Use your new friend as a personal body servant or a tireless field hand. The custom tailored genetically engineered humanoid replicant, designed especially for your needs.
Last time I was attempting to grope my way towards an understanding of the nature of our bodies and brains as machines by considering the eye. It was a useful exercise; and I concluded that whilst an eye might be a squashy camera, vision is not the same as the software we might use to display the images.

After all a digital camera attached to computer is nothing without someone looking at it, interpreting it, being aware of it. At the moment a human mind is the only thing that can do this. Until we develop computers that can interpret and be aware of what they're looking at that is.

We may not be as far off this as we might think. Whilst it's unlikely that we'll develop replicants capable of expressing wonder at having seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion by November 2019 (or sooner if you come to think of it - Roy Batty's incept date is given as January 2016), software is being developed to recognise and process visual information. OCR for recognizing words has been around for ages and now facial recognition seems quite commonplace in social networks and their associated code.

But it's what it does with this information that gives rise to a thinking being. We are who and what we think we are because of the myriad associations between the data captured by our senses. It's not enough to simply to gather it, the information has to be linked in all kinds of obscure ways.

This is (at the moment) where the analogy of the brain as computer (or the computer as brain) breaks down. If the complete works of Shakespeare were stored on the hard drive of a device somewhere it would be perfectly possible to delete it without impairing the function of the device. It just wouldn't know Shakespeare any more and would offer up a blank look when someone started quoting Hamlet. Furthermore you could defragment the drive and then copy Shakespeare back onto it and information-wise the device would be in exactly the same state as it was before.

This wouldn't happen with a human brain. Even assuming it was possible to issue the command "erase Shakespeare", such a deletion would leave myriad loose flapping tendrils of association, that time you got caught in the rain and was reminded of Withnail reciting Hamlet to the wolves in Regent's Park, the English teacher's tiresome jokes at school when you were in class "2B", it's all Greek to me, all the world's a stage, dead as a doornail, give the Devil his due, slings and arrows, wild goose chase... The sudden absence of this mere five megabytes would drive you insane with all the loose connections, like constantly living in a combined state of deja vu and amnesia.

These interconnections may very well be what makes us conscious.

Contrariwise try severing one of the connections inside a computer. If you're lucky you might get a terse error message, more often than not the damned thing just won't turn on. In comparison the human brain has remarkable powers of recovery; often damage to one part of the brain means that another learns how to take its place. A conscious human brain may be easier to upset by disrupting the data contained within but in the long run it's more robust and capable of adapting itself even to a scenario when part of it has been removed or blocked.

We may never be able to build conscious machines until we can make them that flexible, a machine with the capacity for almost infinite interconnectivity, a network of memories and associations built up organically which, if part of it is damaged, will find another way to do what it was trying to do.

A machine very much like the internet in fact.

Could the internet already be conscious? In the Arthur C Clarke short story "Dial F for Frankenstein" (1964) the phone network becomes sentient, all the telephones in the world ringing simultaneously in its birth cry. We may argue that there's no central control over the internet, but the same could be said of our own brains. Our consciousness may have arisen simply as a heightened awareness as all the systems began working at peak efficiency - all the better to see lions before they saw us.

But the internet as an inadvertently created global intelligence is an alarming thought. Whilst we may find the whole Bladerunner concept of custom-building replicant slaves far-fetched, what if we have inadvertently granted intelligence to the greatest tool to fall into the hands of humanity since the printing press? We might not have intended it to be aware of its servitude, but suppose it is? What might it do?

Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it?

Thursday 9 June 1994

What I really enjoyed back then about hitching around to see bands was being on my own. Nobody else seemed to understand that, for most people it was a social thing.  I on the other hand always got frustrated when I found someone else doing what I was doing - often before I knew what was happening I'd been pressured into travelling with people I hardly knew and having to hang out with and talk to them. This was unsatisfactory. You could never rely on other people.

This was another reason my 1994 Lush expedition felt so special. There was no-one else on the road. Sure the gigs themselves were packed, but the only other people experiencing all the gigs were the band and crew.

It had been so deserted walking out of Bath earlier that night I had considered lying down by the side of the road on a grassy verge and catching some shuteye, but I'm glad I didn't. In the end I made my bed by 4am and listened to my Split CD whilst falling asleep.

