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British Expat Newsletter: February 2012

Hello, and welcome to those of you who have just signed up.

In this issue

This month

We’ve been on our travels for half the month – literally – so there’s little to report in terms of updates to the main site.

But we do have a Quick Quiz about our main destination: Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s chaotic but charming capital. It’s changed substantially in the few years that we’ve known it, and the teeming motorbikes with half-a-dozen passengers each are competing with more and more luxury limos and 4x4s.

Meanwhile, travel writer and photographer David Stanley is the source of our latest Pic of the Week – one of the Barbary “apes” on the Rock of Gibraltar.

Editorial: Danger, Will Robinson!

While on our travels this month we were intrigued to hear about a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok where the food was brought to your table by robots. We had visions of Kryten-like servants pouring us glasses of saké, while the robot out of Lost in Space trundled up, decked out in a nice chef’s apron, and gave our beef teriyaki another turn. How could we resist?

Inevitably, reality was much more humdrum. The restaurant was in an industrial wasteland in the south of the city, and the robots looked as if they’d been salvaged from a neighbouring factory – though they had been given a bit of a facelift with samurai costumes. Even so, they were much friendlier hosts than the human staff present.

We hadn’t really expected the robots to have personalities of their own. However, it may not be all that long until they do have.

It’s common knowledge that computers are still becoming more powerful at a prodigious rate. Moore’s Law still holds good after half a century – the number of transistors that can cost-effectively be included on an integrated circuit doubles every two years.

And all this increasing power and sophistication means that computers are becoming increasingly adept at “understanding” what humans are saying to them. The latest iPhones incorporate Siri, a personal organiser app which is operated by natural language rather than a proprietary set of commands. It’s light-years away from the Newton OS used to drive Apple’s earliest tablets, which incorporated some very dodgy handwriting recognition software. Here’s a joke:

Q. How many Newton users does it take to fit a lightbulb?
A. Foux! There to eat lemons, axe gravy soup.

British computing genius Alan Turing (born 100 years ago this year) famously discussed the question of whether machines could think – although in his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, he asked instead, “Can machines do what we (as thinking entities) do?” In the most famous version, the Turing test consisted of a jury asking questions of a computer and the computer trying to make a significant proportion of the jury believe it to be human.

The earliest programs alleged to pass the Turing test relied on keywords to transform the questions or comments passed to it and return intelligible, grammatically correct answers. Descendants of these programs, “chatterbots”, are still used today (including on chat rooms to persuade human users to divulge personal information or to visit a malicious website. Stay safe!).

It’s still a long way to go before we arrive at machines that can truly be said to think – that are sentient and capable of reasoning and self-improvement. That naturally hasn’t stopped sci-fi authors and film-makers thinking about a world dominated by intelligent machines.

Some of the visions are quite apocalyptic. For instance, Matrix, where humans are farmed as a power supply for the machines they were careless enough to create, and Neo, “the One”, arrives as a saviour to lead humans to break free of their chains.

Others are more benign. In Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” novels, intelligent sentient beings – organisms and machines – co-exist, generally happily and above all fundamentally rationally, in the Culture. (It’s no accident that many of the Culture’s galactic enemies are theocracies.)

But don’t worry. None of us are likely to be around long enough to find out which way it’s going to go.

Utopia or dystopia? Techno fear and robot wars, or man and machine in perfect harmony? Why not let us know on our discussion forum?

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BE Amazon Shop: UK & EU | BE Amazon Shop: non-EU

And now for something completely different…

According to a 1979 advertising campaign, the Fiat Strada was “hand-built by robots”. Which prompted this spoof from the Not the Nine O’Clock News team…
YouTube: Not the Nine O’Clock News: The missing torque wrench

So there’s a round-up of all that’s been going on. Come on over and see for yourself! Don’t forget…
Visit the BE website and join in with our lively community!

Till next time…

Happy surfing!

Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat – the definitive home for British expats

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