You lean back in your cinema chair and heave a sigh of relief, the muscle-bound action man has finally vanquished his robotic enemy, man has triumphed over machine, humans have beaten wicked science.

It’s a familiar theme. From Terminator to Star Wars, from AI to District 9, science fiction films have forever pitted plucky emotional humans against evil genius super-villains.

But are we now beginning to see a change? This weekend two British films will compete for the Best Film and Best Actor BAFTAs, both focussing on British scientists, who are prominent in the debate currently raging about artificial intelligence.

Hawking, (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything), may have shared very little in common, scientifically, with Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) but, with dashing leading men acting out their achievements on screen, this could be about to herald a change in the portrayal of science on film.

Whilst silver screen scientists have been characterised by nerdishness, zany outfits and haphazard accidents with inventions, (think Back To The Future) these two films, like A Beautiful Mind before them, are sensitive portrayals of genius, looking both at the achievements and the men behind them.

So if we are beginning to shake off the cartoonish view of the scientist, what of Hollywood’s other source of compelling stereotypes – the robot?  Artificial intelligence has provided the inspiration for some of Hollywood’s most famous, and most menacing, villains: think HAL in 2001, Joshua in War Games or Agent Smith in The Matrix.

But, we have begun to see a change in attitudes to artificial intelligence. Robot and Frank, released last year, was a heart-warming portrayal of how a robot worked alongside his elderly “owner” to mastermind a robbery while Disney’s Oscar-nominated animation Big Hero 6 has as its lovable hero a plus-size, inflatable robot called Baymax.

Stephen Hawking

What of wider public attitudes? Recently we have seen a great deal of angst in the press about the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) and whether robots will take over the world. Hawking along with many modern physicists has been outspoken about the dangers of AI. He is a founding member of the Center for the Future, which recently received a $10m grant from Elon Musk.

The group recently composed an open letter to politicians, not so much focused on the potential for world domination but on the profound changes to the economy such machines will bring.

Turing started the artificial intelligence debate by inventing the computer. The imitation game, which we now call ‘the Turing Test’ was proposed in a famous paper he wrote ‘Can Machines Think?’ and provides a test for whether we have achieved AI. He died too young to see the explosive growth in computational power we are experiencing today but he speculated extensively about how far computers could go.

Turing thought they would have mastered intelligent thought by now, but as we have discovered AI is a hard problem. If we revise Turing’s calculation using data from IBMs latest thinking machine, ’SyNAPSE’, computers will reach parity with the human brain in mid 2053. This is alarmingly soon – just over one generation – which is why the AI debate has suddenly come to the fore.

Alan Turing

The potential for AI is perhaps the greatest questions of the modern age. If computers reach parity with humans will this bring great wealth and prosperity, automating away all the drudgery from the modern world or will it, as Steve Wozniak remarked, relegate humans to the role of pets as our computers become the dominant intelligence on the planet.

For my part I think there’s one insurmountable problem for computers to overcome if they wanted to match humans; our capacity for creativity. When Turing invented the computer he also stated a limit on its ultimate power.

Azimov’s famous laws of robotics need one more rule. “A robot may not solve or cause to be solved a puzzle for which it has not already been given a method to solve it.”

Despite computers fabulous capacity to crunch numbers they can not come up with new things. They can only extend and generalise ideas that have been programmed into them. They do this amazing well and can sometimes fool us into thinking they are intelligent but they don’t have the ability to think freely: They are programmed.

We are not going to see an innovative screen play, a breath taking artistic work or solution a great mathematical puzzle signed, iRobot.

These things are the domain of creative human minds a far more complex and subtle machine than any computer so far imagined. Computers can help us with creativity, rendering Disney Pixar movies and helping us process words but they will not come up with the concepts in the first place.

It really comes down to understanding the nature of thinking which is beautifully summed up by another founding father of the computers.

“The question of whether computers can think is just like the question of whether submarines can swim.”
Edgar Dijkstra
sas Cover.inddJames Tagg is an inventor and entrepreneur. A pioneer of touch screen technology he has founded several companies including Truphone, the world’s first global mobile network.

His book ‘Are the Androids Dreaming Yet? Our Amazing Brain and the enigma of Human Communication, Creativity and Free Will. (Hurst Farm Books, Feb 2015) looks at the history and science of information and argues humans are a different type of thinking machine able to create and exhibit free will.



Originally posted on the Truphone blog.


About this time each year people around the world settle down to think about the year ahead and what they could do better.  In China, New Year waits until the New Moon of the first full lunar month – sometime between January 21st and February 21st, while in other countries, the year can turn over as late as autumn.

