Parade of the Possible

Watching the Elfwegentocht parade spool by for New Scientist, 18 July 2018

Astronaut André Kuipers has enjoyed his share of travel, and has no doubt racked up some air miles. Who better, then, to wave the start flag for a parade of futuristic vehicles?

Spooling along at a sedate 30 miles an hour down the motorway from Drachten to Leeuwarden, this year’s European Capital of Culture, they lacked a certain Mad Max flair. But that’s Friesland for you: a land of 60 languages and 128 nationalities, birthplace of Mata Hari – and when you drive through there’s nothing to see but cows.

The Parade was the festive conclusion of the Elfwegentocht: for two weeks, people have got about the region without using a drop of fossil fuel. “And now we’ve shown it’s possible,” says Bouwe de Boer, the municipality’s energy coordinator at the municipality of Leeuwarden, “we’ve shown that it is possible also for the rest of the Netherlands.”

De Boer is now project leader of Fossylfrij Fryslân, the fossil-free movement in Friesland, bringing disparate environmental campaigns and start-up technologies together to achieve real goals in tiny time frames. Electric vehicles dominate the parade but as de Boer points out, there are other ways to drive fossil-free. “Think of trucks and buses on hydrogen, cars on blue diesel, buses on green gas, Segways, bicycles, mobility scooters, go-karts…”

Go-karts? It’s a gimcrack future, this – but then, what else can the future ever be but an amalgam of new and old, complex and homespun?

The two big innovative technologies on display here aren’t actually “on display” in a physical sense. You’ll have to take my word for it that the “Blauwe Diesel” manufactured by Neste in Rotterdam from restaurant waste and residues is, indeed, satisfyingly blue. It’s a pure HVO (“hydrotreated vegetable oil” to you), low on emissions and so similar to regular diesel in the way it behaves that it requires no modifications to existing diesel engines or distribution systems. At a pump near you – assuming you live in this go-ahead region of the Netherlands – it could be the saving of an industry that some manufacturers and governments have already written off. Meanwhile Neste is trying to make its blue diesel from other sources, including old car tires, waste paper and algae.

Elsewhere in the parade, under the bonnets of a handful of electric cars, sit batteries from MG Energy Systems. These are the batteries you most often find in racing cars and speedboats, and they’re the brainchild of local entrepreneurs Gerard van der Schaar and Mark Scholten, whose first project, back in 2006, was a vessel to compete in the world’s first solar boat race (another de Boer initiative).

They quickly discovered that batteries were the boats’ Achilles’ heel. There was simply no good battery management system available. A little over a decade later their products power the Furia solar boat, which has finished first in just about every international solar boat event; Solarwave 62, the first hybrid yacht with electric propulsion to cross the Atlantic Ocean; the Elektra One Solar, the first electric-and-solar aircraft to fly over the Alps; and the Nuna7 car, winner of the World Solar Challenge in 2013, having achieved an average speed of 90.71 kmh for over 30 hours.

De Boer is proud of his region’s achievements but he has his eye on the bigger picture, too. As of 27 June the Netherlands has set in train one of the world’s most ambitious climate laws, which if it’s finalised in 2019, will set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent by 2050, with the introduction of a carbon-neutral electricity system. (The UK’s mandated 2050 emissions target is an 80 per cent reduction. Sweden and Norway are set to go carbon neutral by 2045 and 2050 respectively)

De Boer talks excitedly about Friesland’s circular energy economy. Cleaning up waste water in this region generates methane which is being harvested to boost biogas production. He talks excitedly about advances in renewable energy. Solar panels power MG’s entire battery factory. He talks excitedly about everything, quite frankly. But it’s an incidental detail which captures my attention: fruit, I am told, of another one of de Boer’s endless stream of friendly, chivvying phone-calls.

The police looking after the parade are riding electric bikes.

The unfashionable genius of William De Morgan

Visiting Sublime Symmetry at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery for New Scientist, 28 May 2018

William De Morgan was something of a liability. He once used a fireplace as a makeshift kiln and set fire to his rented London home. And as a businessman he was a disaster. The prices he charged for his tiles and ceramics hardly even paid for the materials, never mind his time.

