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Due consideration

10 February 2017


IF LEGEND is to be believed, the early designs for spacecraft for manned lunar expeditions had just two buttons for the astronauts to press: “Take me to the moon,” and “Bring me back.” So nervous were the scientists that their expensive machines might be trashed by bungling humans that all decision-making was delegated to computers.

Even when it came to the first lunar landing, Neil Armstrong’s com­mands were mediated by computers in such a way as to smooth out the peaks and troughs of human per­ception and responsive­ness.

In The Split-Second Decision (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) we learned from a medic, Dr Kevin Fong, and experts from disparate disciplines, about how quick we
are, compared with computers, at noticing things and acting on them.

It turns out that we are better than we think we are. Our brain is capable of processing more than it cottons on to, protecting our con­sciousness from overload by re­­vealing to it only the most import­ant bits. Not only that, but our consciousness works a split-second ahead of time, such that what we perceive, is a best-guess scenario of what is going to happen approx­imately one tenth of a second before it actually happens.

The challenge for those designing today’s technology is not so much to get the computers to think faster as to constrain them in such a way that they operate at a speed with which we mere humans can keep pace. We want neither to be made redundant by technology nor to be forced to work beyond our capacity. An effective partnership of human and machine intelligence requires care­ful calibration.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Take those doorstep collections of your old clothes: all you do is bag up all the wardrobe clutter that you have not managed to take along to the high-street Oxfam shop, leave it on your doorstep, and, hey presto, you have done your bit for charity. Except, as 5 Live Investigates (Radio 5 Live, Sunday) revealed, there are dodgy operators out there.

Adrian Goldberg’s report noted several firms whose eventual yield for charity represents ten per cent or less of turnover. More worrying is the extensive use of low-paid labour, poor working conditions, and con­nections with people trafficking.

The legitimate end of the industry is keen to have the Fundraising Reg­­ulator step in; and, judging by the responses given by the lady from a Sussex council to Goldberg’s ques­tioning, there is need for a higher power to get in­­volved.

Whether for a composer or an author, those commissions that require “a modern take on a classic work” are fraught with difficulties — not least the com­parisons in quality. But Salley Vickers can feel some relief that her John Donne-inspired short story, “The Relic” (part of the series The Poet and the Echo on Radio 4, Sundays), came off so well. And, even if the contemporary story was not to your taste, Paapa Essiedu’s rendition of the original poem was exquisite.

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