Hang Ups

1st September 1995 at 01:00
What do you call a murderer who has fibre? A cereal killer." That is surely the least funny joke you have ever read, but then it's no ordinary joke it was written by a computer.

Using a program developed by postgraduate students at Edinburgh University, the computer hunts a digital dictionary for potential puns and then incorporates them into "jokes", albeit of the type that couldn't possibly raise a smile.

But these are early days: the software's bound to improve and that isn't going to give professional comedians anything to laugh about. Like almost every other profession, they will have to come to terms with the gloomy fact that new technology is putting everyone's job at risk.

Take striptease, for instance. According to The Sun, a robot (38-24-38) that sheds a miniskirt, blouse and bra "to show her true mettle" is the star attraction at the Revenge Club in Rome. "She's very lovely," the club's owner claims. "The customers keep shouting for more."

Strippers aren't the only show-biz folk about to be nudged out of the limelight by the silicon chip. In Hollywood, they are experimenting with software that can generate "virtual" actors that are indistinguishable from the real thing and which can always be relied upon to give exactly the performance the director wants without any of the inconvenience of rehearsals.

Any Mrs Worthingtons who decide not to put their daughters on the stage will be hard pressed to find secure employment for them elsewhere. There's no future, for example, in being a model. At Nottingham Trent University, fashion designers have already created a digital mannequin who will strut her stuff on a computer-generated catwalk, happily wearing whatever unlikely garments they care to put on her back.

Mrs Worthington might opt instead for one of the traditionally safe careers and consider encouraging her daughter to join the banking profession. She'd be shocked to find that the growing dependence on new technology has resulted in more than 80,000 redundancies in the banking industry in the past five years. "People do want to spend a lot of time with the old-fashioned bank manager of myth," Martin Taylor, the chief executive of Barclays told BBC2's Money Programme last year. "But," he added, "they don't want to pay for it."

Perhaps we're prepared to concede that work gets done more cheaply by a computer, but it would be comforting to believe that it isn't done to the same standard. Mr Taylor would agree. He is sure his new computers perform far better than his old managers. "You will find computerised credit scoring is much more accurate, and much safer, I'm afraid to say."

Sadly, it's the same story in every other walk of life from the on-board computers that can dock Stena Line's supercarriers more accurately than their captains, to the robots in a New York restaurant that can pat rice into sushi better than the chefs who have been doing it all their working lives.

Teachers, of course, are only too aware of the impact information technology is having on education. Some research even suggests that children learn 50 per cent faster and retain 80 per cent more when taught by computers rather than by conventional methods. CD-Roms and the Internet can give children access to everything they could possibly want to know and Integrated Learning Systems can provide them with all the individualised tuition they could possibly need.

Teachers might be sceptical about some of these claims but local authorities, strapped for cash, are going to find them irresistible. It's a strange prospect: a future in which children will spend their school days in front of VDUs; and when they are old enough to leave, they'll have nothing to do except join the growing ranks of the redundant. It's the sort of thing that not even a computer could joke about.

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