A set of Japanese cans that will take you back to the future

There’s a line in the first Back to the Future when Dr. Emmett Brown, from 1955, says to Marty McFly, from 1985, “No wonder this circuit failed. It says, ‘Made in Japan.’” Marty responds, “What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan.”

And, surely, McFly is right. If you want something exceptional, from kitchen knives and cars to hi-fi, a Japanese manufacturer—and often a niche Japanese manufacturer—is likely to be your best choice.

Ten years ago, your columnist bought an expensive pair of earbuds from such a maker, Final Audio—now known only as Final. Its wired $999 FI-BA-SS earbuds are still made and produce an immense sound, as they did when I first bought them.

It would be interesting to compare them to Final’s new (and first) Bluetooth earbuds, the eccentrically designed $349 ZE8000, but this writer’s FI-BA-SS was lost or stolen on a beach years ago.

The ZE8000 is as startlingly good, if not better. No, not startlingly—the ZE8000 produces more of a gentle, refined, naturalistic sound with no exceptional bass. They’re reasonably loud but, again, not breathtakingly so. Just top-quality, audiophile-approved Japanese excellence for a very reasonable price.

We should mention that some reviewers have said they find the ZE8000 less than comfortable. We can’t agree—to this reviewer they were super-snug, light, and stayed firmly in the ears.

The Final app is not great; you can supposedly create your own bass, middle, and treble preferences, but the differences seemed minimal. The noise cancellation is minimal, too. There’s also a mode called Final 8K Sound+, which improves quality further, with the penalty of reducing an already modest battery life. That said, it does seem worth using—it’s very nice.

The Robosen Elite Optimus Prime Robot

The Robosen Elite Optimus Prime Robot, $699.

A Transformers robot that will delight, if not convert, you

A year ago, in an article on a $100,000 Hasbro Transformers sit-in V.R. simulator, we discussed how odd the Transformers cartoon–action figure–movie phenomenon is to anyone over 40. Superheroes that turn into trucks? O.K., but … why?

The whole franchise remains no less peculiar to those of us whose benchmark for cartoon characters is still Top Cat and the Flintstones. But the flow of expensive Transformers toys, which are clearly aimed at prosperous fortysomethings rather than children, continues with this fabulously complex, 16-inch-tall working automaton from Chinese robot-maker Robosen.

Its $699 Elite Optimus Prime is solidly built from more than 5,000 components, including 27 servomotors and 60 microchips. It has 125 sound effects, and its dialogue is voiced by one Peter Cullen, an 81-year-old Canadian actor who has spent nearly half his life as the voice of the Optimus Prime character, basing the robot’s gruff delivery on his brother Larry, who was a captain in the U.S. Marines.

What can the Elite Optimus Prime do? Well, he—at least we’re guessing they’re a he—converts elaborately and impressively from truck to robot and back to truck again, walks, dances, goes through aggressive shadowboxing routines, gets down to do push-ups, and can respond to 39 voice commands including the apparently classic “Roll out,” “Convert,” and “Attack!” The commands could be tedious for some, as you have to start by saying, “Hey, Optimus Prime,” then wait for him to say “Greetings” before he’ll do his thing.

It’s a little more rewarding to use Robosen’s excellent smartphone app to control him via Bluetooth, and better still to write your own routines for him using the simple, block-based programming. There’s also a way of modeling his movements with a 3D software.

We don’t mind saying that, impressive tech aside, your columnist isn’t clear what the buzz is all about. On the other hand, we demoed the robot to a selection of 20- to 42-year-old men, and, from the variety of idiotic grins we got in response, it’s clear that Robosen has a hit on its hands.

ChatGPT Plus

ChatGPT Plus, $20 per month.

It’s all the rage—let’s just hope not literally

Yes, we really do need to talk about ChatGPT, whose rise to technological fame has been the quickest we’ve ever seen. Six months ago, almost nobody had heard of it.

