Broken British plumbing – ceci n’est pas une pipe

This is not a pipe, but my homework for the non-narrative fiction course at City University. Whoops! That should read “narrative non-fiction”, but we are allowed to submit our non-fiction pieces to the “City Writes” fiction competition as long as they are short stories with an ending. Interesting; the never-ending stream of fake news makes it hard to tell the difference between truth, fiction and facts, alternative or not.

So, are the leaks in British plumbing real or just a figment of our collective imagination? Our downstairs neighbour was having her flat renovated when Mikhail, the Ukrainian plumber, told us that our central heating pipe, which runs under her floorboards, was old and corroded and about to start leaking, so he mended it for us. I didn’t ask about the visa requirements for him to come to the United Kingdom. Had he been Polish, he wouldn’t have needed a visa as Poland is a member of the European Union. What then is the threaded connection between our heating pipe and British plumbing in general? If you have been following the hoo-ha about Europe, in the wake of the 2016 referendum, you will have read last year’s Supreme Court ruling in favour of Miller and against the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union[1] and will be familiar with the metaphor of the “conduit pipe” to describe how European Union law has been introduced into UK domestic law since the 1972 Act of Parliament took the UK into the European Economic Community. Rather like the undersea channel tunnel that connected Folkestone to Calais in 1994 some twenty years later, the 1972 Act created this conduit pipe and an unprecedented constitutional connectedness across north-western Europe and the Atlantic Isles. It turned on a tap of trust to feed the 1998 Good Friday agreement and soothe the troubles in Ulster. Constitutional constipation might be another way of describing the brokenness of our plumbing, because our body politic is suffering from terrible intestinal pains and there are no plumbers on hand – Polish or otherwise – to unblock our democratic drains. Dr Fox’s Elixir of Global Free Trade whiffs of snake oil and quackery, rather than liberating legislative laxative.

Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be an interesting subject for historians. They will ponder whether he or his successor, Theresa May, more successfully aspired to failure. In 2010, Cameron’s coalition government commissioned the “review of the balance of competences”, an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK. It reported that the balance was about right, but that did not suit Cameron’s political purposes, so he buried the findings.[2] Not many people heard about the review, fewer read it and nobody acted it on it. “The evidence submitted to the free movement of persons consultation did not support the driving premise of government policy in this area for the last few years, namely that the free movement of persons must be reduced, that it is being abused, and that it encourages benefit tourists.”[3] So European Union immigration was not a big problem. In 2014 there was the referendum on the independence of Scotland. As an Englishman, I was outraged not to be consulted about the future of the union to which I, as a citizen, belong. Whatever. The process highlighted the asymmetric devolution of the four nations, in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have national-regional parliaments, but England does not. Although the crumbling Palace of Westminster – read physical, moral and political decay here – is located in the capital of England, there is a manifest imbalance. Curiously, the F-word so despised by Margaret Thatcher in her days of hand-bagging her European counterparts, has not resurfaced in mainstream English political debate, although federalism has served democracies such as the United States of America, India or Germany fairly well.

As we disconnect the European conduit pipe from our British constitutional plumbing and throw the Brussels baby out with the bathwater, the Scots and the Welsh – keen to protect their devolution settlements – watch as the CUP-DUP tinker with their confidence and supply spanners and bleed the budget radiators for magic money. This brings us, fiction or non-fiction, to the fantastical, technologically invisible border on the island of Ireland which will enable the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, its single market and customs union, yet allow Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom and at the same time enjoy complete and unfettered access to the people, goods and services in the Republic of Eire, which is part of the same European Union. Two plus two equals five. Top-hole! Our champion in the present Conservative and Unionist Party government is the Foreign Secretary, who has made a career out of turning fiction into alternative fact. A journalist colleague in Brussels wrote that during his time as The Daily Telegraph correspondent there, Boris Johnson “never let facts get in the way of a good story.”[4]

Question: What are we to do about this constitutional chaos, democratic decrepitude and European ejection?

Answer: We all know that the British Royal Family is German. In 2014 we celebrated the tricentennial of the Hanoverian Succession, commemorating 1714 when George I became king of Great Britain and Ireland. Hailing from Germany he didn’t speak English, yet his house ruled the country until the death of his descendent, Queen Victoria, in 1901. Luckily, she had married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg Gotha, also German, and their son, Edward VII, kept the family firm going, as does the latter’s great-grand-daughter today. Back in 1847 Albert helpfully drafted a constitution for the plethora of fractious German states, so why not enter the realm of semi-fiction and get one of our royal princes to draft a new constitution. Some people like republics, some kingdoms, others prefer cloud-cuckoo land, so how about a Federal Kingdom-Republic for Citizens of Everywhere? We could elect as leader King Boris or President William Windsor the Fifth.

