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spells Archives - Eve Poole

Robots v Witches – which team would you back?

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One long-ago Halloween, I remember learning the Three Witches scene from Macbeth to go guising with my sisters. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble! I wore a black tutu on my head and my sisters used soot from the chimney to blacken their teeth. Macbeth was first performed at court in 1606, before King James VI and I, and Shakespeare’s witches were perfectly pitched. King James very much saw himself as the scourge of Britain’s witches. He’d even written a book about it, Daemonologie, which explains about magic and necromancy, witchcraft and sorcery, spirits and spectres; and sets out the appropriate trials and punishment by death for such practices. He’d been personally involved in the famous North Berwick witch trials in 1590 and witch-burning achieved its zenith during his reign.

Even though the Witchcraft Act was repealed for both Scotland and England in 1736, informal persecution took longer to die out. In 1791, Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was still considered risky for lampooning witches, because witch-burning had taken place in living memory: the last legal witch-burning in Scotland happened in Dornoch in 1723, when Janet Home was tarred, feathered, and burned to death on suspicion of bewitching her daughter into Satan’s pony, because her deformed hands resembled hooves. Claire Mitchell KC reports that Scotland executed five times as many people per capita as anywhere else in Europe. During the currency of the Witchcraft Act in Scotland, she estimates that 3837 people were accused, 2600 of whom were killed, 84% of which were women. So, on International Women’s Day last year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology on behalf of the Scottish Government to all those who were accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.

It is unlikely a robot would masquerade as a witch by wearing a tutu on its head or blackening its teeth. But it is possible, thusly garbed, that the three of us might have incited a witch hunt in the same St Andrews streets 300 years previously, particularly as one of my sisters has differently coloured eyes. For why? Because most ‘witches’ were women who did not conform. They might look unusual or be physically deformed, but more usually they were challenging established authority through healing and divining, those sacred male privileges largely in the gift of the church. It is this retrospective realisation that witch-hunting was nothing more that state-sponsored misogyny that has precipitated global efforts to pardon the witches.

Spellbooks are an interesting case in point. They were recipe books, mainly, with rhymes and chants to promote recall, like Rosemary for Remembrance. With their notes about cases and usage they would not shame a modern kitchen or pharmacy. Indeed, contemporaneous gentlemen often kept their own professional scrapbooks or Commonplaces, although these tended to win them membership of the Royal Society rather than public shaming and death at the stake. Now robots would be very good at spellbooks of any kind. AI is already being used to super-charge drug discovery because of its amazing capacity to process information at an order of magnitude unimaginable to even the largest witches’ coven. So I think they could beat the witches on that front.

But King James hated witches not because they healed, but because they divined; and he thought they were in league with the Devil. Some spellbooks or grimoires were known to contain guidance about the summoning of supernatural spirits for help or guidance, and many traditions around the world have sought out dark magic. But it is highly unlikely that all but a miniscule proportion of those 3837 people accused in Scotland were sorcerers. What is more likely is that a fair few of them had the Second Sight, and were susceptible to visions, prophesy, and an ability to understand the world at a deeper level. All humans have access to intuition and are able to pick up data from weak signals. There is much argument about what intuition really is, but wherever it comes from, the data it produces is real and documented. It seems that some humans are able to hear this fuzzy frequency clearly, and to connect with what Jung would call the collective unconscious, and what the occult would call other worlds or realms.

Such phenomena are anathema to scientists and would find no place in any formalised articulation of the best of human intelligence. These days we regard palm-reading, the Tarot and the I Ching as fairground attractions, and we scornfully flick past the horoscopes in the newspapers. But perhaps our witches were right. Perhaps as Hamlet said after glimpsing the paranormal we should give such strangers welcome, because ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Of course we would find it hard to code such things in to AI. But that does not mean that these kinds of considerations are irrelevant. Our arrogance about these weak signals risks becoming hubris in a great AI tragedy if we do not embrace the complete messiness of human intelligences. Programming in – and valuing – only the easy bits that are susceptible to ones and zeroes would certainly hand victory to the robots.

Robot Souls is due out 1 August 2023 and is available for pre-order here.