Today, people are getting it to write exam papers, marketing copy, and plaintive e-mails to get them out of parking tickets, among hundreds of other real-world uses.

There’s even a new genre of awkwardness in relationships that didn’t exist last fall: our friend’s young wife was delighted when her distinctly unromantic husband wrote her a passionate poem for her birthday—failing to mention that the actual author was ChatGPT. Now she thinks the man has undiscovered depths, and, having failed to fess up instantly, the husband is telling close friends he feels like a fraud. And, indeed, he is.

The commercial world has swiftly woken up to the new software’s potential, too. There is already a slew of companies selling expertise in writing “prompts” for such “large language models,” of which ChatGPT is the best known. (A prompt is a natural-language expression to elicit a desired response from generative A.I.)

Accordingly, too, there’s a new profession, or at least one that few outside of rarefied I.T. circles knew of before: designing and optimizing prompts. The going rate for prompt engineers—the hottest job in Silicon Valley, and one of the few for which you don’t need computer skills—is up to $335,000. Try explaining that new job to your grandparents.

Oh, and let’s not forget the bonanza this is opening up for lawyers. Over in Australia, a local mayor has begun suing ChatGPT for defamation after it wrongly wrote that he was imprisoned for bribery while working for a subsidiary of Australia’s central bank. He was, in fact, the whistleblower in the case.

Perhaps those who fear that A.I. is going to doom humanity will take heart that companies such as OpenAI, ChatGPT’s parent, might be stopped in their tracks by lawyers. For his part, your columnist wishes ChatGPT would accuse him of some heinous crime—cha-ching!

Three aspects of this newly rampant technology particularly fascinate us after a few weeks of trying it.

One is that it’s often easier and less complicated to use than Google when you need to understand something quickly. Simply ask it a question and it spits out tolerably good, concise replies.

Secondly, it’s a plodding, clichéd writer. This, however, is precisely what makes it useful in fields like marketing or schoolwork, where language that’s passable for English—bland, spiritless BS—is all that’s needed.

A few attempts at ad copywriting were also all right. We asked it for some never-used ad slogans for Coca-Cola. First, it came up with “Unleash the Spark: Sip the Magic of Coca-Cola!” The second result was “Discover Your Effervescent Escape, Sip the Coca-Cola Wave.” Not too terrible, we felt, even if they look a little like they’re translated from Korean. North Korean.

By far the most interesting aspect so far, however—spooky, indeed—is ChatGPT’s forte for boldly making stuff up when it’s unsure of its subject. In several cases, it has concocted C.V. details for people, in one case generating an entirely false but plausible résumé.

You must admit that that is peculiarly impressive for a machine intelligence. ChatGPT is fascinating, moderately useful, and frightening in equal measure.

The Beat Blocks App

The Beat Blocks app, $3.99.

An app that will turn your food fidgets into gourmet melodies

Scots have a remarkable record as inventors—the telephone, television, steam engine, and refrigerator all have Scottish antecedents—so it’s surprising that this slightly bonkers but wonderful invention from Edinburgh is the first Scottish product we have featured here.

Beat Blocks is a phone app that enables children to build music out of Lego bricks. Skittles candy can be used if no Lego bricks are available, and there are ongoing tests on M&M’s.

The app works with a smartphone camera, producing different instruments and notes depending on the color of the blobs it sees. Slider bars change the tempo and key as you need. You can either build a tune systematically, or just scatter bricks, line up the phone, and hear what you have randomly created.

It’s huge fun, and it’s creating quite a stir in music circles. Craig Smith, a musician and an Apple Distinguished Educator, has written of Beat Blocks as “an addictive way to compose.... It isn’t just for school students, it isn’t just a brilliant educational tool, it’s a mature compositional program in its own right.”

The basic app is only $3.99, but there are the inevitable in-app purchases of credits and so on. The structure is a little complex but nothing too mind-bending.

Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology