Category Archives: Writing


Q: You’re seen as the Godfather of this industry. Do you have any concern about what you’ve wrought?

A: I do a bit. On the other hand, I think whatever going to happen is pretty much inevitable. One person stopping doing this research wouldn’t stop it happening. If my impact is to make it happen a month earlier, that’s about the limit of one person can do.

Q: We haven’t touched on job displacement. Is this going to eat up job after job?

A: I think it’s going to make jobs different. People are going to be doing more of the creative end and less of the routine end.

Q: This is the biggest technological advancement since… is this another industrial revolution, or how should people think of it?

A: I think it’s comparable in scale to the industrial revolution or electricity, or maybe the wheel.

Q: And sentience? I think you have complaints about how you even define that?

A: When it comes to sentience, I’m amazed that people can confidently pronounce that these things are not sentient, and when you ask them what they mean by sentient, they say they don’t really know. So how can you be confident about sentient if you don’t know what sentient means?

Q: So maybe they are already?

A: Who knows. I think whether they’re sentient or not depends on what you mean by sentient. So you better define what you mean by sentient before you answer the question of whether they’re sentient.

Q: Does it matter what we think, or does it only matter whether it effectively acts as if it is sentient?

A: That’s a very good question.

Q: And what’s your answer?

A: I don’t have one.

Q: Because if it’s not sentient, but it decides for whatever reason that it believes it is and that it needs to achieve some goal that’s contrary to our interests but it believes is in its interest, does it really matter in terms of any human reflection?

A: I think a good context to think about this thing is an autonomous lethal weapon. It’s all very well saying it’s not sentient, but when it’s hunting you down to shoot you, you’re going to start thinking it’s sentient.

Q: Or not really caring, not an important standard any more.

A: The kind of intelligence we’re developing is very different from our intelligence. It’s an idiot-savant kind of intelligence. It’s quite possible that if it is at all sentient, it’s sentient in a somewhat different way from us.

The Bot

Why do I love the Bot? Because it frees me up. It appeals to the laziest parts of my mind. It does my work for me. It will wipe out my doubts. It will think and decide for me. It will kill who I thought I was, which I always secretly wanted.


The funeral

Anyone who pretends to write should resist the urge to write about events while they’re living them: that’s a devilish urge. Often what makes you write is something unexpected that sticks in your craw after the event. That said, sometimes life gets urgent and you have to write something down to sort your thoughts out. It’s hardly literature.

It was my father’s funeral today. As the Son, one is on display: everyone looks at you. I shook hands with old diplomats I recognised from when I was a child in various countries, and who didn’t recognise me, middle-aged and bald as I am.

Afterwards in the restaurant I ended up sat opposite his brother, who’s even better at pinpointing your shortcomings than my father was. Did he seek me out, in my vulnerable state? I knew he’d find me in any case and go for my throat: there’s something soft in me that he wants to kill. My hands were shaking when I walked to the church.

Despite myself I ended up laughing and getting swept up in his words. I’m used to sarcastic banter, but it’s something else with people like that. I’m a grownup now, I’ve been around, as much as him, but I still wasn’t strong enough to resist. They are too powerful, people like them, they have an answer for everything and make you feel like a child.

The funeral was nothing to him: this was a chance to assert himself like any other social gathering. He wasted no time telling us about the boards he sits on, about his villa and his Maserati, and how puny my work is. No one could get a word in edgeways, and if they did, he found their weak points straight away.

I often saw him and my father do that to normal people, saw their reactions and thought, Get away while you can. Sometimes I was almost proud of them: they could make people do anything.

The spirit of bar billiards

Three men and two women around a niche pub game. The game of kings! In the White Lion, the centre of my world. I’ve defected from the team I joined when I moved back and helped form a new team. I’m known as Judas on the old team. So be it. Nate-Dawg and I wanted to get together a team in the old style, revive the spirit of bar billiards. We scrambled to get people together before the AGM.

We’re practising for the new season, getting to know each other between shots. We’ll get all the rubbish shots out of the way now, we agree. Four pints in and we start to play well. A thousand plus scores, holes in the red off the back cushion. Good angles. Everything’s flowing, including the banter: a mix of praise and insults, as is the way. We’re coming for the old-timers in division one, we agree. New blood! The team spirit grows. This is a new bar billiards era, we agree. It’s almost a spiritual thing. It’s a community thing.

There are six pubs with billiards tables, and each pub has two or three teams with more or less amusing names. Each team has a captain. The competition is fierce. The team constellations change as players retire and new enthusiasts join. There are people of all ages, from all walks of life: tradesmen, businesspeople, academics, brewers, foreign students, council officers, tree surgeons, driving instructors, me…

At the AGM arcane rules are discussed, hands are raised, new teams are announced and schedules are set. The winning team in division one sets the agenda and leads the meeting. The laymen drinkers at the bar look over and wonder what’s happening.

What’s happening is democracy in action! This is Athens reborn, the Pnyx in the Rose! A dynamic, self-organising community. And pints, lots of pints! Nate-Dawg, captain of the White Lion Manes, gets highfalutin when he announces our new team: we’re all the custodians of this game, he says, and we want to keep it alive. A few nods, general agreement. I’m proud of him, our skipper.