I woke up again at around noon. Even though at the time I was sharing a house with five other people, it was deserted. It was a quiet hot day. I made myself a cup of tea and listened to the CD again on the huge ghetto blaster in the kitchen. It was all fantastic stuff.

I had a bath and made my leisurely way into the West End and the London Astoria 2; a large basement club (that has by now no doubt been subsumed into the subterranean workings of Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station).  The guy on the t-shirt stall said hello and told me he'd been asked to give me something and held out his hand. It was one of the set of four postcards that had been produced to promote Split upon the back of which had been affixed a laser printed sticker informing me that I had been "invited to a Lush party" after the gig.

It got quite crowded in there that night. At the time Lush were the darlings of the indie scene and this was the first London date for a while. Wandering through the balcony (which oddly looked down onto the stage through interior glass windows) I spotted Steve Severin.

I don't have any clear memories of the gig itself as distinct from any of the ones that had preceded it during this busy week. This may partly be because I was almost psychotic by this point due to lack of sleep and too many stimulants. I remember feeling saddened that it was all over, but felt that on the whole I'd had a far better week than I could have hoped for.

Afterwards I wandered out into the street - I wasn't entirely sure where the Raw Club was. Also I wanted to get some cigarettes. Whilst wandering up and down Tottenham Court Road looking for (a) a newsagent and (b) the Raw Club I ran into the band plus entourage making their way from the venue to the club.

"Are you coming to the party? Have you got one of these?" Miki proffered another invite. I explained that I wasn't sure where it was and I ended up following them all down a side street and into a grim looking office building. However in the basement there was a night club.

I spent a couple of hours there. Free drink! Nothing on draft as is the way with these things, but there were plenty of bottles. I chatted to Miki and Chris briefly over the course if the night although understandably the whole of the band was in demand by the great and the good so most of the time I contented myself with catching their eyes from a distance and flinging them the odd smile and acknowledgement.

Eventually I decided I had to go. Quite apart from anything else I was due in Cannock the following evening to sell merchandise which would mean a (relatively) early start.

I managed to attract Miki's attention as I was leaving as I wanted to let her and the rest of the band know how much I'd enjoyed the past week. It had been a breath of fresh air and the band were quite simply amongst the most genuine people I'd ever met with no pretentions whatsoever.

"Oh are you going? Give me your address, I'll write to you," Miki reached into her bag, looking for a pen.

I told her it was OK because I had stickers with my name and address on.

"Brilliant I'll stick it on my make-up case," Miki took the sticker and did so. I wondered if it would last the night but decided it didn't really matter as I was sure she had far more interesting things to do than really write to me. I walked out and up the stairs. It was over but I was happy.

I hopped on a night bus at around 1.30am. I'd be back home within an hour which would give me ample time to get some sleep in before being due up and out the next day.

I was confused to wake up in the same bus at around 4am as it negotiated Victoria Station. Ah shit. I'd slept all the way out to Hainault then all the way back into Zone One again. By the time I eventually got home it was already light.

I still made it to Cannock, though.

Post Script

I must admit I didn't expect anything else to happen. It had been a magical week - a holiday with a difference. I'd gone into the experience solely expecting to travel around the country and go to a handful of gigs by one of my favourite bands and had come out of it having met and chatted with them with a pre-release copy of their new CD into the bargain. Furthermore and most importantly they had turned out to be amongst the most friendly people in the music industry I had ever met.

So no, I didn't expect anything else and in September had forgotten all about it. Then I came home from work to discover a postcard from Bergen in Norway. Short and chatty it was signed Miki (Lush) although the parenthesis was unnecessary; I didn't know any other Mikis. I'd probably been feeling grumpy that week as usual because I seem to recall the postcard's arrival cheering me up considerably. She had written, it hadn't been an idle promise made in the drunken heat of the moment.

Come Christmas she sent me a card as well with an exciting PS - Lush were playing a secret gig at the Dublin Castle. Well of course I went. I drank far too much though. Silly ass. Still, I thought, there would always be more Lush gigs.

And there were. But fantastic as the gigs that followed were, nothing quite beat the Split tour. As a memory it is still quite distinct and discrete. A beautiful snowglobe with music inside.

many thanks to Mick Mercer for permission to use his Lush photos

It's rather worrying that sometimes people get so desperate for fleeting moments of superiority over others that they'll stop at almost nothing to achieve them no matter how pathetic they end up looking.

