RADIO / God 1, Man 0

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The Independent Culture
'Tongue-in-cheek', says the publicity for Supertunes, the Earl of Onslow's over-hyped guide to 'the smorgasbord of modern music' (Radio 3, Monday-Friday this week). It doesn't say whose tongue and what cheek we're talking about; but presumably not Lord Onslow's, since one of the things you notice about his delivery is the almost complete absence of humour.

The idea was, you assume, something like this: crusty old earl encounters hip young DJs, rappers, et cetera, and says amusingly inept things like 'Hey, daddy-o, I'm hip to your scene, what?', or 'Is this Snoop Doggy Dog actually a dog, then?' Yesterday's survey of rap and hip hop nearly hit that note a couple of times when Lord Onslow expressed enthusiasm about something ('I like the sound of this 'break-beat' business. I want to know more'); but he doesn't do it with a great deal of conviction.

The series is all quite tidily made, and the history seems accurate enough. But mostly, it is saying things that have been said before - though possibly not on Radio 3 - and not finding an especially novel way of doing it.

What you could really do with is a melding of Lord Onslow and Jez Nelson, who's now presenting a second series of the science and technology programme One Step Beyond (Radio 4, Thursday). Nelson's approach to popularising his subject is the opposite of Onslow's; he talks young and zippy, introducing an MIT professor as 'Professor Rodney Brookes, aka the Bad Boy of Robotics'.

Again, there's a dislocation between style and subject - it wasn't easy to see what was quite so naughty about Professor Brookes's experiments with small mobile robots that bump into things - but Nelson manages to give a sense that his enthusiasm is genuine, if occasionally misplaced. Here, he was getting all excited about the possibility of robots as organisms.

The main lesson, however, wasn't how human they can be, but how human we're prepared to pretend they are, even when they aren't remotely humanoid and have no pretensions to intelligence or consciousness. So rather than 'This machine is switched off', you had Nelson saying 'This little chap is asleep'. When he got to COG, proclaimed as 'the first serious attempt to build an artificial human', he got embarrassed about whether to refer to it as he or she.

All the same, one reason Nelson is likeable is that he keeps his head on his shoulders. One of the scientists interviewed has designed programs to replicate themselves with some variation, so that they evolve as they compete for space on the computer's memory; and he insisted that these were organisms.

Nelson was properly sceptical about this, suggesting that it was really, like his gender problems over COG, a matter of language - scientists may pretend that they're playing God, but they're really playing fast and loose with metaphors. With COG, for instance, we were told that the robot would eventually have the electronic equivalent of hormones - if it sensed danger, it would experience an 'adrenalin' surge in its circuits. Fat lot of good that would do it, though, since COG doesn't have any legs. If this is playing God, God should feel insulted.

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