Last Night's Viewing - The Origins of Us, BBC2: Brave New World with Stephen Hawking, Channel 4
If you're feeling depressed about the human race, Monday night is currently doing its best to cheer you up. "We are the most successful human species ever," concluded Dr Alice Roberts at the end of The Origins of Us, the context for this remark (a timeline of technological advances stretching from a stone tool to the Space Shuttle) suggesting that all of us should give ourselves a pat on the back for having done so well. And then on Channel 4, Brave New World with Stephen Hawking continued the species boosterism, with an unabashed bit of scientific optimism exploring the glories of the imminent future. Its guileless confidence was apparent even in the choice of title, which you'd think any programme aiming to bang the drum for technology might choose to avoid. But here there was not a whisper of Huxleyan dystopia in the voiceover. It was all Miranda in The Tempest, bowled over by how beauteous mankind is, not to mention its machines.
They made an interesting pair, full of suggestive overlaps. In Origins, for example, Roberts spent some time detailing the moment at which we shifted to bipedalism, a crucial moment in human history that has left its mark in the fossil record. Walking is really difficult, Roberts explained, as a group of toddlers tottered around her trying to perfect their skills. And then on Brave New World you got a robot infant – iCub, which is being used to study human cognition and artificial intelligence – working out how to use its body. Anyone of even a mildly pessimistic bent – or anyone who's seen the Terminator movies, for that matter – would have found it hard to stave off thoughts about the rise of the machines. In iCub's eerie LED grin, could you see the sly foreknowledge of our own inheritors? Will sentient robots sit themselves down in a few thousand years to watch their equivalent of The Origins of Us, in which eager pop science presenters talk (poor, innocent fools) of "machines that are better than us, an improvement on us"?
There was more hard science in Origins, oddly enough. Roberts isn't frightened of using the Latin names, even when the Latin names are quite intimidating (Sahelanthropus tchadensis, anyone?). She shows us the evidence – in the form of fossil remains – and then shows us how that evidence can be effectively interpreted, so that you learn not just the final conclusion but the often ingenious ways in which it was reached. At one point, Roberts attached pressure sensors to her hand to reveal the somewhat counterintuitive finding that, while an opposable thumb isn't all that important in making stone tools, it's pretty much indispensable for using them. Not sure that doing a piece to camera while driving at night... in rain... through central Washington is entirely compatible with the BBC's risk-assessment procedures, but she did it effortlessly even so.
Brave New World featured a solution to such on-road distractions, the driverless car, a Google project that aims to strip out the most unreliable component in most modern vehicles, viz the human behind the wheel. Here, you really don't get much below the surface. You learned that the tracking system had something to do with lasers emanating from a whirling waste-paper bin on the roof-rack, but the point isn't so much to illuminate larger principles as to send up a celebratory firework on behalf of science itself. "We will show you how science is a force for good," Hawkings stated bluntly at the beginning, though the degree to which he is involved in the whole enterprise is a bit moot. Had he really been writing the script you'd have thought he might have had some direct comment about the wheelchair that could be controlled by thought alone. He's the mascot on the hood, I suspect, but the vehicle he's attached to bowls along at a decent rate. And if you want something more pensive about unintended consequences, then you'll just have to go elsewhere.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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