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[1] JUDGMENT R (on the application of Miller and another) (Respondents) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Appellant). 24 January 2017.

[2] Cameron’s renegotiation and the burying of the balance of competencies review: http://ukandeu.ac.uk/camerons-renegotiation-and-the-burying-of-the-balance-of-competencies-review/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The road to Brexit was paved with Boris Johnson’s Euromyths, Jean Quatremer: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/15/brexit-boris-johnson-euromyths-telegraph-brussels.

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Review of “Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of artificial intelligence”

We might all end up as paper-clips!

Max Tegmark is a Swedish-American professor of physics at MIT, founder of the Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute and an optimist. His 2017 book, Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of artificial intelligence, demonstrates his belief that a positive future is possible and that a conscious universe is more valuable than one made up of paper-clips.

“He finds it abhorrent and wasteful that humanity could die a “death by banality” if the objective of a goal-driven artificial intelligence turned out to be nothing more profound than “rearranging all the molecules in the universe to maximise the number of paper-clips”.

Tegmark’s institute is more focused on the future of intelligent, conscious life than the Future of Humanity Institute, based at the University of Oxford, set up by his colleague and fellow Swede, Nick Bostrom. It is a noteworthy distinction between life and humanity. Tegmark’s accessible, readable book explains cutting-edge science in a comprehensible way and belongs to a burgeoning genre of singularity titles, such as Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 Sapiens: A brief history of mankind and his 2015 Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow. They follow on from Stephen Hawking’s 1988 A Brief History of Time, Bostrom’s 2014 Superintelligence and Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 The Singularity is Near. The singularity is sometimes taken to mean the point at which artificial intelligence becomes more powerful than human intelligence. This has been interpreted in various utopian and dystopian scenarios; either the robots decide that the greatest threat to the universe is represented by humans and act accordingly or, slightly less scarily, a few mega-wealthy humans morph into super-transhumans by updating themselves periodically with the latest biomedical technology and blast off in their private spaceships to residences on Mars or some other exclusively expensive corner of the universe, while the impoverished mass of mankind scrabbles around on over-heated earth for the leftover scraps.

Tegmark is the optimist to Harari the pessimist, who is more worried about the dangers posed to humanity by artificial intelligence and the need for a serious discussion about how to prevent catastrophe. Tegmark is no slouch, however, and one of the fascinating aspects of his scientific method, compared to Harari’s literary-historical approach, is his discussion of the Really Hard Problem, that is, how to explain consciousness scientifically. In Homo Deus, Harari worries that advances in computing mean that advanced intelligence has been decoupled from consciousness and that it is therefore very dangerous if non-conscious intelligent machines take decisions that may adversely affect humans.

Tegmark’s Life 3.0 pursues a less doom-and-gloom-laden exploration of what perhaps is to come. He approaches consciousness from a different angle, arguing that information is substrate-independent. For example, we understand that a “wave can travel across a lake, even though none of its molecules do”[1] or that a Mozart aria written in musical notation embodies the same information as when it is sung out loud. Tegmark’s optimism is underpinned by his use of scientific theory to test out new ideas. He explains modern theories of consciousness, which focus on activities in the brain, what are called the neural correlates of consciousness or NCCs. The current challenge is to explain how these NCCs are – or can be – PCCs or physical correlates of consciousness, “defined as the patterns of moving particles that are conscious”. Tegmark is very taken with his Italian colleague Gulio Tononi’s integrated information theory (IIT) which supports the idea that “consciousness is a physical phenomenon that feels non-physical because it’s like waves and computations: it has properties independent of its own physical substrate. […] If consciousness is the way that information feels when it’s processed in certain ways, then it must be substrate-independent; it’s only the structure of the information processing that matters, not the structure of the matter doing the information processing. In other words, consciousness is substrate-independent twice over!”[2]

So, what about the paper-clips? Well, it’s hard to compress 300 brilliant pages into a short review, but suffice to say that Tegmark feels it would be terrible if humanity’s molecules were all rearranged into said stationery. He does not explain why.

 11 February 2018

[1] Tegmark, Life 3.0 pg. 66.

[2] Ibid., pg. 303-304.