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Captain Cyborg puts on Cassandra act again

Radio 4 gives airtime to preposterous posits

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A calm Tuesday morning, the Radio 4 Today programme on the wireless, not much news about. But suddenly our ears pricked up with horror as James Naughtie mentions artificial intelligence. Some scientist has created a robot that teaches itself - it's a kind of robot orang-utan.

No, no - it couldn't be. It wasn't. Thank God, Steve Cran (Gran?) is the man behind this completely unoriginal idea who appears to be giving Captain Cyborg aka Kevin Warwick a run for his money in the meeja whore stakes.

But you don't get away with it that easily because who have they got on to argue with Steve? Yep, none other than the fantasist from Reading University. The battle for rent-a-quotedom began.

Steve had made a foolish decision in attempting to take on Kevin on his own ground. He spoke of how useful a machine could be if it was made more intelligent, if it could make decisions. Kev's first shot was a broadside - the military and big business already have machines that can learn what to do. If we make machines more intelligent they will inevitably take over. "It's scary," said Kev.

In the mistaken belief that Kev knew more about it than him (which was zero), Steve insisted the military be kept out of this. He has created a robot baby and if will learn basic tasks like grabbing something and lifting it.

At the first sign of weakness, Kev was in there. This is all a "bit alarming". So what shall we do about it? Well, says Kev, we need a Standards and Ethics Committee to keep an eye on what is going on and "what sort of intelligence they are putting in".

Like an ethics committee for research into stem cells and like? Suggests the presenter. "Oh no," says Kev, in his element, "this is far more important than that." He then attempts to introduce his pet theory about robots thinking in different ways and dimensions before he's cut short with the question: what precisely would the Ethics committee do?

Kev gets technical: "It would try to keep some sort of handle on what is going on." Oh right. He then throws in a new element that he has not doubt incorporated into his twisted view of the world: "It's like the Strategic Defence Initiative in the States [Bush's missile shield idea] - I mean, should we allow that to think?"

Fortunately he's cut short again before we enter his sci-fi realms. Steve comes back quickly with the comment: "To talk of creating a committee for what I'm doing is like creating an ethics committee for stem cell research in 1850."

It doesn't matter though because Kev is already talking about human pilots being replaced by machine pilots.

Steve attempted to take on the master but was unprepared for how far Kev would go to maintain his podium position as number one rent-a-quote pop scientist. Steve's mistake was to fall back on the scientific reasoning he had honed over his career. Kev has no such impediment. Captain Cyborg lives!

Incidentally, Kevin Warwick has also managed to put his sticky fingers into a new part-work magazine called Ultimate Real Robots. We still haven't managed to locate a copy of the mag but it has been advertised on the TV and it has its own Web site at realrobots.co.uk.

Each fortnight a new part of a robot is attached to the front and it is built up into a basic robot. Reading University - which is actually fairly well respected for its AI courses and such like - plays an important part in the magazine but of course Kevin has managed to hijack it by posing as some kind of advanced expert in the field. ®

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