Ro­bots in the Dáil and re­turn­ing won­der­women

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - & - 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 short­term. 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 box­of­fice; 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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