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Radio review: Reith Lectures, Male Order, and Mark Steel’s in Town

10 December 2021

BBC/Richard Ansett

Professor Stuart Russell, who delivered this year’s Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week)

Professor Stuart Russell, who delivered this year’s Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week)

JUST as science fiction provides a useful perspective on reality, so the artificial tells us much about the natural. The study of Artificial Intelligence (AI), as described in this year’s Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) by Professor Stuart Russell, offers up many syllabuses’ worth of questions that might inform the philosophy of the everyday.

So, too, those considerations of family and social responsibility which were brought into sharp relief by Male Order (Radio 4, weekdays last week), Aleks Krotoski’s excellent ten-part series investigating the burgeoning online market for those seeking artificial insemination.

It is a grubby business. Quite apart from the charlatans who insist that the only way to get pregnant must involve “in-person relationships”, there are the studs who hide behind names like “The Impregnator”. But it is, for some, the only option. MJ and Milo seem to want everything in their donor, including red hair and a willingness to be part of their family; Alex appears to fit the bill, and they enter discussions into their relationship after the hoped-for conception. Hardened parents listening to them should indulge them in their fantasy that such things are, in reality, that determinable. In contrast, Kim and Aaron are having no luck with James, who has no such interest in sticking around, and we leave them starting to consider desperate measures.

In the 1950s, at the start of AI research, a definition of human intelligence was coined by which “humans are intelligent to the extent that our actions can be expected to achieve our objectives.” In the case of Kim and Aaron, one fears that the flip side might also be proved true: that humans are stupid to the extent that we will do anything to achieve our objectives. In that respect, we behave like the machines in a science horror movie, pursuing the programmed objective at the expense of social responsibility.

Such a future is not imminent, Professor Russell assures us. But, in one respect at least, we can see what happens when an objective is pursued with the single-mindedness of a machine operation; and that is social media, where the objective of maximising click-through business has produced the (arguably) unintended consequence of creating a platform for communication that is structurally antagonistic.

It need not be so. When, at the end of his routine for Mark Steel’s in Town (Radio 4, Wednesday), the comedian asks “How do I not get killed?” we know exactly why. Steel may have spent 20 minutes lambasting the people of Blyth for their pretensions, and for voting Conservative in 2019; but his persona is such that his audiences manage to laugh with him at themselves. It doesn’t work in the artificial world of social media: it can be only live and natural.

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