At the turn of the 20th century, when serious financial problems loomed, only a man of De Morgan’s impractical stripe would resort to writing fiction. But the tactic paid off. No one remembers them these days, but the autobiographical Joseph Vance (1903) and subsequent novels were well regarded at the time, and hugely popular.

Sublime Symmetry at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery wants to tell the story of this polymathic artist but (like De Morgan himself, one suspects) it keeps disappearing down intellectual rabbit holes. De Morgan’s father was the freethinking mathematician Augustus De Morgan, whose student Francis Guthrie came up with the four-colour hypothesis (whereby designing a map, so that countries with a common boundary are differently shaded, requires only four colours). His whimsical tiled fire surround for his friend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) might have inspired that author’s nonsense verses. Other ceramic projects included the tiles on a dozen P&O liners. Ada Lovelace was a family friend.

On and on like this, until it dawns on you that none of this is an accident, the show’s endless rabbit holes are its point, and fashioning a man like William de Morgan – a mathematically inventive painter of pots, for heaven’s sake – would today be an impossibility.

With all our talk of STEAM and “Sci Art”, the sciences and the humanities are more isolated and defended against each other (“siloed” is the current term of art) than they ever were in De Morgan’s day. And the world itself, as a consequence, is a little less capable of sustaining wonder.

Fusion and freedom
Like Maurits Escher, half a century later, the ceramicist De Morgan drew inspiration from natural forms, and rendered them with a rigor learned from studying classical Arabic design. This fusion of the animate and the geometrical was best expressed on plates and bowls, the best of them made, not in a fireplace, but in the rather more sensible setting of Sand’s End Pottery in Fulham.

De Morgan’s skills as a draftsman were extraordinary. He could draw, free-hand, any pattern around a central line that would have perfect mirror symmetry. Becoming expert in lustreware, he painted his designs directly onto the ceramic surface of his pots and plates, manipulating his original sketches to fit every curve of an object.

It fits De Morgan’s somewhat disorganised reputation that lustreware should have become unfashionable by the end of the century, just as he perfected it.

Even now, it takes a few minutes’ wandering around the Guildhall Gallery for the visitor’s eye to accommodate itself to these objects: so very Victorian, so very hand-done and apparently quotidian. Make the time. This show is a gem, and De Morgan’s achievement is extraordinary. Among these tiles and pots and plates are some of the most natural and apparently effortless fusions of artistic proportion and mathematical rigor ever committed to any medium.

M C Escher: “Indulging in imaginary thoughts”

Beating piteously at the windows for New Scientist, 25 May 2018

Leeuwarden-Fryslan, one of the less populated parts of the Netherlands, has been designated this year’s European Capital of Culture. It’s a hub of social and technological and cultural innovation and yet hardly anyone has heard of the place. It makes batteries that the makers claim run circles around Tesla’s current technology, there are advanced plans for the region to go fossil free by 2025, it has one of the highest (and happiest) immigrant populations in Europe, and yet all we can see from the minibus, from horizon to horizon, is cows.

When you’re invited to write about an area you know nothing about, a good place to start is the heritage. But even that can’t help us here. The tiny city of Leeuwarden boasts three hugely famous children: spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari, astrophysicist Jan Hendrik Oort (he of the Oort Cloud) and puzzle-minded artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. The trouble is, all three are famous for being maddening eccentrics.

All Leeuwarden’s poor publicists can do then, having brought us here, is throw everything at us and hope something sticks. And so it happens that, somewhere between the (world-leading) Princessehof ceramics museum and Lan Fan Taal, a permanent pavilion celebrating world languages, someone somewhere makes a small logistical error and locks me inside an M C Escher exhibition.

Escher, who died in 1972, is famous for using mathematical ideas in his art, drawing on concepts from symmetry and hyperbolic geometry to create complex tessellated images. And the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden has gathered more than 80 original prints for me to explore, along with drawings, photographs and memorabilia, so there is no possibility of my getting bored.

Nor is the current exhibition, Escher’s Journey, the usual, chilly celebration of the man’s puzzle-making ability and mathematical sixth sense. Escher was a pleasant, passionate man with a taste for travel, and this show reveals how his personal experiences shaped his art.

