Saturday, 2 December 2017


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 2nd December 2017.

HOW TO BUILD A ROBOT: Wednesday, Channel 4


One of the most disappointing aspects of modern life is the continuing absence of lifelike robots. It's 2017, shouldn't we have caught up with science-fiction by now?

Robots do exist, of course. They’ve become increasingly useful in the worlds of surgery, manufacturing and agriculture. But whenever they’re designed to resemble humans, they always fall prey to the notorious uncanny valley effect. That is, they look blankly unnerving and sinister. They freak us out (dude).

Not only that, we just don’t trust these sophisticated vessels of artificial intelligence, especially now that they’ve started taking our jobs. UKIP must detest them.

In HOW TO BUILD A ROBOT, inventor and puppeteer David McGoran embarked upon a mission to conquer these suspicions. He believes, quite rightly, that humans won’t fully embrace robots until they move and react just like us. He also believes he’s on the verge of creating that very thing: a robot we can relate to on an emotional level.

McGoran recently assembled a bohemian cabal of dancers, artists and engineers to help him create a robot that the general public can fall in love with. A sensitive soul with a poetic turn of phrase, he realised that human beings tend to respond positively to cute, malleable creatures. That’s why very few of us form meaningful relationships with kitchen appliances.

Following a series of false starts and crude prototypes, the team eventually designed a cuddly little Teletubby capable of interacting with people under its own painstakingly pre-programmed steam. This real-life Pixar character was then left on the streets of Bristol to discover the complexities of human intimacy. The results were heart-warming.

People actually responded to him, they picked him up and revealed simple truths about themselves. The experiment succeeded on both a technical and – yes – spiritual level.

By creating a tactile robot capable of relatively realistic interaction, McGoran may have disproved the notion that every human being is unique. After all, aren’t we all pre-programmed to carry out basic physical and emotional functions? The vast majority of us navigate our way through society in essentially the same way.

That may sound like a cold, cynical conclusion, but McGoran’s findings were actually quite uplifting. Autonomous robots could remind us that, despite our apparent differences, we’re all equal. We all belong to the same species. We’re all human.

David Tennant narrated this quietly profound documentary with exactly the same wryly emphatic inflections he used in Twenty Twelve and W1A, thus making it feel like a spoof at times. Thankfully, much like McGoran’s friendly robot, it was real.

My fluctuating faith in human nature was further restored by EMPLOYABLE ME, the valuable documentary series in which disabled job-seekers challenge the notion that employers welcome them without discrimination.

The latest series introduced us to Ryan and Andy. Ryan has a severe case of Tourette’s Syndrome. Until his stroke, Andy was the director of a massively successful business. They’d both suffered through hundreds of failed job applications.

Assisted by a specialist job-seeking project overseen by a psychologist, Ryan and Andy eventually found gainful employment. Ryan, a fish fanatic, was hired by an aquarium centre, while Andy was employed as a motivational speaker.

Without a trace of condescending sentiment, Employable Me empowers disabled people while combating casual prejudice.

Television, folks, it can sometimes be a force for good.

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