Time to sit up and take note: Robot programming is on a slippery soap

Not insulting the audiences for soap operas, but you’d be pretty safe to bet none of them do physics as a hobby.

Time to sit up and take note: Robot programming is on a slippery soap

Photographs of trainee robots watching soap operas in order to learn about human behaviour may not seem to have much to do with the clocks going back, but they do and we’ll come to that.

The first thing is that watching soap operas as a way to gain insight into real people in the real world is like watching battery hens in order to get a sense of what it’s like to be a bald eagle.

A certain species similarity, but that’s about all.

If you showed any sentient person 30 seconds of a soap opera and then asked them if it was about real people, based on that half- minute, they would tell you it’s not.

It’s not that the acting is terrible.

It’s that it’s the genre. (That means it is terrible but blames the framework, rather than the individual actors.) In addition, a huge proportion of the scenes in soap operas happen in pubs.

Someone needs to tell those robots that humans, as opposed to soap opera characters, climb mountains, jump out of planes wearing parachutes, follow strangers on social media in order to feel connected and on fleek, and participate in book clubs — a wide range of activities not seen in soaps.

To be honest, I wouldn’t really be a soap person. Once, and once only, did I watch an episode of one of them from start to finish.

To this day, I’m not that sure which one it was. Coronation Street, perhaps? I happened upon it by accident and got mesmerised by the central character having so few lines. He just sat there in an armchair while others talked over him.

Now, as a former (unsuccessful) actor, I have seen this happen in live theatre, when an actor arrived on stage just drunk enough to get through a few introductory lines before falling asleep on a couch, centre stage.

The actor with whom the sleeper was supposed to have a searing discussion, fortunately had the wit to improvise. “I know, I know,” he told the snorer, “if you were awake, you’d tell me —”

He would then use her lines and describe how he would answer them. It worked remarkably well and at the interval, members of the audience could be heard praising the recumbent one. Wouldn’t you swear she was really asleep? Yes, you would, because she so was.

In the case of the soap episode I watched, the actors were in a similar situation, except that none of them bothered with the seated one at all, which made his centrality in the scene weird. It turned out towards the end that the character had snuffed it.

It was one of those “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” moments, in soap terms.

This is crazy stuff and a wicked misrepresentation to robots of how humanity reacts to fatalities.

Robots need to know, first of all, that real people look dead the minute they die.

If you have a robot taking care of you and you shuffle off this mortal coil, the robot had better be competent to register your mortal coil shuffling, ring 999 and do CPR with its little plastic hands until emergency services arrive.

Allowing robots to assume that other characters won’t notice a death and will, instead of doing something sensible, circle around the healthy-looking corpse discussing the pints they’re going to have later in the ever-present pub, is so unfair to the robots. They need to know that normal relatives are going to take one look and say “Oops, Uncle Jimmy has popped his clogs.”

Or something more respectful, if they liked Uncle Jimmy. Instead, robots are being codded up to the two eyes while learning dialogue cliches no human ever uses.

One of the favourite phrases in common use by soap opera characters is “like I said”. It allows them to repeat themselves, which saves royalties and allows the audience to keep up.

Not insulting the audiences for soap operas, but you’d be pretty safe to bet none of them do physics as a hobby.

I’m not saying that when they deliver me my robot carer, I want that carer to have read Thomas Hardy and learned Einstein’s theory of relativity, but I’m certainly putting in for one who doesn’t think I’m an escapee from Fair City or Ros na Rún.

What worries me most about robots in training is that nobody seems to be paying adequate

attention to how putting back the clock is going to affect them.

Of course, if Seán Kelly has his way, putting back the clock will stop, which would represent the sad loss of an annual sleep-in and he should turn his mind to better things.

Putting back the clock is always treated by mainstream media as a massive challenge for humans.

Newspapers, the day before we gain an hour, put cute graphics of old- fashioned analogue clocks on their pages, even though most of us these days tell the time by our smartphone or tablet. It’s a kindly form of infantilisation, which makes reference to your mother ringing you up to check that you have turned the clock back.

Caveat to robots: a) Yes, we have turned it back, b) If we haven’t, we’re going to lie to our mothers so they don’t get the satisfaction of saying “but I did remind you”.

Putting back the clock could screw, very seriously, with the electronic brains of carer robots. Let’s be honest, it seriously screws with every other electronic brain in your life.

Your car is like a mad vehicular outlier which doesn’t update its clock so you get completely confused for a week until you get the time to find and follow the manual. Ditto the cooker and the microwave, although why either of them has a clock in the first place escapes me. Ditto the central heating.

This year, turning back the clock in some way jangled the electronic brain of my security system.

If I ever get the money, I’m going to get a Netwatch system, if only to watch the faces of visiting friends when the remote control watcher yells “You in the blue hoodie” at them. Until that day dawns, I have a security system that, if it senses movement, contacts the gardaí, the fire service, and possibly Tesco while turning on spotlights that would boil you brain with their brightness.

The drawback is that 100% of the activations thus far have been feline, and the two cats are nervous wrecks as a result. The change of the clock, however, probably made all my neighbours into nervous wrecks, because the whole system started to blink on and off every two seconds.

This was not something you could sleep through, and I apologise to

everybody within three miles.

But if turning back the clock does that to a security system, can you imagine what it might do to a robot?

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