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  • Mike and Helen

I am not a Robot

Last night Helen saw Nye the National Theatre production starring Michael Sheen as pioneering Welsh politician, Aneurin(Nye) Bevan – usually considered the founder of the National Health Service. The play began with Nye dying of stomach cancer in his hospital bed wearing his red pyjamas. Subsequent flashbacks into his family life, his progress from nervous stammerer learning to fight injustice and stand up to power in his school in the form of a bullying teacher and on through the ups and downs of his political career. Sheen as Nye moved throughout the play barefoot and still wearing his red pyjamas.

Bevan grew up cheek by jowl with deprivation in a mining community where the miners’ ability to earn money fluctuated according to the whims of capitalist mining companies. The effects of these fluctuations on the bodies and minds of the miners’ and their families were something Nye knew first hand. He never forgot and was determined that no one else should forget either.  

In the face of powerful opposition from the medical profession who feared that they might lose both money and control, as Minister for Health, Bevan finally achieved the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It offered universal health care based on clinical need and free at the point of delivery.  It was a remarkable achievement for the boy from the Welsh Valleys.

The red pyjamas were a dramatic reminder of Nye's refusal to don the fancy dress and ideas of more conventional politicians who operated without personal knowledge of the physical lives: the work lives and the everyday states of health of the people they were supposed to represent. Nye’s bare feet reminded us all of human vulnerability.

Nye never forgot that he was a vulnerable human being serving other vulnerable human beings.

When several years ago we first ticked the box on some administrative form confirming that we were humans not robots, we thought it was amusing. We treated it as a bit of a joke. But these days, we hardly think about it. We bank, buy travel tickets, fill the car up with petrol or the kitchen with groceries, without speaking to a soul. We live in a world where transactions are supposed to be quicker – and they can be - but when the machines go wrong, just try getting through to a real human being on most helplines! Life is becoming sometimes disturbingly impersonal.

We heard about the end of a meeting recently where someone suggested that there should be a press release on the decisions taken. One member of the committee presented the one he had just ‘written’. He had put some keywords into a computer programme which was aware of his writing style or at least the style of the meeting and hey presto! he produced a report at the press of a button. It needed some editing but basically it was fit for purpose. Academic friends share that bots can write essays and papers for students in schools, colleges and universities in a given style and it can be difficult to know that the author was not human. From all we have seen of ChatGB, there seems no doubt a bot could write this blog for us in our style if we gave it a few instructions!

It's clear that nobody really knows the meaning of all these artificial intelligence developments for the human race and for so many endeavours that are important to human flourishing. Artistic and creative pursuits, compassionate responses, humour, insight arising initially from human error are in the very fabric of our existence. But one thing is clear – and Nye had it right - if we ignore the existence and needs not just of our own bodies but especially the bodies of people less fortunate than we are, our humanity is under threat!

Photo: Time Out Johan Persson


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May 20

Thank you for the history lesson on Nye and the NHS. For all its shortcomings, the NHS is still the envy of many of us in the US. Good on Nye for fighting the good fight for compassion and justice.

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