Robots That Care (Radio 4)

Our attitude towards robots is complicated.

A programme about advances in the design of small robots touchingly underscored the lengths that we will go to in order to ensure that they appear human (26 September, 11am). I say "touchingly", because there was sustained awe here, as though, ever since the animatronic Maria first stood up in 1927 and blinked languidly in Metropolis, we have remained caught up in some innocent intake of breath.

One expert said: "Robots can spend all day and night working on gene sequencing - but a robot that can safely cross the street on its own is impossible to find." Nonetheless, an incredible amount of work has gone into the detailing of some robots' eyelashes and making small movements in the chest area to suggest breathing. Robot designers now take advice from Hollywood about the most appealing kind of eyebrows or the use of surgical tubing for lips.

One new kind of robot - created initially to appeal to autistic children - has 65 motors ­controlling its facial expressions and does a special surprised look/drawing-back-of-the-head combo, as if to imply that you're getting rather too close. It wears a baseball cap and shirt but its wrists and neck remain uncovered, ensuring that we all know that this is still a creature entirely innocent of antenatal care. "A point comes where they become too human [and] they unnerve and even disgust us," said one researcher from the University of Southern California.

This notion of disgust is intriguing. Oh, the tediousness of watching anything's repeated attempts to join in. One couldn't help but picture the robot's mechanised arms, fundamentally wrong - somehow as feeble as bone - inside baggy cardigan sleeves, working a pair of bacon scissors in some kitchen in St John's Wood. Owner: "That is the stuff reared by the Prince of Wales, isn't it, Jeeves?"

Someone gave a rather heartbreaking monologue. "I say I design robots and people say, 'Oh, wow! That's so cool! Can they do this or that?' I say: 'No. Not really. Sometimes. If the context is right. In a lab. And if the sunlight is not in its eyes . . .' And, you know, the thing is, I just have some sort of feeling that we are doing something fundamentally wrong with robots. Only I couldn't say what it is . . ."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide