TELEVISION / Fairy tales of science

THE Radio Times described Sunday's Equinox, 'The Emperor's New Mind' (C4), as 'a vigorous common sense approach' to the subject of Artificial Intelligence, but there was uncommon sense aplenty too, as the mathematician Roger Penrose whisked us nimbly through the enigmatic mysteries of Schrodinger's Cat, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and an operation called Tiling the Euclidean Plane, whose ceramic requirements would certainly tax the reserves of the DIY warehouses. How do Do-It-All do it? Cover an infinite plane, that is. And how much grouting would they need?

Penrose, whose qualifications as guide through this popular-maths jungle included working with Stephen Hawking - few other qualifications really being necessary, I suppose - is that rare breed of boffin, a thorough-going sceptic disinclined to believe the fairy-stories of scientists. In this case, the fairy-stories involve the fevered dreams of computer scientists that they may one day be able to create artificial humans, 'robotic progeny' that actually think like us. This is apparently known as the 'Strong' Artificial Intelligence viewpoint, though even less-than-vigorous common sense shows how weak the position actually is. How, for instance - and this is where the tiling comes in - could the endlessly proliferating possibilities of consciousness be enumerated in a mere machine?

The AI pipe-dream is the result of engineers, prosaic types in the main, conveniently ignoring the kinds of airy-fairy problems that philosophers have wrestled with for centuries - in this case, the Mind /Body Problem, whose greatest hurdle involves finding an adequate material definition of a non-material entity, 'thought'.

The category-error upon which the fallacious Strong AI position is based, Penrose claimed, was in mistaking the 'perfect' abstraction of mathematical principles for reality itself, when they actually only apply to the physical part of that reality; and, as he pointed out with a little help from Godel, the supposed perfection of maths is itself riddled with Uncertainty Principles and ultimate Incompleteness. Rather than build a machine that can replace us, what computer scientists have actually done is build a machine that can train us to behave more like machines.

One problem the programme's makers didn't solve satisfactorily was how to present these abstract complexities as television. Penrose was always more readily comprehensible when doing a simple talking-head to camera, but the Strong TV position demands more. It was easy enough to illustrate the sexy- science attraction of the 'fairy- story' by recourse to plastic cut- away heads packed with logic- boards full of twinkling lights, the classic sci-fi movie representation of computer consciousness, but the opposing position was less readily visualisable. In the end, the programme-makers had Penrose wandering round a funfair, its brute machines decked out in lights whose twinkle aped the computers. Here were 'fun machines', it suggested, whose function was explicable only outside the mechanical realm. A bit like computers themselves, really.

As if that wasn't enough weighty intelligence for one night, there was an entire hour of Wisdom on The South Bank Show (ITV). Norman, that is. Though I've never been a fan it was impossible not to be won over by the claim that although he now resides in the Isle of Man, he takes no advantage of that island's lenient tax laws, insisting on paying his full whack as a Briton: as so many times before, a humble comedian demonstrates the kind of true nobility to which our politicians pay mere lip- service.

Given Wisdom's stature and career - as the programme pointed out, he virtually bankrolled the Rank Organisation (also known as that popular chimera, 'the British film industry') throughout the post-war years - it is scandalous that he has yet to receive the kind of honours routinely visited upon his more 'U' colleagues; but then, Wisdom built a career upon the 'non-U' teasing of his supposed betters, as in picture after picture his 'Gump' character simply refused to acknowledge the signs and signals of class distinction.

Age has clearly not withered his keen sense of timing: as he brought out the first of the 34 suits he had run up for the Gump, the trousers slipped off the coat-hanger. 'Don't worry,' he deadpanned, 'that isn't the first time they've fallen over.' You could all but hear the drum-roll punch it home. There was a nobility, too, to Wisdom's self-deprecation, as he applied a trouper's resilience to the unhappy facts of his own early life. Describing how his father had, in an alcoholic rage, flung him across a room with such force that he had actually hit the ceiling, he said: 'It didn't hurt me. Maybe it did me the world of good - I learnt how to fall.'

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all