Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a bizarre speech on Tuesday night at the United Nations General Assembly that included plenty of dire warning about the future, including everything from the rise of killer robots to “limbless chickens” on the kitchen table. And as strange as it sounds, Johnson may have been trying to quote former Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“What will synthetic biology stand for—restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues, like some fantastic hangover cure? Or will it bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables,” Johnson said on Tuesday before a stunned audience at the United Nations in New York.
Believe it or not, Churchill made a lot of predictions in the 1930s. He foresaw the rise of nuclear energy, he believed that robots and artificial life were just around the corner, and yes, he predicted that chickens might eventually be created in parts—with just a wing or breast created in isolation—for human consumption.
Churchill’s predictions were published in his 1932 collection of essays titled, “Thoughts and Adventures,” which is available for free at the Internet Archive. And these predictions might offer some context for Johnson’s strange speech at the UN.
“We know enough to be sure that the scientific achievements of the next fifty years will be far greater, more rapid and more surprising, than those we have already experienced,” Churchill wrote.
Churchill uses the essay to explain that if we look back at the scientific advancements of the last 100 years, we can safely predict that the next fifty years will be too incredible to even imagine.
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” Churchill wrote in a passage that sounds remarkable similar to the concept Johnson was discussing.
“Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future,” Churchill continued. “Nor need the pleasures of the table be banished. That gloomy Utopia of tabloid meals need never be invaded. The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”
It all sounds pretty close to what Johnson was saying, and I even used that Churchill quote about chickens for a Paleofuture blog post about fake meat back in 2013. But how do we know Johnson was mimicking Churchill? We don’t know for sure, but Johnson has had a lifelong love affair with the former Prime Minister’s legacy and the current Prime Minister even wrote a book about Churchill in 2014 titled The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.
Of course, there are a lot of other predictions in Churchill’s essay that might have inspired Johnson in different ways. Johnson warned of “pink-eyed Terminators” from the future that might slaughter humans. Churchill’s comments about robots, as machines that might be used by Communist Russia for nefarious purposes, also sounds somewhat similar.
Here’s some of what Johnson said in his speech on Tuesday:
How do you plead with an algorithm? How do you get it to see the extenuating circumstances? And how do we know that the machines have not been insidiously programmed to fool us or even to cheat us?
We already use all kinds of messaging services that offer instant communication at minimal cost. The same programs, platforms, could also be designed for real-time censorship of every conversation, with offending words automatically deleted, indeed in some countries this happens today. Digital authoritarianism is not, alas, the stuff of dystopian fantasy but of an emerging reality.
The reason I am giving this speech today is that the UK is one of the world’s tech leaders—and I believe governments have been simply caught unawares by the unintended consequences of the internet. A scientific breakthrough more far-reaching in its everyday psychological impact than any other invention since Gutenberg
And when you consider how long it took for books to come into widespread circulation The arrival of the internet is far bigger than print It is bigger than the atomic age. But it is like nuclear power in that it is capable of both good and harm. But of course it is not alone. As new technologies seem to race towards us from the far horizon we strain our eyes as they come, to make out whether they are for good or bad, friends or foes?
AI —what will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an aging population or pink-eyed Terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?
And here’s more from Churchill’s 1932 essay:
But equally starling developments lie already just beyond our finger-tips in the breeding of human beings, and the shaping of human nature. It used to be said,’Though you have taught the dog more tricks, you cannot alter the breed of the dog. But that is no longer true. A few years ago London was surprised by a play called Roosum’s [sic] Universal Robots. The production of such beings may well be possible within fifty years. They will not be made, but grown under glass. There seems little doubt that it will be possible to carry out in artificial surroundings the entire cycle which now leads to the birth of a child. Interference with the mental development of such beings, expert suggestion and treatment in the earlier years, would produce beings specialized to thought or toil. The production of creatures, for instance, which have admirable physical development with their mental endowment stunted in particular directions, is almost within the range of human power. A being might be produced capable of tending a machine but without other ambitions. Our minds recoil from such fearful eventualities, and the laws of a Christian civilization will prevent them. But might not lop-sided creatures of this type fit in well with the Communist doctrines of Russia ? Might not the Union of Soviet Republics armed with all the power of science find it in harmony with all their aims to produce a race adapted to mechanical tasks and with no other ideas but to obey the Communist State ? The present nature of man is tough and resilient. It casts up its sparks of genius in the darkest and most unexpected places. But Robots could be made to fit the grisly theories of Communism. There is nothing in the philosophy of Communists to prevent their creation.
Johnson is a weirdo and who’s constantly trying to play dumb. But unlike President Donald Trump, Johnson has at least read a few books.
And even if Johnson wasn’t actually inspired by Churchill’s old predictions from 1932, it’s a stunning coincidence. But whereas Churchill saw the creation of lab-chickens as a potentially positive thing, Johnson is clearly using it to scare people. But maybe limbless chickens aren’t the most terrifying thing facing the British people right now. With Brexit on the agenda for October 31, there’s plenty to be scared about that has nothing to do with Frankenchickens.