CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: Gadgets I can definitely do without

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: £850 for a plastic pug? That’s one gadget I can definitely do without

The Secret Genius Of Modern Life

Rating: ****

Brian Cox: How The Other Half Live

Rating: **

Scientists are like three-year-olds with an overwhelming urge to squeeze their heads through the narrow railings of a fence.

Just because they’re capable of doing it doesn’t make it a good idea.

Even Professor Hannah Fry, an eager advocate for all things science, is having her doubts about the advisability of some technologies, in her six-part series The Secret Genius Of Modern Life (BBC2).

Even Professor Hannah Fry, an eager advocate for all things science, is having her doubts about the advisability of some technologies

Even Professor Hannah Fry, an eager advocate for all things science, is having her doubts about the advisability of some technologies

The prof looked distinctly dubious about the advantages of Amazon’s ‘digital assistant’ Alexa, the mini-football that sits on a shelf listening to every word we say.

A top geek at Amazon HQ assured her that Alexa pays attention only when it hears its name — the ‘wake word’. Prof Hannah seemed unconvinced and made a point of not telling us whether she’d actually have one in her own home.

‘It’s the technology that leads the way,’ she warned, ‘and it’s only later that society asks the question of whether it’s something we really want in our lives.’

She looked less than comfortable when an Amazon boffin told her excitedly that he’d programmed a synthesiser to imitate her voice. By feeding in about two-and-a-half minutes of her recorded speech, he’d taught the machine to emulate her accent and delivery.

Amazon Astro is currently on limited sale in the US for about £850 (for invited customers only)

Amazon Astro is currently on limited sale in the US for about £850 (for invited customers only)

The ‘deep fake’ Hannah sounded more like Dame Edna Everage. I don’t think impressionist Rory Bremner need worry about his job just yet.

The prof was happier tracing the history of these innovations, with archive clips of devices such as the Voder — a speech robot demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. A stenographer sat at a steam-powered computer and pressed levers as if changing the railway points in a signalman’s box. Behind her, a speaker boomed from the mouth of a giant plywood face. It didn’t catch on.

Neither will the Amazon Astro, I suspect. It’s currently on limited sale in the US for about £850 (for invited customers only).

Billed as ‘Alexa on wheels’, it has a touchscreen for a face and a body like a plastic pug. A camera on a retractable stalk protrudes from its head, like a unicorn made in Taiwan.

Astro trundles around the house, keeping an eye on things. It can’t climb stairs, which is probably a good thing, because I have enough trouble trying not to trip over the cat. I don’t need an Amazon assassin trying to break my neck, too.

Gadgets like Astro are a symptom of a society with too much technology and not enough intelligence, a problem that was reducing actor Brian Cox to mournful disbelief on How The Other Half Live (C5).

It's hard to tell when Brian Cox is happy, but he certainly didn't seem overjoyed to meet Polish-born model Carolina, 21, in Miami

It’s hard to tell when Brian Cox is happy, but he certainly didn’t seem overjoyed to meet Polish-born model Carolina, 21, in Miami

Brian’s face is perpetually crumpled, like a shirt that’s been at the bottom of the laundry basket for a month. It’s hard to tell when he’s happy, but he certainly didn’t seem overjoyed to meet Polish-born model Carolina, 21, in Miami. Carolina is an ‘influencer’, posing beside swimming pools for fans on social media.

Greeting Brian at a seafront villa, she explained she didn’t own the place, but had rented it for the day after Googling him to learn about his lifestyle.

Brian started to explain that he wasn’t billionaire media mogul Logan Roy, he just played him in Succession. Carolina shrugged. To her, reality is whatever it says on the internet.

After a stint at a food kitchen for the homeless, Brian ended with a plea to ‘stop loading the dice in favor of the rich’.

That’s what Logan Roy would call ‘fatuous f*****g Leftie luvvie bulls**t’.

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