Stanisław Lem: The man with the future inside him

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From the 1950s, science fiction writer Stanisław Lem began firing out prescient explorations of our present and far beyond. His vision is proving unparalleled.
For New Scientist, 16 November 2016

“POSTED everywhere on street corners, the idiot irresponsibles twitter supersonic approval, repeating slogans, giggling, dancing…” So it goes in William Burroughs’s novel The Soft Machine (1961). Did he predict social media? If so, he joins a large and mostly deplorable crowd of lucky guessers. Did you know that in Robert Heinlein’s 1948 story Space Cadet, he invented microwave food? Do you care?

There’s more to futurology than guesswork, of course, and not all predictions are facile. Writing in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury predicted earbud headphones and elevator muzak, and foresaw the creeping eeriness of today’s media-saturated shopping mall culture. But even Bradbury’s guesses – almost everyone’s guesses, in fact – tended to exaggerate the contemporary moment. More TV! More suburbia! Videophones and cars with no need of roads. The powerful, topical visions of writers like Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke are visions of what the world would be like if the 1950s (the 1960s, the 1970s…) went on forever.

And that is why Stanisław Lem, the Polish satirist, essayist, science fiction writer and futurologist, had no time for them. “Meaningful prediction,” he wrote, “does not lie in serving up the present larded with startling improvements or revelations in lieu of the future.” He wanted more: to grasp the human adventure in all its promise, tragedy and grandeur. He devised whole new chapters to the human story, not happy endings.

And, as far as I can tell, Lem got everything – everything – right. Less than a year before Russia and the US played their game of nuclear chicken over Cuba, he nailed the rational madness of cold-war policy in his book Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961). And while his contemporaries were churning out dystopias in the Orwellian mould, supposing that information would be tightly controlled in the future, Lem was conjuring with the internet (which did not then exist), and imagining futures in which important facts are carried away on a flood of falsehoods, and our civic freedoms along with them. Twenty years before the term “virtual reality” appeared, Lem was already writing about its likely educational and cultural effects. He also coined a better name for it: “phantomatics”. The books on genetic engineering passing my desk for review this year have, at best, simply reframed ethical questions Lem set out in Summa Technologiae back in 1964 (though, shockingly, the book was not translated into English until 2013). He dreamed up all the usual nanotechnological fantasies, from spider silk space-elevator cables to catastrophic “grey goo”, decades before they entered the public consciousness. He wrote about the technological singularity – the idea that artificial superintelligence would spark runaway technological growth – before Gordon Moore had even had the chance to cook up his “law” about the exponential growth of computing power. Not every prediction was serious. Lem coined the phrase “Theory of Everything”, but only so he could point at it and laugh.

He was born on 12 September 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine). His abiding concern was the way people use reason as a white stick as they steer blindly through a world dominated by chance and accident. This perspective was acquired early, while he was being pressed up against a wall by the muzzle of a Nazi machine gun – just one of several narrow escapes. “The difference between life and death depended upon… whether one went to visit a friend at 1 o’clock or 20 minutes later,” he recalled.

Though a keen engineer and inventor – in school he dreamed up the differential gear and was disappointed to find it already existed – Lem’s true gift lay in understanding systems. His finest childhood invention was a complete state bureaucracy, with internal passports and an impenetrable central office.

He found the world he had been born into absurd enough to power his first novel (Hospital of the Transfiguration, 1955), and might never have turned to science fiction had he not needed to leap heavily into metaphor to evade the attentions of Stalin’s literary censors. He did not become really productive until 1956, when Poland enjoyed a post-Stalinist thaw, and in the 12 years following he wrote 17 books, among them Solaris (1961), the work for which he is best known by English speakers.

Solaris is the story of a team of distraught experts in orbit around an inscrutable and apparently sentient planet, trying to come to terms with its cruel gift-giving (it insists on “resurrecting” their dead). Solaris reflects Lem’s pessimistic attitude to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s not that alien intelligences aren’t out there, Lem says, because they almost certainly are. But they won’t be our sort of intelligences. In the struggle for control over their environment they may as easily have chosen to ignore communication as respond to it; they might have decided to live in a fantastical simulation rather than take their chances any longer in the physical realm; they may have solved the problems of their existence to the point at which they can dispense with intelligence entirely; they may be stoned out of their heads. And so on ad infinitum. Because the universe is so much bigger than all of us, no matter how rigorously we test our vaunted gift of reason against it, that reason is still something we made – an artefact, a crutch. As Lem made explicit in one of his last novels, Fiasco (1986), extraterrestrial versions of reason and reasonableness may look very different to our own.