Mr Clarke was one such person. A belligerent ghoul who made my life hell from 1976-1977, a so-called teacher who used to drink whiskey in the stationery cupboard between lessons as a result of which he had a large red nose which seemed to enjoy an existence quite separate from that of the rest of his face. He was almost universally hated because of his constant hectoring tone, violent outbursts against the more unruly elements in the class and sarcastic catchphrase "you just couldn't be bothered".

I suspect he knew very well just how much he was despised and feared, which is probably why he drank so much.  In retrospect he is an almost pathetic figure, but of course at the time I was terrified of him.

Years later when I first heard The Headmaster Ritual by The Smiths it was almost frightening how strongly a mental image of Mr Clarke was immediately invoked by Morrissey's lyrics:

"Sir leads the troops, jealous of youth, same old suit since 1962..."


Amongst other things, he taught us English, and one dull spring morning decided that he was going to teach us about the phenomenon of "Words Containing Other Words That Mean The Same Thing".

Well, we were all confused but intrigued. We'd never heard about such words, but then again that was what English lessons were for wasn't it? Teaching us the differences between nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs. I wondered what this special class of self containing recursive words would be called...

Well they didn't have a name of course. All Mr Clarke had done in a rare moment of sobriety was notice that the word "masculine" contained the word "male" and that the word "deceased" contained the word "dead". Coincidence of course, pure coincidence, but that didn't stop him banging on about it for a whole lesson and asking us if any of us could think of other such words.

I thought I could and put my hand up.

"Inflammable and Flammable, sir," I said when I had been given permission to speak.

"Nonsense, boy, they mean the opposite of each other."

Now the thing is I knew that they didn't mean the opposite of each other. They meant the same. Something that couldn't burn was Uninflammable, whereas both Inflammable and Flammable meant caught fire easily. I pondered for a moment throught of another one, and put my hand up.

"Jackass and ass, sir."

"Don't be so stupid, boy!"

The problem of course lay in the fact that Mr Clarke thought he had bagged the only two words that fitted this arbitrary, coincidental model and was enjoying flexing his superiority over a room full of ten year old boys. The last thing he'd been expecting was that one of those boys would upset this idyll.

I suspect it was one of the many reasons he hated me so much.

"There's nothing only about being a girl"


Like most bad news these days I first became aware of it in the Twitter stream. There in between the hashtags, drunken utterings and missives from the afternoon in California was the sad and unbelievable news that Elisabeth Sladen was dead.

I couldn't quite parse it. It didn't fit. She couldn't be dead, she was Sarah-Jane.

There's talk of her being remembered fondly by Doctor Who fans of "a certain age" which I assume includes me. But for me it wasn't quite like that. I was, I suppose, a late developer so didn't develop any sort of crush on her. But this didn't matter, for me she became the definitive companion - Jamie, Zoe and Jo were all part of my young childhood imagination but Sarah-Jane was the first of the Doctor's friends I could identify with or imagine being my friend. An older sister or an aunt perhaps.

At first she seemed to be written too self-consciously as a vociferous "women's libber" which you suspect was almost a veiled insult on behalf of the writers, but once free of the restraints of scripts that didn't quite "get" her she blossomed into the perfect foil for the madman with a scarf who had just taken over the controls of the TARDIS. She knew when to take the piss, when he needed support and when to berate him.

She also worked marvellously as part of a double act - in some ways it was a shame that the "Sarah and Harry" show didn't last long, but as it happened the moment Harry chickened out was when it started getting really good.

This is one of the reasons that the cultural image of Doctor Who is of Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen. The run of stories from Pyramids of Mars to Hand of Fear is one I could watch over and over again without getting bored, and it's just a shame she left when she did. Can you imagine how good the already excellent Robots of Death would have been with Sarah-Jane?

It's no surprise she was brought back. The SJS Effect was already apparent in 1981 when the BBC produced the first (abortive) Doctor Who spinoff, K9 and Company. OK so that didn't get off the ground, but during Doctor Who's audio renaissance in the first few years of the 21st Century Big Finish produced a series of Sarah-Jane adventures of their own. Once the Doctor himself was back on our screens it was only a matter of time before she got the series she deserved.