Escher’s childhood was by his own account a happy one. His parents took a good deal of interest in his education without ever restricting his intellectual freedom. This was as well, since he was useless at school. Towards the end of his studies, he and his parents traveled through France to Italy, and in Florence he wrote to a friend: “I wallow in it, but so greedily that I fear that my stomach will not be able to withstand it.”

The cultural feast afforded by the city was the least of it. The Leeuwarden native was equally staggered by the surrounding hills – the sheer, three-dimensional fact of them; the rocky coasts and craggy defiles; the huddled mountain villages with squares, towers and houses with sloping roofs. Escher’s love of the Italian landscape consumed him and, much to his mother’s dismay, he was soon permanently settled in the country.

For visitors familiar to the point of satiety and beyond with Escher’s endlessly reproduced and commodified architectural puzzles and animal tessellations, the sketches he made in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s are the highlight of this show. Escher’s favored medium was the engraving. It’s a time-consuming art, and one that affords the artist time to think and to tinker. Inevitably, Escher began merging his sketches into new, realistic wholes. Soon he was trying out unusual perspectives and image compilations. In Still Life with Mirror (1934), he crossed the threshold, creating a reflected world that proves on close inspection to be physically and mathematically impossible.

The usual charge against Escher as an artist – that he was too caught up in the toils of his own visual imagination to express much humanity – is hard to rebuff. There’s a gap here it’s not so easy to bridge: between Escher the approachable and warm-hearted family man and Escher the grumpy Parnassian (he once sent Mick Jagger away with a flea in his ear for asking him for an album cover).

The second world war had a lot to answer for, of course, not least because it drove Escher out of his beloved Italian hills and back, via Switzerland, to the flat old, dull old Netherlands. “Italy, the landscape, the people, they speak to me.” he explained in 1968. “Switzerland doesn’t and Holland even less so.”

Without the landscape to inform his art, other influences came to dominate. Among the places he had visited as war gathered was the Alhambra in Granada. The complex geometric patterns covering its every surface, and their timeless, endless repetition, fascinated him. For days on end he copied the Arab motifs in the palace. Back in the Netherlands, their influence, and Escher’s growing fascination with the mathematics of tessellation, would draw him away from landscapes toward an art consisting entirely of “visualised thoughts”.

By the time his images were based on periodic tilings (meaning that you can slide a pattern in a certain direction and have it exactly overlay the original), his commentaries suggest that Escher had come to embrace his own, somewhat sterile reputation. “I played a game,” he recalled, “indulged in imaginary thoughts, with no other intention than to explore the possibilities of representation. In my work I give a report on these discoveries.”

In the end Escher’s designs became so fiendishly complex, his output dropped almost to zero, and much of his time was taken up lecturing and corresponding about his unique way of working. He corresponded with mathematicians, though he never considered himself one. He knew Roger Penrose. He lived to see the first fractal shapes evolve out of the mathematical studies of Koch and Mandelbrot, though it wasn’t until after his death that Benoît Mandelbrot coined the word “fractal” and popularised the concept.

Eventually, I am missed. At any rate, someone thinks to open the gallery door. I don’t know how long I was in there, locked in close proximity to my childhood hero. (Yes, as a child I did those jigsaw puzzles; yes, as a student I had those posters on my wall) I can’t have been left inside Escher’s Journey for more than a few minutes. But I exited a wreck.

The Fries Museum has lit Escher’s works using some very subtle and precise spot projection; this and the trompe-l’œil monochrome paintwork on the walls of the gallery form a modestly Escherine puzzle all by themselves. Purely from the perspective of exhibition design, this charming, illuminating, and comprehensive show is well worth a visit.

You wouldn’t want to live there, though.

When robots start caring

A glimpse into our Eloi future for the Spectator, 3 February 2018
(There’s also a podcast.)

‘I gotta be me,’ Sammy Davis Jr. croons as the android Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) steadies her horse, stands up on her stirrups, takes aim with her Winchester, and picks off her human masters one by one.

The trailer’s out at last and the futuristic TV series Westworld is set to return in the spring. It’s a prescient show, but not in the ways you might expect. It’s not about robot domination. Westworld is about an uprising of pleasure cyborgs in a futuristic resort. It is, for all its gunplay, about love. And that makes it a very timely show indeed.

