Tuesday 25 April 2017

Radio: We are the robots, and we're coming to take over...

Presenter: Sean O'Rourke Photo: Brian McEvoy
Presenter: Sean O'Rourke Photo: Brian McEvoy
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Will robots conquer the planet? It's been a fear of humankind for decades: that these machines we've made will become ever-more clever, eventually achieving self-awareness (or whatever is the computerised version of that) and enslaving us all in their underground silicon mines.

The Rise of the Robots (BBC Radio 4, Mon 9pm) doesn't only look at this potential robopocalypse (no, that's not my coinage, it's from a book - and yes, I did read it and it was pretty enjoyable). Adam Rutherford's ongoing series (now two weeks in) looks at all aspects of robots, beginning with their origins.

Surprisingly, that origin wasn't in the 1950s, or even the Jules Verne/HG Wells era. The concept of robots actually dates back to Ancient Greece.

"But wait," I hear you saying in a confused, slightly dull tone of voice, "the Greeks didn't even have computers; did they?"

No, they didn't - you were right the first time. And yet something like robots are found in their mythology anyway, when the god of fire creates them to help in his workshop.

In medieval times, rich people had automata - clockwork robots, I suppose we could call them. By the 18th Century, craftsmen had created machines that could play music. The word itself comes from a 1921 play by a Czech author.

But of course, for most of us, when we hear "robot", we do think of something working off a computer chip. We also tend to think of things like chrome exoskeletons, red eyes, humanoid shapes, bald round heads, incredible strength, jerky but fluid movement. For me, the machine usually has a buzzing, vaguely camp-sounding voice, too.

Rutherford's excellent series asks the big philosophical questions about why we create these metal replicas of ourselves, what are the possible dangers and - a bit of moral uncertainty and/or queasiness here - should we regard them as slaves, or give them a bit more respect? On one level, they clearly are slaves: they're machines, created by us for our use, no more nor less than a fridge or phone. On another level, they can look like us; they're a semi-fictional version of us, a kind of abstraction made real.

I don't know where I stand on robot rights, but when the inevitable happens and they conquer the world, I'll lie my ass off and blame all of you for making robots do those dangerous jobs now.

On a related theme, Today with Sean O'Rourke (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 10am) had an item on telematics, a relatively new field which analyses driver behaviour and provides information to make them better and safer. The computer knows everything and tells all: your history as a driver, what the weather is like, where you are right now, any dangers up ahead, what you should be doing differently.

Telematics, we heard, is fundamentally changing the insurance industry: drivers previously assumed to be dangerous and thus charged through the nose, eg, young men, can now point to the digital stats which (hopefully) prove otherwise. Thus, the computers will save them money.

I can't pretend to understand the mechanics too well, but it was fascinating stuff (I didn't know, for instance, that GPS was originally a military application… although thinking about it now, I should have). I found it especially interesting because on a trip to Israel last year, I met a young whizz-kid who'd invented some app of a similar nature.

It all feels very much like the future, made real, made now. You become almost blasé about this stuff, because it's part of the fabric of regular, everyday life. But it is, in the literal sense, amazing.

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