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Radio review: Discovery, Black Box, and The Rest is Entertainment

28 March 2024

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Discovery: Uncharted: The gossip mill (World Service, Monday of last week, repeat) reported on a knowledge of computer systems which was brought to bear on office politics

Discovery: Uncharted: The gossip mill (World Service, Monday of last week, repeat) reported on a knowledge of computer systems which was brought to be...

EVERY office has one: the gossip who knows everything and tells everyone. In the world of data science, there is a special term for such a person: the “giant node” — the person who operates at the centre of a complex network of social relationships.

In Discovery: Uncharted: The gossip mill (World Service, Monday of last week, repeat), we heard how a Hungarian researcher brought to bear knowledge of computer systems on the murky world of office politics. A certain tile manufacturer was experiencing low workplace morale. By charting the social interactions of the company’s employees, the researcher identified the health-and-safety manager as the culprit. So, what do you do with a “giant node”? Either you sack him, or give him a promotion.

The application of this analysis extends beyond even the cut-throat world of tile manufacturing. Hannah Fry’s engaging account included the story of the massive United States power outage of 2003, which affected cities from Ohio to the East Coast. Presumably, it might also be deployed in the currently high-status business of fact-checking and disinformation; but it would require another skill altogether to deal with the willingness of lesser nodes (do we call them nerds?) to believe the giant node.

There has been no shortage of rumour and speculation surrounding the future of AI. In the last episode of The Guardian’s admirable podcast series Black Box (released Thursday of last week), Michael Safi provides us with a neat “for” and “against”. If you are someone already prone to anxieties about the future of our planet, then you had best skip the first half of this show, in which we hear the predictions of the doomster Eliezer Yudkowsky. We are living in a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scenario: the AI-pocalypse is already upon us, and the broom just doesn’t know when to stop.

With these strains ringing in our ears, it is difficult, then, to hear Alex Hern, technology editor for The Guardian, reassure us that AI will mean “Things getting slightly better, faster than they used to, for ever”, and “the world working to its full potential”. I for one can’t stop thinking about poor Mickey Mouse, drowning in a flood of his own devising.

To my mind, the greatest crime perpetrated by AI thus far is that it threatens to take all the fun out of human achievement. It might convince me that a fugue that it had composed was by Bach, or that a painting was an authentic Van Gogh, but we generally prefer to consider them the products of that magic that is human creativity.

So, it is pleasing to hear that, on television’s Countdown, the boffins in Dictionary Corner still do their own tricks — at least, according to Richard Osman in The Rest is Entertainment (Goalhanger Productions, released Thursday of last week). This revelation and much more form part of the affable banter between Osman and Marina Hyde which makes this show the most likeable in the burgeoning Goalhanger podcast stable. The story of how Dale Winton, of Supermarket Sweep fame, became a household name is particularly instructive.

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