In the real world, robots are actually being designed to love us — to fill traditional caring roles for which we have neither the time, energy, nor resources. Robots are being built to help the elderly, nurse the sick and tend the children. Pundits often take this as evidence of our selfish, lazy, reprehensible present. But we’ve been working towards this moment for a very long time, and would it really be so very bad?

If you think that families should look after their own elderly, you’ll need to explain why in south-east Asia, traditionally a region of three- and even four-generation family units, nouveau-riche gated retirement communities are springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Perhaps the elderly don’t long to live among us, as we imagine. Perhaps poverty is the only thing nailing Grandma to the family couch. As for the sick, we’ve long since been consigning them to institutions, be they care homes, hospitals or hospices, where people who are better-trained promise to look after them.

The question is not whether we should employ robots. Given the lousiness of some institutions, why on earth wouldn’t we? The question is whether the robots we employ will be any good, and whether we can accept them as substitute humans. We’d like to think not, but there’s evidence to suggest that we’ll bond with even a basic machine far more easily than we’d like to believe.

In 2011, Takanori Shibata, a Japanese engineer, turned up on the coast of tsunami-wracked Fukushima and handed out around 80 robotic seal pups to the victims of the disaster. Refugees warmed to the robots: many have held on to them and continue to look after them. Shibata could have turned up with puppies, or kittens or guinea pigs and would probably have achieved greater therapeutic impact. But who has the money and time to feed and look after 80 animals in a disaster zone? Pets need care and attention — a point not lost on the residential homes that employ Shibata’s robot seals to comfort their elderly, often demented, charges. A single ‘Paro’ — an acronym that roughly translates as ‘personal robot — costs around $5,000. A real-life therapy dog may cost more than $50,000 over its lifetime.

Paro isn’t much of a robot. It can move its head, neck, eyelids, flippers and tail. It responds to the human voice and to touch. It understands simple words and phrases (the sort we use with pets and babies). It knows when it’s being treated well, and when it’s being roughly handled. Its cries (made from digitally sampled baby seal sounds) have a discernible emotional range. It’s old news —the first Paros were sold in 1998 — but it’s making headlines again this year because the ninth generation model is being assessed for use on long space journeys. Mars colonists, permanently deprived of wider human society, will find consolation in a robotic animal chosen for its inability to disappoint. Robot dogs are a let-down because we know what pet dogs are like. How many pet seals do you know? Paro’s very blandness is its point. Its easy, undemanding displays of personal affection reduce stress, anxiety, depression, wandering and aggression among the demented of 30 countries. It must be only a matter of time before Paro makes it into the ‘safe spaces’ on university campus.

Kaspar, designed by the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, is hardly more sophisticated in appear-ance: a bland foot-high doll in a check shirt. It’s not really a robot — more a mechanical puppet, controlled remotely by researchers. Its expressive minimalism and extreme simplicity reassure the children it plays with — those with severe autism or those who have suffered trauma and abuse.

According to Living with Robots, Paul Dumouchel and Luisa Damiano’s recent survey of social robotics, robots are likely to be stuck in this uncanny state for some time, while we try to codify what ‘behaving like a human being’ actually means. We have vast knowledge of ourselves as social beings, of course, evidenced by millennia of cultural output from Dream of the Red Chamber to Breaking Bad. What we lack is a high-level description of human behaviour of the sort that can find its way into computer code. We all know why we laugh, cry, blush and commit suicide, but we have not the slightest idea what laughing, crying, blushing and committing suicide are for. This is why social robots attract so much academic attention: they are an experimental apparatus, through which we study ourselves.

Countless robot nurse prototypes, with names like Terapio and Robear, are under trial. The problems they are meant to address are real. We have conquered disease to the point where people regularly stay healthy into their nineties. This is why the US has as many people over 85 as children under five and China has 100 million senior citizens to look after. Someone or something needs to look after us in our dotage. Then there are the edge cases: those social wrinkles we could conceivably iron out with robots, but not without consequence. Should we roll out sex robots to address the uneven gender ratios in China? Straight men right now have next to no opportunity for sexual companionship: don’t they deserve some comfort?

Not according to Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, whose Campaign Against Sex Robots, launched in 2015, declares that sex with an animate object that lacks agency can only brutalise us. Notwithstanding that sex robots are a bit rubbish, this particular rabbit hole swallows academics by the ton.

