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Naked Sophia - Manuel Delia

What does one make of a government minister suggesting that something which is not human, but looks vaguely like one, be granted citi­zenship? There’s a hesitant giggle in the room as at first one thinks this is a joke intended to underline technological ad­van­ces: a moderate exaggeration of the ‘almost there but not quite’ type. But after a short while, as the shared suspicion spreads that the proponent of the outlandish notion is serious about it, silence falls.

The humanoid robot Sophia, selling passports for Henley and Partners: “Why are we not surprised?” Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/ReutersThe humanoid robot Sophia, selling passports for Henley and Partners: “Why are we not surprised?” Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

No one wants to sound like a Luddite: an ignoramus who rails against the inevitable present like the saboteur who throws his clog – sabot – to jam the cogs of machinery. And like the crowd in gaunt silence as the emperor progresses in the nude, everyone wonders if they haven’t been keeping up with the newest black.

Blockchain, artificial intelligence, smart security: these are machines. Like the big wheels in Modern Times they have no normative value in and of themselves. They are not good or bad: they just are. But as in Modern Times, in the hands of the uncontrolled and unwatched powerful they are mincers of those the powerful seek to exploit.

There’s much to be excited about the benefits promised by these technologies. We can look forward to life outside the Matrix. But there was Sophia last week selling passports for Henley and Partners, and you have to ask, why are we not surprised?

We cannot separate the promotion of these technologies from the promoters that are seeking to exploit them for political and personal ends. We cannot separate the policies to automate facial recognition in the street or to open up to cloud transactions of intangible currency or to equate the rights and responsibilities of people like you with the authority of machines from the promoter of those policies.

This Brave New World is in the hands of Joseph Muscat, whose drive to concentrate power, am­putate the balances designed to keep him in check and to amplify his grandeur to imperial proportions is very much in the present, and therefore eminently predictable for the future.

Muscat has already occupied the political past. He has wiped the narrative of history, convincing everyone that the years 1987 to 2013 were a momentary retrograde blip in the great progress secured in a straight line between Dom Mintoff and himself. There, on the cactus hill in Vittoriosa, Mintoff passed to him the torch which Muscat used to light the path to EU membership and Malta’s economic miracle.

It’s not a hard sell to say he has occupied the political present. Muscat has established a relationship with the electorate, short-circuiting media, institutions, even the courts, and made most of them the servants of his programme and excoriated the rest. He flirts with the limits of his authority and often exceeds them with a smile.

He pays parliamentarians more than his ministers; he appoints party apparatchiks, veterans and cronies to the bench; he decapitates the law enforcement agencies; he buys his critics; he en­sconc­ed himself in a seat hewn from the living rock. Thou hast it now: Prime Minister, idol, hero, all as your ambition plotted; and I fear, thou play’dst most foully for ’t.

And now Muscat seeks to oc­cupy the future. He does not do it to fend off Adrian Delia: he’s not unduly worried about the chan­ces he might need to do that. He has in mind any viable replacement that he must anticipate by predetermining the narrative for tomorrow as well as for today.

Your conversation with Sophia will become altogether more sinister when she… acts as an agent in the control of a State you are in disagreement with

This is why the government gets out of bed and we find ourselves having to live with the notion of talking dolls newly endowed with our rights. There is no point wondering why this might be objectionable as the narrative is already beyond the reach of anyone who might have a view.

The meaning of citizenship it­self, the sancta sanctorum of a secular existence, has already been battered and reshaped be­yond recognition. From an inherent right, as inalienable as one’s genes, it has been transformed to a commodity traded and modified like breast implants.

Rights can already be retailed to those who can afford to purchase them. Why shouldn’t they be ascribed to quasi-humans that do not sleep?

The issue here is not that this is even being considered. It’s that there is no space in which to talk about it. The government designs its path to the future that suits it and everyone else finds themselves fearing that doubt about the future the government wants is construed as an obtuse resistance to any future at all.

A future where electronic eyes watch us  and measure our beha­viour; where an electronic brain decides if our behaviour makes us eligible to a bank loan, to access public space, to live as free women and free men. This is not an unlikely dystopia. This is how the technology being rolled out in Marsa and in Paceville is being applied by its developers in countries which, unlike ours, never pretended to be democracies.

In the hands of Muscat and subsumed in the atmosphere of acquiescent complicity that has shroud­ed our country in the past three years or so, artificial intelligence endowed with citizenship is not a charming PR gimmick. It extends the very real method of using the law to suppress dissent, to frustrate resistance, to eliminate de­bate and to concentrate and perpetuate the power of the regime.

Old-fashioned barriers and banners are used to prevent us from walking freely in public spaces where the intent of that simple action is protest and dissent. People are given the job to watch, to bully and to intimidate. Data is mined to predict behaviour, and then the predicted behaviour is manipulated to direct it at the outcome that best suits the government. The wall is already up.

Imagine that wall monitored by cameras that mark faces without stopping for lunch. Imagine a tireless brain behind them working out who is displeasing to authority. I’m not asking you to picture the 22nd century. This is what’s being erected now on a pole in a square near you.

As with the current policies of control you will be free to live happily if you do not challenge authority. Your right to become wealthier if you can will be respected for as long as you do not ask questions.

But your conversation with Sophia will become altogether more sinister when she, even as a citizen, like many other citizens that today exist for real, acts as an agent in the control of a State you are in disagreement with.

And then your rights – your right to be indifferent, your right to acquiesce, your right to give up a pound of your own flesh as collateral for your enrichment – will mean nothing anymore.

For your own rights as an individual are meaningless if the rights of others whom you disagree with are trampled upon.

You must claim the rights you think you do not need and you must do that now while only humans are citizens, and the people who decide your fate need to sleep and eat as you do.

Or you can watch in silent horror as the world your children will live in walks past you in progress naked and amused.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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