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AI gives us food for thought

ROBOTS, as everyone knows, are scary. The Terminator (solid or liquid-metal models), the one that menaced Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in Saturn 3, even cute Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet -- creepy things the lot of them.

As a kid, the one that really terrified me out of my wits was the robot with the brain of a dead scientist in a schlocky B-movie called The Colossus of New York. I came across the film on YouTube recently and laughed at how cheesy it all was . . . at least until the robot made his entrance and gave me a frisson of unease all over again.

Marcus Du Sautoy looked slightly uneasy on several occasions during Horizon: The Hunt for AI, which asked the old question: can machines be made to think?

He was clearly a little spooked when he shook the hand of a robot with a plastic exoskeleton that mimics the human body. The machine has been built by a scientist who believes that if we're to make machines that have an independent consciousness, making them look like humans is essential.

"This is scary," said Marcus later on, when he met a couple of smaller robots that learn from experience, like children picking up new skills every day.

At the moment it's rudimentary stuff, like copying each other's arm movements. But Marcus was as much freaked as enthralled when he discovered they've begun to communicate in their own language -- a language humans don't understand. Brrr!

"As a mathematician, should I be worried that these machines will put me out of a job, or will they extend human intelligence?" he wondered. "What are these machines? Or who are they?"

The most awe-inspiring moment, though, came not from these humanoid robots with their electronic voices and bony plastic hands but when Marcus inspected the work of his hero, mathematical genius and Bletchley Park wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, who cracked the Germans' Enigma code and changed the course of World War II.

An Enigma machine -- a box of typewriter keys, cogs, fuses and flashing lights -- could be set up to encrypt messages in 150 million million million different ways. Deciphering a coded message took weeks.

Turing and his team created The Big Bomb, a massive machine full of chattering cogs, dials and wheels connected by 10 miles of wiring that could crack the code in an hour.

Bigger, more powerful number-crunching computers have been developed since, but none of them have the human touch of Turing's creation. Basically, none of them have saved innocent lives.

Marcus concluded that while it will probably be possible, eventually, to build machines that think a bit like humans, should we be even trying? After all, there are some things a computer will never be able to do, such as walking a tightrope.

Marcus, after a few hours' training from an experienced circus coach, just about could, even if he wasn't entirely sure how he'd done it. "I know there's a formula to describe what's going on here," he said, "but I can't calculate my way out of it."

Then again, not knowing for sure how our inbuilt computers, our brains, work is what separates us from the machines.

I'm not convinced, mind you, that Craig Doyle couldn't be replaced by a machine.

I own household appliances that could probably do a more charismatic job of hosting Craig Doyle Live.

Not, mind you, that there's an awful lot to host. Last night's dismal offering, featuring weatherwoman Nuala Carey, comedian Jarlath Regan, and rugby player and Celebrity MasterChef winner Phil Vickery, none of whom had a single memorable thing to say, was an exercise in vacuous time-filling.

The star guest on tomorrow night's show is 80s pop icon Gary Numan, who shot to fame with a song called Are Friends Electric? He'll find out for sure when he meets Doyle.



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