An odd kind of grief

My father died today. I was in the Subway in Anglia Square when my mother rang and told me. I was eating at the window. Pop music was playing. Buses rumbled by. A drunk was sitting across the street next to Poundland waving his hands. I’d finished my work and done my errands. I was feeling free.

At first it’s just information. You hear some words and answer them; I was still thinking about where to find a lampshade for the living room. I got up and walked down the street. My limbs felt weak. To passers-by I must have looked angry. I was self-conscious. I thought, we’re so busy judging each other but you never truly know what’s in the other’s head. Miserable thought. I ended up walking through various alleys I used to take as shortcuts to pubs, then down Marriott’s Way, along the path the tree surgeons have cleared by the river, across the footbridge, down the dirt path behind Aldi, across the carpark, up the hill and down through the streets to my house. A long, roundabout walk.

I’ve tried to prepare myself for this for a long time: the day he’d be gone at last. I was never naïve enough to think it would be a relief, but how do you prepare for something that’s never happened to you before? How often didn’t I tell myself he was a bad man? How often didn’t I wish him dead? So what was I trying to steady myself for? That his death wouldn’t make a difference to me, that he was in my head either way.

This is an odd kind of grief. My mother says his face was white and his mouth was open; if they don’t get there in time, they can’t close it. If they offer to open the coffin at the funeral, she says, don’t do it. I won’t mind that, I say, that would be the least of it. And you know they do all sorts of things at the morgue to make them look normal.


Without language we’d be dumb animals, everyone knows that. We form and deform ourselves in our words. This blog is an example of it. There’s a dignity in being able to speak, to write. Something happens when words come out of people’s mouths. The simplest phrase can make things happen and all of a sudden history has a new score, as the poet said. But words can just as easily obscure everything, cover things over. We’re violent in our nature – we wouldn’t have wiped out all our humanoid rivals and come to dominate the planet otherwise – and our language, our habitual ways of speaking reflects it. So how to trust our own words when they’re by their nature self-serving?

A grain of sand

What did we find in Todtnauberg, A. and I? What we already knew. What were we expecting – us, a couple of middle-aged European men with all the usual baggage? Some sort of affirmation, revelation? We didn’t expect that: we’re too jaded, too guarded. So what were we looking for? Why go to all that trouble and expense? An interesting trip? A cultural experience? No, we’re looking for something ganz Anders, something truly outside ourselves. We’re the same in that way, A. and me, despite our many differences and despite the fact that we’re now in different countries. We have the same, almost impersonal longing. There’s still something childlike about us, which looks out at the world and needs something much more than what we already know to become whole.

Absolute awe before God: that’s what we need. We’re a little tired of all the rest. We’re tired of talking about ourselves. We’re tired of the world, of Being, of family, of politics, money, relationships, sex, booze, waking, sleeping, chatting, working, walking, shopping, living.

On the surface we look reasonably well put together, talk a good game, have our affairs more or less in order. But in secret – a secret only we know about each other – we want what we’ve always needed: we want God. 

We believe the world is a gift from God. We don’t take it for granted. But we also believe the world is next to nothing before God, a grain of sand. We speak metaphorically. We chat endlessly and say very little. We’re only too aware of how little we can say. We interpret the things around us, ourselves, in shifting symbols and signs, depending on what we’re confronted with. We change our views according to what happens to us. We barely understand anything. We only see God in glimpses. And yet God is everything. It’s all we really care about. How to make room for that thought, that longing, when we’re so ill-equipped? 

Flashes in the field of being

No one could be more reserved than me before any attempt to employ Being to think theologically about God. There’s nothing to expect from Being here. I believe that Being can never be thought as the ground and essence of God, but that nevertheless the experience of God and of his manifestedness, to the extent that the latter can indeed meet man, flashes in the field of Being, which in no way means that Being can be seen as a possible ground for God.

— Heidegger

Dating apps

My friends say to get on the dating apps, so I do. I enter a profile and scroll for a bit. At my age, most of them are divorcees with kids. I leave it out for a week, go back to it and realise you have to pay to be seen in the first place.

I play billiards in the pub S. and I used to live next to, with a friend who just got married. It’s particularly lonely to walk back to my house through shabbier streets. When I get home I scroll through this weird marketplace again. There’s a woman on the app who says, ‘Looking for a way out of the existential void’. I swipe left, then regret it. I try to swipe right to get back to her profile, but end up liking pictures of dynamic women with fake eyebrows and studied selfies who are looking for someone who can make them laugh. I google how to scroll back to someone, and it says you have to pay.

My payment settings are set to my old card, which has expired. I find Apple Pay settings and try to remove my old payment method. It says I can’t, since I have an active subscription on an expired card (an app that lets you identify flowers by taking a picture of them). I cancel the subscription, delete my old payment details and enter my new ones. I go back into the app, but it only lets you swipe back to the people you’d rejected after you’d paid. So she’s lost to me, The One! She could’ve saved me, I could’ve saved her! Now all kinds of things pop up on my phone: super swipes, spotlights, unlimited rematches, boosts, gold, platinum… I delete all of it and am ready once again to throw my phone out the window. But of course I don’t.