Nations with the most intractable demographic problems are the ones most entranced by the promise of robotics. Japan’s population is crashing as a generation of young people eschews sex. A third of men under 30 have never dated. Women prefer singledom to the life of penury and drudgery afforded by Japanese marriage. A new book by Jennifer Robertson, Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation, unpicks the Japanese government’s published blueprint for revitalising the nation’s households by 2025. If we can only build robots to do the housework, the argument runs, then women will have more time for having babies. Once again, technology is being promoted not because it ushers in the future but because it preserves the past. (A driverless car is still, after all, a car: not a bus or a train or a decent broadband link. And a robot servant is still a servant.)

On the one hand, robots are like Uber and the spinning jenny. They promise to increase production while preserving the institutions of capital. They’re disruptive right up to the point where something might happen to the money. A more intriguing threat is the one directed at our own social lives. Surrounded by dull, bland, easy-going robot companions, will we come to expect less of other people? Assisted, cared for, and even seduced silly by machines, will we lower our expectations around concepts like ‘conversation’, ‘care’, ‘companionship’ and ‘love’?

Paro and Kaspar are creepy not for what they are — clinical tools, improving the lives of vulnerable people — but for what they portend: a world in which you and I find Paro and Kaspar a sufficient substitute for other people. ‘Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal,’ wrote the social scientist Sherry Turkle back in 2011, ‘but it consigns us to a closed world — the loveable as safe and made to measure.’ Will our constant association with such easy-going, selfless-because-characterless robots make us emotionally lazy?

We’ve imagined this sort of future many times. Hesiod was writing poems about ineluctable degeneration around 700 BC. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) imagines a world in which the beautiful, sensitive people — the Eloi — have all the savvy of veal calves and ‘civilisation’ has turned out to be nothing but a process of self-domestication. And it’s true: civilisation is as much about forgetting, and attendant helplessness, as it is about learning. In my own lifetime, handwriting and mental arithmetic have gone to the wall, and the art of everyday literary nuance is being ousted by the application of quick, characterful emoji. Having to learn new skills is a nuisance. Having to dispense with skills already acquired is a little death: a diminution of the spirit.

The pioneering psychologist William James argued that what we want from a lover is that they really love us, and not simply behave as if they did. I hope that’s true. If we come to believe that the soul is nothing more than behaviour, then of course a robot will become just as good as a person. Why even bother to build better robots? An Eloi future beckons: all we have to do is lower our expectations.



Future by design

The Second Digital Turn: Design beyond intelligence
Mario Carpo
MIT Press

THE Polish futurist Stanislaw Lem once wrote: “A scientist wants an algorithm, whereas the technologist is more like a gardener who plants a tree, picks apples, and is not bothered about ‘how the tree did it’.”

For Lem, the future belongs to technologists, not scientists. If Mario Carpo is right and the “second digital turn” described in his extraordinary new book comes to term, then Lem’s playful, “imitological” future where analysis must be abandoned in favour of creative activity, will be upon us in a decade or two. Never mind our human practice of science, science itself will no longer exist, and our cultural life will consist of storytelling, gesture and species of magical thinking.

Carpo studies architecture. Five years ago, he edited The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992-2012, a book capturing the curvilinear, parametric spirit of digital architecture. Think Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – a sort of deconstructed metal fish head – and you are halfway there.

Such is the rate of change that five years later, Carpo has had to write another book (the urgency of his prose is palpable and thrilling) about an entirely different kind of design. This is a generative design powered by artificial intelligence, with its ability to thug through digital simulations (effectively, breaking things on screen until something turns up that can’t be broken) and arriving at solutions that humans and their science cannot better.

This kind of design has no need of casts, stamps, moulds or dies. No costs need be amortised. Everything can be a one-off at the same unit cost.

Beyond the built environment, it is the spiritual consequences of this shift that matter, for by its light Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression.

Unlike their AIs, human beings cannot hold much information at any one time. Hence, for example, the Roman alphabet: a marvel of compression, approximating all possible vocalisations with just 26 characters. Now that we can type and distribute any glyph at the touch of a button, is it any wonder emojis are supplementing our tidy 26-letter communications?