But, for most of us, New Year is the 1st of January, marked by a holiday to recover from the excesses we promise never to repeat… All this resolving: I will give up alcohol, I will exercise more, I will phone my mother – assumes we choose between what we do and don’t do. What’s the point of making a New Year’s resolution if free will does not exist? You’re going to do what you’re going to do anyway, right?

But, what is the evidence for free will? Does it really exist?

Many modern philosophers tell us free will is an illusion, that when we make a resolution we have the feeling it was freely made. But in truth we were always going to make that resolution, and we were also destined to break it. The laws of physics ensure cause and effect apply. The ‘effect’ of making some choice was really ‘caused’ by some previous event and that event caused by an event before it and so on, right back to the big bang. Our Universe is just one big clockwork mechanism and we are but a cog within it.


Just recently, a new breed of philosophers, actually mathematicians and physicists led by John Conway, have begun piecing together the science of free will. They say our Universe appears to be composed of particles that do not behave in pre-determined ways. Conway and Kochen wrote a paper in 2014 explaining how this comes about, and arguing that because the little particles that we’re made of are free, so are we.

So, as you finish off the last of the leftover chocolates and mince pies and head to the gym, be aware that what you decide might be really important, the future of our Universe depends upon it. We cause the Universe. The Universe does not cause us. If your mind goes to pondering these deep questions at this time of year – free will, creativity, inventing – I’m letting you know that mine does too.

(And now a bit of a plug, sorry.)

Five years ago I resolved to write a book about these things and, amazingly, followed through on it! The book, Are the Androids Dreaming Yet? is available now on Amazon in hardback, paperback and Kindle and on the Apple iBooks store. Signed copies can be obtained by request from my website:

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Many scientists think we have a tenuous hold on the title, “most intelligent being on the planet”. They think it’s just a matter of time before computers become smarter than us, and then what? This book charts a journey through the science of information, from the origins of language and logic, to the frontiers of modern physics. From Lewis Carroll’s logic puzzles, through Alan Turing and his work on Enigma and the imitation game, to John Bell’s inequality, and finally the Conway-Kochen ‘Free Will’ Theorem. How do the laws of physics give us our creativity, our rich experience of communication and, especially, our free will?

Brilliant Minds in Madrid

Patricia Hayter interviewed me for the Truphone blog about speaking at TADSummit and Brilliant Minds.

Patricia Hayter :
James, you were recently on the road in Istanbul at TADSummit and also in Madrid speaking at the sensational Brilliant Minds event. Please tell us firstly, how was Brilliant Minds?

James Tagg :
Well it was quite scary because it is a presentation in the round.  The venue was originally built for boxing matches. The ring’s been replaced, there are no ropes anymore, just TV screens. You speak without notes for 21 minutes exactly, there’s a little timer on your presentation that counts down and when 6 minutes or so are left, you are tempted to panic!

The line-up of speakers was very interesting.  The doctor who invented the Pacemaker, the scientist from NASA responsible for stopping asteroids hitting the Earth, and the artist who took the Tiananmen Square shot of the lone Chinese citizen facing a line of tanks. It was special to be invited to join the same line-up as these famous people. I had a full time minder for the duration, and even my own dressing room, which made me feel like a star.














I chose to talk about my personal experience of inventing, and the science around invention and creativity.  I covered growing up inventing fun things as a child and then some of the things I have been involved in as an adult such as the invention of the touch screen and of course, Truphone’s technology.

If you look at the history of inventing we didn’t really understand creativity and invention until the Renaissance but since then innovation has accelerated so that it is a major driver of commerce today. Now that computers are getting so powerful, one of the most interesting questions for me is: can computers be creative and invent too?

It’s a topical question – this question of the power of machines – because of the interest in Alan Turing. The recent film, The Imitation Game, tells the story of Alan Turing and his efforts to break the Enigma Code during WWII, but we should remember this is not his greatest achievement. He invented the modern computer; or, at the very least, the modern discipline of computer science.  Turing provided us with all the original scientific underpinning describing what computers can and cannot do. One of the things he proved when he was only 22 years of age, was that computers could not automatically discover new mathematical theorems. But of course, mathematicians do this all the time. So if a computer cannot discover a theorem but a human can, does that make us fundamentally different?

This is one of the world’s great modern questions. We do not understand how the human brain works or what consciousness is, we do not know whether we are computers, and we don’t know where the boundaries of computers lie.  Will computers overtake us intellectually or are there things they cannot do? At Brilliant Minds, I put forward my theory that humans have a fundamentally different approach to thinking.

You launched your book, ‘Are the Androids Dreaming Yet?’ – in Spanish, in Spain. What was that like?

The conference I was speaking at was predominantly Spanish-speaking and I felt it was polite to do so.  It was an interesting exercise to use the internet to find all the necessary skills from all around the world to launch a book in a language that I didn’t speak! The English one is on the way shortly.

Are the Androids Dreaming Yet?

