Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How to make a fool of yourself on national radio

Being interviewed live on national radio is an interesting experience.

It's not so bad when you're in a studio face to face with the interviewer. Then there's a proper sense of occasion, of being there for a purpose, something to rise to.

But being interviewed by telephone is an altogether different and more risky proposition. Why risky? Let me set the scene. You've agreed to be interviewed by a national radio station that has, hitherto, never blipped onto your cultural radar. The producer called and asked if you would be able to comment, in the science slot of the breakfast show, about a recent newspaper article listing the top 10 reasons that mankind could be wiped out this century. In particular the one that predicts mankind will, within 40 years, build super-intelligent robots who promptly (and ungratefully) enslave their creators. Quickly passing over your observation that said producer seems surprisingly laid back, you say to yourself - can't be so bad - they have a science slot. And of course you would be grateful for the opportunity to explain why this particular prediction is laughably absurd.

You rise early the following morning, after checking the news piece and giving some thought to how you can counter this particular piece of futurology. (Which turns out to be based on the mistaken assumption that because processing power is doubling roughly every 2 years, then robot intelligence is doing the same.)

With 20 minutes to spare you find the radio station on the Interweb and click the listen now button. The presenter starts to talk about robots-taking-over-the-world and invites a phone in. He wants listeners to phone with mad robot inventions and introduce them with a robot voice. Hmmm. At this point you begin to realise that the science slot doesn't have quite the level of gravitas that you might have hoped for.

Then the phone rings. Butterflies. Ok, normal. It's the laid back producer again. After a few minutes listening to the radio on the phone you hear yourself being introduced and you're on. This bit is always weird. You're on the phone with a few hundred thousand people on the other end. Just focus. It's only a conversation with some guy. Nevermind that he's called Xane. Or the fact that he just egregiously misquoted the article by inserting the words 'taking-over-the-world' between 'probability of super-intelligent robots' and 'high'.

The first couple of questions are kind of ok. More or less what you expected. You carefully explain that no, in your opinion it's extremely unlikely that we will build robots with super-human intelligence in the next 40 years and, even if we did, why should they be evil and take over the world (or more to the point why would we make them evil). Then some relatively innocuous questions: What is the most powerful robot in the world - is it Asimo? Er no, Asimo is actually remotely controlled by a team of 6. What about that freaky monkey robot with the robot arm? Well, that's not so much a robot as work to improve neural electronic interfaces to help people with smart prostheses.

Then just when you think it's all over you get the inevitable mad-question-at-the-end.

Q. But if robots did take over the world, what would we call them?

A. I really don't think robots are going to take over the world. 

Q. (More insistently this time) Yes, but if they did. What would we call them?

A. No, they really aren't going to take over the world.

Q. (Even more insistently) But what if they did? What would we call them?

Then you make a fool of yourself on the radio by wearily saying 'evil robot master' or somesuch nonsense, thus eliciting the triumphal response from Xane and his co-presenter: Aha! See, the professor says so. Robots really are going to take over the world.