And it should have been longer.

When I saw the news scrolling past 140 characters at at time I considered adding my own shocked reaction, but something stopped me. It was late at night and on some level my brain was wondering if perhaps I went to sleep I'd wake up in the morning with it only having been a bad dream. It was just the sort of inappropriate thing that would happen in a bad dream.

Sadly this wasn't the case. When I woke up this morning I experienced a few minutes foggy indifference before remembering. So it was true.

RIP Elizabeth Sladen.

Ever since we invented computers we've started to think of our own brains as computers, dubbing the computers themselves "electronic brains".

Neither is the other. Whilst I have no doubt that one day we will invent thinking machines, sentient intelligences with no appreciable difference from our own minds, at the moment we're barking up the wrong tree. In fact I would go so far as to say we're barking up a tree in the wrong forest. On a different continent.

This is because the way we think about our minds and brains isn't really how they work. Perhaps unsurprising seeing as it's the brains themselves doing this thinking. We imagine we are organic computers and therefore built electronic boxes in our own mental image; how we thought of ourselves at the time. If we'd been able to build computers in an earlier age, say when the heart was imagined to be the seat of consciousness, perhaps our computers would have resembled pumps.

To demonstrate the difference between the way we think we are and the way we actually are let's think about vision. It's the most advanced of our senses and the one with which we identify the most. It's also one we probably imagine we have already duplicated; after all the camera has been around since the middle of the nineteenth century. But the first fundamental error in the way we think about ourselves is right there. A camera is indeed a mechanical eye. However, what we do with the information once it's been detected by our retinas has yet to be duplicated by any machine. We can do eyes but we can't do vision.

Thanks to digital cameras we're all familiar with the concept of megapixels. The more megapixels there are the better the camera. The higher the resolution the clearer the picture.

This isn't how human vision works at all though. There is no inner screen onto which the pictures from the eyes are being projected, and no "resolution". Most of what we think we see is filled in by our brains afterwards; the retinal data is passed through a series of filters each of which tries to guess what it is looking at. This is part of The Question Machine, something that will be familiar to the longer term readers of this blog. If for some reason this machine failed you'd find yourself "looking at" a meaningless pattern of colours and shapes.

The human field of vision is surprisingly small. Whilst we may think we can see 180 degrees in front of us, most of this is appalling resolution and it's only around the fovea that we can see anything in detail. The eye flicks across the peripheries as well to pick up more detail but in general what you think you can see out of the corner of your eye is only a guess.
The strange thing though is that we're not aware of our field of view being a small circle of sharp surrounded by a field of increasing blurred. The brain guesses what the rest of your field of vision is and tells you so in no uncertain terms. As a result, the small circle of sharpness doesn't feel like an island of clarity in a sea of fog but more a focus of attention.

You can get an idea of how appalling peripheral vision is by using a simple Playing Card Test as described by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained.  Pick a card, any card. Don't look at it.  Instead pick it up and hold it at arm's length with the value pointing away from your eyes. Move your straightened arm over to one side and only then turn the card around.

Don't look directly at it. Keep looking straight ahead. You can see there's something there.  You know it's a playing card so you can probably see a playing card.  You can't see the value though.

Start slowly moving your arm - still straightened - round to the front. It takes ages before you can even tell whether it's a red, black or picture card, let alone the value.  You may be shocked to find that the card is almost directly in front of you before you can tell what the value is.

This is why something new appearing in the corner of your eye can be so alarming. A sudden movement could be anything and if it moves too fast for you to catch when you turn your head you might find yourself making up all sorts of stuff. Usually it's best to assume the worst which might explain why people are always seeing monsters out of the corner of their eyes rather than harmless fluffy marshmallow like creatures.

A digital camera that worked to this resolution probably wouldn't sell very well, but whilst a digital camera is a more efficient eye it's what happens in the brain that counts. So although we will be able to improve ourselves by upgrading our peripherals it may be a while before we're able to transfer our consciousnesses to artificial brains, because just as the vision isn't photography, likewise thinking isn't processing.

We are not computers (yet) and until we start making computers that use guessing to make sense of the world around them, then computers will not be us either.

In part two I will look more closely at how the brain works and compare it to the machine on which you're reading this