Lem understood the importance of history as no other futurologist ever has. What has been learned cannot be unlearned; certain paths, once taken, cannot be retraced. Working in the chill of the cold war, Lem feared that our violent and genocidal impulses are historically constant, while our technical capacity for destruction will only grow.

Should we find a way to survive our own urge to destruction, the challenge will be to handle our success. The more complex the social machine, the more prone it will be to malfunction. In his hard-boiled postmodern detective story The Chain of Chance (1975), Lem imagines a very near future that is crossing the brink of complexity, beyond which forms of government begin to look increasingly impotent (and yes, if we’re still counting, it’s here that he makes yet another on-the-money prediction by describing the marriage of instantly accessible media and global terrorism).

Say we make it. Say we become the masters of the universe, able to shape the material world at will: what then? Eventually, our technology will take over completely from slow-moving natural selection, allowing us to re-engineer our planet and our bodies. We will no longer need to borrow from nature, and will no longer feel any need to copy it.

At the extreme limit of his futurological vision, Lem imagines us abandoning the attempt to understand our current reality in favour of building an entirely new one. Yet even then we will live in thrall to the contingencies of history and accident. In Lem’s “review” of the fictitious Professor Dobb’s book Non Serviam, Dobb, the creator, may be forced to destroy the artificial universe he has created – one full of life, beauty and intelligence – because his university can no longer afford the electricity bills. Let’s hope we’re not living in such a simulation.

Most futurologists are secret utopians: they want history to end. They want time to come to a stop; to author a happy ending. Lem was better than that. He wanted to see what was next, and what would come after that, and after that, a thousand, ten thousand years into the future. Having felt its sharp end, he knew that history was real, that the cause of problems is solutions, and that there is no perfect world, neither in our past nor in our future, assuming that we have one.

By the time he died in 2006, this acerbic, difficult, impatient writer who gave no quarter to anyone – least of all his readers – had sold close to 40 million books in more than 40 languages, and earned praise from futurologists such as Alvin Toffler of Future Shock fame, scientists from Carl Sagan to Douglas Hofstadter, and philosophers from Daniel Dennett to Nicholas Rescher.

“Our situation, I would say,” Lem once wrote, “is analogous to that of a savage who, having discovered the catapult, thought that he was already close to space travel.” Be realistic, is what this most fantastical of writers advises us. Be patient. Be as smart as you can possibly be. It’s a big world out there, and you have barely begun.

 

When art and technology pull each other to bits

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Visiting Ars Electronica for New Scientist, 21 September 2016

In a disused mail sorting office in Linz, Austria, an industrial robot twice my height has got hold of Serbian-born artist Dragan Ilic and is wiping him over a canvas-covered wall. Ilic is clutching pencils, and as the robot twirls and dabs him against the wall, the artist makes his own frantic marks – a sort of sentient brush head. These performances are billed as a collaboration between artist and machine. All I see is the user getting used.

Every September in Linz, the Ars Electronica festival tries to marry technology and art. Andy Warhol took up screen-printing in the 1960s, and a whole generation of gallery-goers have since grown up with the notion that this match is easy.

Indeed, the coupling of art and technology has become a solid pillar of art education, especially now that so much funding comes from IT big hitters such as Sony and private institutions like the Wellcome Trust.

But if the venerable Ars Electronica has demonstrated anything in its 37-year history – beyond the ability of the arts to remake and rejuvenate a city – it is that technology and art make astonishingly unhappy bedfellows.

This year, for example, Swiss artist Daniel Boschung used an industrial robot controlled by bespoke software to take 900-million-pixel portraits of people – forensic surveys so detailed that they drained all emotion from their subjects’ faces.

Not far away, another robot, Davide Quayola’s Sculpture Factory, chiselled through partially completed life-size stone renditions of Michelangelo’s David. The attention was directed to the pixelated nature of 3D scanning, which smeared, spread and tessellated the biblical giant-killer to the point of incoherence: here a limb, there an eye.

Walking the corridor towards the current sculpture-in-progress, one passed attempt after attempt of clone Davids peeking in more or less agonised fashion from their cuboid stone prisons, in a sort of mineral retread of that infamous scene from Alien: Resurrection.

The provoking thing about Ars Electronica is that it jams together boutique displays of the latest technology, trenchant criticisms of the post-industrial project, jokes and honest failures. It is a gargantuan vessel powered by enthusiasm, but steered by nothing remotely resembling taste.

Eventually, the visitor comes to rest against one of the more obvious wins. Boris Labbé’s film Rhizome, which netted the festival’s annual animation prize, unites watercolour illustration and digital effects to tell an epic tale of evolution, civilisation and cosmic transformation in one steady, heart-stopping reverse zoom.