Science itself is simply a series of computational strategies to draw the maximum inference from the smallest number of precedents. Reduce the world to rules and there is no need for those precedents. We have done this for so long and so well some of us have forgotten that “rules” aren’t “real” rules, they are just generalisations.

AIs simply gather or model as many precedents as they wish. Left to collect data according to their own strengths, they are, Carpo says, “postscientific”. They aren’t doing science we recognise: they are just thugging.

“Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression”

Carpo foresees the “separation of the minds of the thinkers from the tools of computation”. But in that alienation, I think, lies our reason to go on. Because humans cannot handle very much data at any one time, sorting is vital, which means we have to assign meaning. Sorting is therefore the process whereby we turn data into knowledge. Our inability to do what computers can do has a name already: consciousness.

Carpo’s succinctly argued future has us return to a tradition of orality and gesture, where these forms of communication need no reduction or compression since our tech will be able to record, notate, transmit, process and search them, making all cultural technologies developed to handle these tasks “equally unnecessary”. This will be neither advance nor regression. Evolution, remember, is maddeningly valueless.

Could we ever have evolved into Spock-like hyper-rationality? I doubt it. Carpo’s sincerity, wit and mischief show that Prospero is more the human style. Or Peter Pan, who observed: “You can have anything in life, if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”


Hello, Robot

Visiting Hello, Robot: Design between human and machine at MAK, Vienna for New Scientist, 6 June 2017

Above the exhibits in the first room of Hello, Robot, a large sign asks: “Have you ever met a robot?” Easy enough. But the questions keep on coming, and by the end of the exhibition, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more: “Do you believe in the death and rebirth of things?” is not a question you want to answer in a hurry. Nor is my favourite, the wonderfully loaded “Do you want to become better than nature intended?”

That we get from start to finish of the show in good order, not just informed but positively exhilarated, is a testament to the wiliness of the three curating institutions: the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the Design Museum Ghent in Belgium, and MAK in Austria.

One of the show’s advisors, architect Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT Senseable City Lab, nails the trouble with such shows: “Any environment, any city, any landscape can become a robot when it is equipped with sensors, actuators and intelligence.” By the time robots do useful work, they have vanished. Once, we called traffic lights “robots”, now, we barely see them.

Robots, an exhibition currently at London’s Science Museum, gets caught in this bind. By following a “science fiction becomes science fact” trajectory, it creates a show that gets more boring as you work your way through it. Hello, Robot is much cannier: it knows that while science fiction may spin off real artefacts now and again, it never becomes science fact. Does writing down a dream stop you dreaming? Of course not.

Hello, Robot is about design. Its curators explore not only what we have made, but also what we have dreamed. Fine art, speculative designs, commercial products, comic books and movie clips are arranged together to create a glimpse of the robot’s place in our lives and imaginations. Far from disappearing, robots seem more likely to be preparing a jail-break.

The longings, fantasies and anxieties that robots are meant to address are as ancient as they are unrealisable. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. They were going to mow our lawns, now we’re glad of the exercise and we might prefer to have them feed our babies – or look after much older people, as Dan Chen’s 2012 End of Life Care Machine envisions.

This robot mechanically strokes a dying patient – a rather dystopian provocation, or so Chen thought until some visitors asked to buy one. Exhibited here, Chen’s piece is accompanied by a note he wrote: should he encourage people to leave family members alone in their final hours or deny them the comfort of a machine?

Hello, Robot asks difficult questions in a thrillingly designed setting. It is a show to take the children to (just try not to let them see your face in Room 3 as you check on a computer to see if your job’s about to be automated).

There’s a deep seriousness about this show; if design teaches us anything, it is that no one is ever in charge of the future. “The question of whether we need, or even like [robots] is not really ours to ask,” a wallboard opines. “Do we actually need smartphones? Ten years ago, most people would probably have answered no.” Our roles in this “lifeworld” of the future are still to be defined.

Catching the exhibition in Germany, I go round three times until it’s late. I adore industrial robot YuMi’s efforts to roll a ball up a steep incline, and I grin as I walk past a clip of the automated kitchen in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. Still, I can’t quite take my eyes off a 2005 photograph of a Chinese factory by Edward Burtynsky, who visited China’s shipyards and industrial plants. Identical figures performing identical actions remind me of iconic British newspaper sketches of weaving machines from the industrial revolution.

