A timely look at robots that Kubrick could only dream of
Those pesky robots, eh? This week, Facebook shut down a pair of its artificial intelligence chatbots after they invented their own language and started talking to each other in a way only they understood. Eat your heart out, Stanley Kubrick. This was like a sinister plot twist in a dystopian vision of the future.
If the tinny tykes aren’t hell-bent on universal domination (see Doctor Who’s Cybermen), they’re becoming scarily sentient (witness Humans or Westworld).
Hyper Evolution: Rise of the Robots (BBC Four) was a timely two-part documentary investigating how far robots have come and what it could mean if, like in those sci-fi series, machines developed true consciousness and emotional intelligence.
This concluding episode saw evolutionary biologist Dr Ben Garrod and electronics engineer Professor Danielle George criss-crossing the globe to come face to metal face with a range of futuristic creations.
These included cute Japanese robot Kirobo, which was built to keep lonely astronauts company on the International Space Station; Nasa’s bipedal Valkyrie, designed to explore Mars but currently prone to tripping over; Sony’s Robovie, which is learning to be a camera salesman; and icub, a toddler-like bot forming his own unique understanding of the world.
The presenting pair approached the technology from enjoyably opposed angles: George was enthusiastically pro-robot, Garrod was sceptical and occasionally spooked. She was bright, blonde and North-eastern, he was stubbly, Southern and gregarious. They resembled a nerdy version of Lauren Laverne and Giles Coren.
It was lively fare, despite being a formulaic BBC science production: essentially half-a-dozen 10-minute reports, strung together with clunky segues. Our hosts talked earnestly while driving between locations, standing in front of cityscapes or strolling towards the camera. One segment on auto-piloted vehicles overlapped too much with the recent Horizon documentary, Dawn of the Driverless Car.
There were all manner of moral and social issues raised here but one thing’s for sure: we should prepare for a future in which robots will inevitably play a key part. I, for one, welcome our new silvery overlords.
The South Bank Show (Sky Arts) saw Melvyn Bragg meeting one of Britain’s best TV screenwriters, Sally Wainwright. Having cut her teeth on fabric-ofthe-nation soaps The Archers and Coronation Street, Wainwright created Bafta-winning dramas Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley – superlative series which achieved the rare distinction of being both critically acclaimed and ratings hits.
Wainwright isn’t a big one for interviews or red-carpet appearances. She’s somewhat reclusive and would rather let her work do the talking. Hence this was a rare opportunity to meet the woman behind the scripts. She turned out to be quietly funny, fascinating company whose sheer love of writing shone from the screen.
We heard how she was a childhood TV addict who carried around a copy of the Radio Times and had an uncanny ear for dialogue: “The only part of novels that held any interest for me were the bits in inverted commas, because that’s what people said. It seemed more alive.”
Showing us around her beloved West Yorkshire, Wainwright explained how Last Tango in Halifax was inspired by her own mother, Dorothy, who joined Friends Reunited as a 75-year-old widow and met her second husband online. Wainwright had trouble getting the show made. As actress Anne Reid said: “Which TV channel would want a couple of old people making love? It’ll be nauseating.”
Wainwright, who creates strong, flawed female characters, said: “Your heroine is someone who you pile s--t on. Give them a lot of problems and that’s where the drama comes from.” Her next project is a BBC eight-parter about 19th-century diarist Anne Lister, a rural gentlewoman with an openly gay lifestyle who has been called “the first modern lesbian”.
Wainwright’s chat with Bragg was convivial enough yet she kept on her coat and scarf throughout, as if she might bolt for the door at any moment. Now leave her alone, Melvyn. We need more Wainwright creations on our screens soon. She’s got work to do.
Hyper Evolution: Rise of the Robots
The South Bank Show
Out of this world: Ben Jarrod with a Kirobo robot, a version of which was on the ISS