And then there is Frank Kolkman’s OpenSurgery, which combines 3D printing and laser-cutting with hacked surgical pieces and components bought online. This is a DIY robot that can perform laparoscopic surgery – a terrifying comment on the way that hacking and “making” are increasingly expected to stand in for the real thing.

You’ll need a drink after all that, so head for Max Dovey’s A Hipster Bar. And good luck – this genuine pop-up drinking hole will, in true neo-liberal fashion, keep the gate shut unless its face-recognition system considers you “90 per cent hipster”.

As you sip, ponder this: it was the assertion of the Romantic movement that art makes us appreciate the beauty, richness and sheer size of the world. And technology, used appropriately, brings us closer to that sublime. As the Romantics’ acolyte, the writer and pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, put it: “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

Even if that was true in 1939, it’s not true now: not now our drones do our flying for us; not now our technology has got away from us to the point where large portions of nature are being erased; not now we live mired in media and, indeed, have to make special efforts to escape it.

Naturally, artists want to explore the new technology of their day, but these days the best results seem to come when we misappropriate the machines and kick them into new shapes, or simply point and laugh.

Putting the wheel in its place

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Mary Evans / Grenville Collins

 

What made the rickshaw so different from a wagon or an ox-cart and, in the eyes of many Westerners, so cruel, was the idea of it being pulled by a man instead of a farm animal. Pushing wheelchairs and baby carriages posed no problem, but pulling turned a man into a beast.
for New Scientist, 20 January 2016

 

 

 

Put out more flags

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The meetngreet staff at NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, have a lot invested in the idea that their bulgy Fetter Lane new-build is larger and more complex than it actually is.

There’s an open-plan space with a desk and two meeting pods made of safety glass and egg boxes. The cloakroom is to the left of the right-hand pod and the room where they’re launching the 2014 Longitude Prize is to the right. You go left (there isn’t a cloakroom as such, just a cupboard) and immediately you’re intercepted by a meetngreet following a clockwise orbit around the left-hand pod. “You must be lost,” she says, pointing you in a direction you don’t want to go. All this in a space about 400-foot square.

Inside the room, the brains behind the revivification of the British government’s Longitude Prize of 1714 are taking it in turns to downplay the significance of the enterprise. Iain Grey, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, worries at the value of prize before jettisoning the word entirely in favour of “challenge-led agendas”, whatever the hell they are.

Honestly, it’s as if the X-Prize had never happened. The razzmatazz, the music, the black T shirts. The working laptop presentations. Here it’s all apologies and self-deprecation and a recalcitrant Windows 7 install making everyone look like a bit of a tit.

The canapes were excellent but there should have been bunting, damn it. There should have been flags. A good, worthwhile prize is always welcome. True, there’s a world of difficulty to be got through, making a prize good and worthwhile. But so far, NESTA seem to have paid their dues, and anyone who watched the BBC’s Horizon documentary last night may reasonably conclude that they’ve come up with a winner.

Until June 25, the public can vote for one of six challenges which, if met, would go some way to changing the world for the better. Do you want ecologically sustainable air travel, nutrition sufficient to keep the world’s population going, something to replace defunct antibiotics, machines to ameliorate paralysis, clean water, or independent lives for those with dementia?

As a piece of public engagement with science, it’s a triumph – and that’s before the competition proper gets started. The winning challenge stands for a decade or so, and whoever meets it wins ten million quid. The expectation, I presume, is that consortiums representing commercial and academic interests will spend much, much more than they could possibly be recouped from the prize money. The victory’s the thing, after all. The kudos. The column inches, and venture capitalists waving their chequebooks outside the door.

“This prize, on it’s own, won’t change the world,” says the prize’s lead, health entrepreneur Tamar Ghosh, underselling all her hard work. She should read more aviation history. These sorts of prizes can, and do, precisely that.

The Rise of Augmented Reality

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Thanks to the rise of smartphone technologies, the virtual territories of cyberspace are increasingly free to roam around in the real world.

LondonCalling.com is hosting a panel discussion on the current and future trends of augmented reality on Tuesday 27 March, 6.30pm – 9pm, at The Vibe Gallery, Bermondsey. (That’s five minutes from Bermondsey tube station on the Jubilee Line.)

Tamara Roukaerts, head of marketing at the AR company Aurasma and Frank Da Silva, creative director for Earth 2 Hub (a sort of thinktanky thing, with video) are going to be singing the technology’s praises, I assume, while I crouch in the corner painting my face with ashes and portending doom. Because I am a writer, and that is my job. (Think Emile Zola; think railways.)

Tom Hunter’s in the chair. (Or is he…?) More details at http://bit.ly/x2xflN

Come and heckle if you’re in London. It’s free, and it’s about the closest you’ll ever get to being in an episode of Nathan Barley.

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