The book is about the three big questions: How do humans communicate with each other – body language, humour, and all the things that make us human beings?  Why and how are we creative? Can we be sure that computers are not going to be creative? In the book I give examples of computers that have been designed to be creative like AARON, Emily Howell and JAPE – art, music and jokes respectively.  They’re quite impressive but they definitely have limitations. Having tackled those questions I look at the issue of free will, since our first creative task is to choose what to be creative about.

If there is no free will, and we are not choosing what we do, how can that be creativity?  I don’t believe everything is pre-determined and our feeling of freedom is an illusion, I believe we create our own lives.

Sounds like this might be quite a heavy book?

Well I hope I have tackled these questions in an accessible way that anyone could read but I don’t gloss over the science. I want readers to properly understand why the world of information and invention is the way it is.

During your time in Madrid you met with some other people at the UK Embassy.  What did you discuss there?

The day before Brilliant Minds we invited about 40 people – a mixture of CIOs and journalists to a breakfast with Forrester.  Forrester discussed a new report on the degree of mobilisation that work forces had achieved, broken down by country.  Spain ranked one of the highest meaning that they use mobile phones and tablets rather than computers for their transactions than nearly any other country in the world – booking a flight, checking into a hotel, writing emails, and even buying books on Amazon!

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I went on to discuss what is driving companies to use mobile technology.  I believe businesses are super-specializing, meaning we reach out across the world in real time – to answer questions, to learn, to get work done, to speak to experts, and so on.  This trend really started when Academia launched the internet on the rest of us.  Academics and medics had been collaborating for decades using proprietary networks before the technology broke out of CERN – with the invention of the World Wide Web – and entered the wider business community.

Now of course we all expect to interact globally from wherever we are. I explained to the audience that this included me honing my presentation using my laptop perched on the seat of a taxi, while the marketing and graphics people back at home edited the presentation in real time. My presentation was a lot better for having those last-minute touches made, making it more relevant and immediate. You might wonder if I would be better preparing further upfront but this would lack the ability to respond to events and the current situation. If you aren’t working and fine-tuning your presentation and proposal right up to the deadline and your competitor is, they will have something better than you.

I explained how the Truphone network is designed to optimise your experience particularly when you’re travelling. But it is important to point out it is just as good when you’re at home and want to collaborate. Our unique network architecture is built with an internet philosophy. Data and voice are kept local wherever possible and only authentication is routed to home servers.  This means web pages and applications work faster and calls have low latency. We also have a flat tariff across 66 countries which means you don’t have to worry about roaming – you can work the same as if you were at home.

Many of our customers are attracted by the cost proposition; however the gains in productivity are often the greatest improvement to their businesses.  Customers regularly see data and voice usage double, while at the same time costs go down by around a third. The CIOs and journalists seemed to understand this point.

So we can get your book online?

The book is available in Spanish, right now on Amazon Spain. The English version will be available soon.

Muchas gracias, James Tagg.

Are the Androids Dreaming Yet?

In my last post I talked about controlling video games with your brainwaves and the new field of Brain Computer Interfaces, ‘BCIs’. But why not run the process in reverse and have the computer modulate your brain waves?

Imagine hooking up to Call of Duty and having the game stimulate the pain centers when you get shot, for example. Not my favorite idea as I’m not very good at that game – I’d probably prefer to end a long day at the office by plugging in to a meditation machine and stimulating my calming centers.

These ideas are now made possible and companies exist which are engaged in bringing them to life – though, for ethical reasons, no one has yet proposed targeting the pain centers!

As is often the case, the open source community was first to experiment with these brain induction technologies – and there are websites out there explaining how to wire your brain up to a 9-volt battery and induce currents within it. I’ll not post the links and I’d advise against trying them unless you have a degree in electronics because there’s a risk you’ll end up with second-degree burns – but the basic technology appears perfectly safe. You can already buy a device in the US called, which claims to improve your gaming performance.

The next wave of startups has put a lot of research behind their products and at the Conciousness Conference I caught up with Jamie Tyler, CSO of Thync. I tried the Thync prototype out on Dr. Gino Yu, Associate Professor and Director of Digital Entertainment and Game Development at the school of Design, Hong Kong – a man with a very cool job title. The device works by allowing users to bias their brainwaves towards desireable mental states. We set out to calm down an agitated Dr. Yu.

It turns out, Dr. Yu doesn’t need a stressful day to get agitated – he just needs someone to talk to him about one of his passions. The Thync device is held in place with a fetching head band – not part of his usual wardrobe – and controlled with an app. You can see the effect for yourself in the pictures below.

The commercial launch of the Thync device is slated for early 2015, subject to all the appropriate safety testing and approvals.

Thync Prototype 2 3

Originally posted on the Truphone blog