Friday 17 August 2018

Radio: Robots in the Dáil and returning wonderwomen

Jonathan Healy
Jonathan Healy
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

'Is it time to get rid of politicians - and replace them with robots?" asked Jonathan Healy, deputising on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 9am), before he dryly added: "It's a conversation we haven't had before, but maybe now is the right moment."

The idea, mooted in a recent article, was discussed with Alan Smeaton, professor of computing at DCU. Robots are not just metal objects: they're also software, algorithms…and chatbots, "which can augment the conversations people have with other people".

The first chatbot, I was surprised to learn, was created 50 years ago, as part of a psychology experiment in Stanford. These software programs read a lot of text and build up a knowledge base from that information. "The chatbot glues together fragments of conversation (often questions and answers) into a coherent whole," he said.

But there are some problems in creating a digital politics. The bot, Jonathan pointed out, would have to know the politics of the person it's representing - and perhaps more pertinently, "know what the other person wanted to hear".

Both agreed, also, that people tend to be disappointed if they discover the "person" on the other end of a customer-support dialogue is actually a computer program. We need to reach the point, Alan added, when "the technology is so polished that it will be seamless and you really will believe it".

And we are getting more comfortable in talking to machines, e.g. satnav - especially if it has a speech element, which gives it something approximating a personality.

So, Jonathan finished: "Do we need to be worried?" Alan answered: "Not in the short-term. Politicians will still legislate, cut ribbons and kiss babies." There's a relief.

From high science to low art: Dave Fanning (2FM, Sat-Sun 9am) explored the phenomenon of gross-out movies. He began by asking: "Are they lazy?" They're certainly disgusting and childish - and almost never very funny. But, as film journalist Fiona Flynn explained, gross-out movies actually began as something close to a political statement.

With his cult classic Pink Flamingos in 1972, the legendary John Waters "wanted to be subversive and do something considered unacceptable by the mores of the time". It was countercultural; there was a point to it.

Mel Brooks probably made gross-out mainstream with Blazing Saddles, especially its classic "farting cowboys" scene. This, fact fans, was the first time the noise of flatulence was heard in cinemas.

And the Farrelly brothers' 1990s films established gross-out comedy as big box-office; sadly (or happily, depending on your personal tastes), it's stayed that way ever since. Bah - give me Noël Coward any day.

The talented documentarian Patricia Baker followed up a series of outstanding programmes - Competing for Science, Keeping Time, Another Way and others - with possibly her best work yet.

Returning Home (Newstalk, Sun 7am) explored the lives of six Missionary Sisters who've spent decades working abroad and have now come home. The Catholic Church gets a lot of criticism (often from snotty atheists like me), but it's done an immense amount of good, too, especially in poorer countries, which should be recognised.

And talk about inspirational. If any of us lived a life as extraordinary as these tough, brave, intelligent and compassionate ladies, we'd be doing well.

They're the sort of women who deserve to be celebrated in song and story. This documentary, inspired by Baker's own aunt - "a small, feisty Kerrywoman" and a nun - is a fine start.

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