British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a bizarre late night speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, warning that technology could make our world a dystopian hellscape if it’s not properly constrained — a place where mattresses monitor our nightmares, heartless algorithms deny us medical care, and… robots travel from the future to slaughter humanity.
With his trademark mop of blonde hair and the cadence of a third grader delivering a book report, Johnson talked about “pink-eyed” Terminators that might be “sent back from the future to cull the human race” and “limbless chickens” that could soon be on our kitchen tables. Needless to say, UN delegates from other countries looked on with what appeared to be a mixture of amusement and concern.
“When I think of the great scientific revolutions of the past — print, the steam engine, aviation, the atomic age — I think of new tools that we acquired but over which we, the human race, had the advantage, which we controlled. That is not necessarily the case in the digital age,” Johnson told the people assembled at the UN late Tuesday after many had already left for the night.
“You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor, even your personal trainer, but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google,” Johnson continued. “And if that is true today, in future there may be nowhere to hide.”
Johnson went on to warn that the internet of things might make it easy to find a parking space, but that this same technology will allow for “round-the-clock surveillance” of every citizen.
“A future Alexa will pretend to take orders, but this Alexa will be watching you, clucking her tongue and stamping her foot,” Johnson said, referring to the Amazon voice assistant that has had some controversial eavesdropping scandals in recent months.
“In the future, voice connectivity will be in every room and almost every object. Your mattress will monitor your nightmares, your fridge will beep for more cheese, your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach, like some silent butler. Your smart metre will go hustling — if its accord — for the cheapest electricity.”
“Should the machines, and only the machines, decide whether or not we are eligible for a mortgage or insurance or what surgery or medicines we should receive?” Johnson said. “Are we doomed to a cold and heartless future in which computer says yes – or computer says no with the grim finality of an emperor in the arena?”
Then Johnson got to the weirdest part of his speech.
“AI – what will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an ageing population? Or pink eyed Terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?” Johnson said. “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, a man who’s currently embroiled in a controversy over his illegal decision to suspend Britain’s Parliament in the countdown to Brexit, is known for trying to change the subject whenever things are going poorly for him. But it’s difficult to unpack the true goal of his strange performance last night. Was Johnson trying to distract from his controversies at home, including a sex scandal with a woman who was awarded public money? Or is Johnson sincerely worried about time travelling deathbots?
Johnson then awkwardly segued into a part of the speech where he insisted that the UK was leading the world in technological innovation and invited delegates to meet in London. Seriously.
The 15-minute speech, which is available on the United Nations’ YouTube channel, is even more surreal to watch if you recall that the British Prime Minister actually has a lot of power. These aren’t the ravings of some mentally disturbed person on the bus. This guy has control of nuclear weapons.
Johnson’s speech will probably be overshadowed by other news in the U.S., namely the decision of House Democrats to finally act like adults and get started with impeaching President Donald Trump. But it’s worth watching, if only as a great reminder that Americans aren’t the only ones who are completely fucked at the moment.
The rest of the world is dealing with their own problems right now. And thankfully the U.S. doesn’t yet have to contend with “pink-eyed” Terminators sent from the future to destroy humanity.