The Mummy in an AI world: Jane Webb’s future

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

The sarcophagus of a mummy
Image by albertr from Pixabay

Inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 17-year old Victorian orphan, Jane Webb secured her future by writing the first ever Mummy story. The 22nd century world in which her novel was set is perhaps the most amazing thing about the three volume book though.

On the death of her father, Jane realised she needed to find a way to support herself and did so by publishing her novel “The Mummy!” in 1827. In contrast to their modern version as stars of horror films, Webb’s Mummy, a reanimation of Cheops, was actually there to help those doing good and punish those that were evil. Napoleon had, through the start of the century, invaded Egypt, taking with him scholars intent on understanding the Ancient Egyptian society. Europe was fascinated with Ancient Egypt and awash with Egyptian artefacts and stories around them. In London, the Egyptian Hall had been built in Piccadilly in 1812 to display Egyptian artefacts and in 1821 it displayed a replica of the tomb of Seti I. The Rosetta Stone that led to the decipherment of hieroglyphics was cracked in 1822. The time was therefore ripe for someone to come up with the idea of a Mummy story.

The novel was not, however, set in Victorian times but in a 22nd century future that she imagined, and that future was perhaps more amazing than the idea of a mummy coming to life. Her version of the future was full of technological inventions supporting humanity, as well as social predictions, many of which have come to fruition such as space travel and the idea that women might wear trousers as the height of fashion (making her a feminist hero). The machines she described in the book led to her meeting her future husband, John Loudon. As a writer about farming and gardening he was so impressed by the idea of a mechanical milking machine included in the book, that he asked to meet her. They married soon after (and she became Jane Loudon).

The skilled artificial intelligences she wrote into her future society are perhaps the most amazing of her ideas in that she was the first person to really envision in fiction a world where AIs and robots were embedded in society just doing good as standard. To put this into context of other predictions, Ada Lovelace wrote her notes suggesting machines of the future would be able to compose music 20 years later.

Jane Webb’s future was also full of cunning computational contraptions: there were steam-powered robot surgeons, foreseeing the modern robots that are able to do operations (and with their steady hands are better at, for example, eye surgery than a human). She also described Artificial Intelligences replacing lawyers. Her machines were fed their legal brief, giving them instructions about the case, through tubes. Whilst robots may not yet have fully replaced barristers and judges, artificial intelligence programs are already used, for example, to decide the length of sentences of those convicted in some places, and many see it now only being a matter of time before lawyers are spending their time working with Artificial Intelligence programs as standard. Jane’s world also includes a version of the Internet, at a time before electric telegraph existed and when telegraph messages were sent by semaphore between networks of towers.

The book ultimately secured her future as required, and whilst we do not yet have any real reanimated mummy’s wandering around doing good deeds, Jane Webb did envision lots of useful inventions, many that are now a reality, and certainly had pretty good ideas about how future computer technology would pan out in society…despite computers, never mind artificial intelligences, still being well over a century away.

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EPSRC supported this article through research grants (EP/K040251/2 and EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin as well as grant EP/W033615/1). 

In a New York nanosecond

New technology can have unforeseen effects. The Law in particular can sometimes struggle to keep up, but for the IT savvy lawyer that can mean opportunity. For example, one bunch of lawyers realised that the way money moves round the world electronically could give their clients the edge. Nanoseconds are all it takes. As a result, a bunch of New York nanoseconds gave Judges in the Southern district court of the city a real headache.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Different countries have different laws. That means lawyers will go out of their way to apply the law for their clients in the right country. It can make all the difference. Unlike some other countries US maritime law allows a person to freeze a person’s assets, even before a decision has been reached, when there is a maritime claim against them. For example, if a merchant hasn’t been paid for a shipload of cargo, or if a shipyard hasn’t been paid for ship repairs, then they can use this rule to freeze the defaulter’s money. Otherwise a win, when it comes, could be rather hollow, with the money long placed out of reach. The only trouble for the lawyers is that the money has to be in the US for the US law to apply.

Frozen money

That is where the technology comes in. Bankers don’t ship physical money from country to country, it’s all done electronically now… A consequence of the way the banking system was set up is that dollar transactions had to pass through the US banking centre in Manhattan as the money has to move from place to place. That’s an easy thing to require data to do in the age of the Internet. It only spends a fraction of a second in New York before it jumps on somewhere else. The law, of course, makes no distinction over shrinking timescales in which computers make things happen. A prepared lawyer can have the money frozen in that instant as just at that moment it is in the US.

That was great for people wanting to hold up money. It was a nightmare for the New York judges, though. Once the lawyers caught on about those nanoseconds the work started stacking up for the judges. All those fractions of a second added up to hours of the Judges’ time granting permission for the money to be seized. Every day the poor New York judges had to process hundreds and hundreds of requests, just in case some disputed money happened to pass through that day. To seize the money, it wasn’t enough just to put in a request and wait, ready to pounce when the money lands in Manhattan. Instead, just like a Spider re-spinning its web every morning, the trap had to be renewed daily. To do that the lawyers had to serve the bank daily with notice that if any money passed through that day it had to be stopped in its high speed tracks.

New technology constantly brings up new problems like this, when old laws or procedures are found to be wanting when technology changes the way things are done: changes things far beyond the imagination of those who drafted the laws. Just as technology never stands still, neither does the law…or the IT savvy lawyer.

Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, Summer 2017, updated Spring 2021