We have not outgrown the need for human regimentation – we simply outsource it to cheaper humans. Whether robots become cheap enough to undercut poor people, and what happens if they do, are big questions. But this show can bear them.

The dreams our stuff is made of

To introduce a New Scientist speaking event at London’s Barbican centre on 29 June, I took a moment to wonder why the present looks so futuristic.

Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters (yes, there were such things) and the like, with films such as Hugo (2011) and gaming apps such as 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.

At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology fail: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner (1982) didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predator aircraft took to the skies.

So yes, science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. This genre takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital – a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes,  in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. In Alphaville (1965), futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of a distant space city, yet there is no set dressing to Alphaville: it is all dialogue, all cut – nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand – tinsel and Panstick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Time Lord was tearing up the set of Doctor Who and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned.

Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick or a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said, we’re bolting this together as we go along.

What hostile critics say is true, in that science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis (1927) director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre-tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building a rocket 11 metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily, they ran out of money.

The technocratic ideal may seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines – the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps.

Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on Earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: The moving picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness.

If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive-looking telescope? Why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.

The tomorrow person


You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the future by Jonathon Keats
reviewed for New Scientist, 11 June 2016.


IN 1927 the suicidal manager of a building materials company, Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, stood by the shores of Lake Michigan and decided he might as well live. A stern voice inside him intimated that his life after all had a purpose, “which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world”.

And share it he did, tirelessly for over half a century, with houses hung from masts, cars with inflatable wings, a brilliant and never-bettered equal-area map of the world, and concepts for massive open-access distance learning, domed cities and a new kind of playful, collaborative politics. The tsunami that Fuller’s wing flap set in motion is even now rolling over us, improving our future through degree shows, galleries, museums and (now and again) in the real world.

Indeed, Fuller’s”comprehensive anticipatory design scientists” are ten-a-penny these days. Until last year, they were being churned out like sausages by the design interactions department at the Royal College of Art, London. Futurological events dominate the agendas of venues across New York, from the Institute for Public Knowledge to the International Center of Photography. “Science Galleries”, too, are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, from London to Bangalore.

In You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats, himself a critic, artist and self-styled “experimental philosopher”, looks hard into the mirror to find what of his difficult and sometimes pantaloonish hero may still be traced in the lineaments of your oh-so-modern “design futurist”.

Be in no doubt: Fuller deserves his visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones, as few have since, the dynamism of the universe. At the age of 21, Keats writes, “Bucky determined that the universe had no objects. Geometry described forces.”

A child of the aviation era, he used materials sparingly, focusing entirely on their tensile properties and on the way they stood up to wind and weather. He called this approach “doing more with less”. His light and sturdy geodesic dome became an icon of US ingenuity. He built one wherever his country sought influence, from India to Turkey to Japan.

Chapter by chapter, Keats asks how the future has served Fuller’s ideas on city planning, transport, architecture, education. It’s a risky scheme, because it invites you to set Fuller’s visions up simply to knock them down again with the big stick of hindsight. But Keats is far too canny for that trap. He puts his subject into context, works hard to establish what would and would not be reasonable for him to know and imagine, and explains why the history of built and manufactured things turned out the way it has, sometimes fulfilling, but more often thwarting, Fuller’s vision.

This ought to be a profoundly wrong-headed book, judging one man’s ideas against the entire recent history of Spaceship Earth (another of Fuller’s provocations). But You Belong to the Universe says more about Fuller and his future in a few pages than some whole biographies, and renews one’s interest – if not faith – in all those graduate design shows.

Designs with the world on their shoulders

PITCHAfrica's Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

PITCHAfrica’s Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

In friendly competition with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet Horace Smith once wrote a poem entitled Ozymandias. Shelley’s version is the one we remember, but Smith’s is compelling for another reason. He imagines a hunter traipsing through the ruins of a future London. Lighting upon a fragment of a monument, he “stops to guess/What powerful but unrecorded race/Once dwelt in that annihilated place”.

For New Scientist, 18 April 2015: a review of the 2015 Designs of the Year competition.