytale. Now that’s not a genre I even realised I needed in my life but now we’ve got it, I’m so glad it’s here. This film is not without its flaws but it still triumphantly pulled at my heart strings and sent my pulse racing.

Continue reading

Film Review: Ex Machina

Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac

Screenshot from Ex Machina official trailer: http://youtu.be/XYGzRB4Pnq8

Alicia Vikander as Ava. Screenshot from Ex Machina official trailer: http://youtu.be/XYGzRB4Pnq8

The theme of artificial intelligence is one explored time and again in science fiction, and it’s a fascination that seems to be only increasing as such ideas move into the realm of science fact. Just look at how the recent driverless cars debate has ignited responses in the media stretching from impressed excitement to apocalyptic dread.  Alex Garland’s tense, cerebral film evokes precisely this mix of wonder and unease, making for an engaging cinematic experience.

Continue reading