A few cheerful highlights from the past few days... Tuesday evening… - John C. Kirk
Mar. 17th, 2006
A few cheerful highlights from the past few days...
Tuesday evening was SJA training (as usual), and this week was about deaf awareness/sign language. As per my comments on the Turing lecture in January, I do have a general interest in accessibility issues, so I was happy to learn more. I also read a book about British Sign Language a while back, which gave the basic concepts, and I considered taking a course to learn it properly until I found out how much they cost (although I suppose it may not be any more expensive than Japanese classes). I also briefly considered trying to do a PhD project on teaching a computer to recognise sign language, until I found out that this wasn't quite as novel/groundbreaking as I thought. Anyway, the training was quite fun, and we covered some gestures that would be useful in a first aid context (e.g. "where does it hurt?"). It turns out that the signs for vomiting/diarrhoea are pretty much what you'd expect them to be, and in fact there are slight variations to indicate the, er, range involved...
Actually, this reminded me of radio training in a way. That's partly because there were some similar exercises, e.g. spell your own name; "Bob" is a good name to have for that, although there was some debate about whether people with abbreviated nicknames ought to have to spell the long version. The more serious reason is that there are similar goals - keep it simple, and think about what you want to "say" before you say it, rather than waffling on.
More generally, there was something I thought of during the Turing lecture (about accessible technology), although I forgot to mention it in my entry about that - the Enterprise-D is an example of where it goes wrong. There's a fanfic TNG novel called "Silence" (by Kellie Matthews-Simmons), which you can probably find on the web if you search for it, and this centres around a young girl who is picked up by the Enterprise. She's telepathic, so she was either unable to speak or had just never learnt how. Anyway, at one point she gets into a turbolift on her own, and is unable to operate it - it's set up to respond to people saying "Deck 10" or whatever, but there's no handy control panel with buttons to press, which is rather frustrating for her.
Moving on, I spent some time in the lab at work today, basically observing how they do things. This then meant that I needed to wear a lab coat; it's a sign of how long it's been since my GCSEs that I was quite excited about this, although I was just given a disposable one rather than a heavy duty version. Ah well, maybe I can requisition a proper one if I need to go down there more often...
Tonight I went off to a BCS lecture about Conscious Machines, which was very interesting. Apparently this is part of National Science Week, although I must admit that I wasn't aware of that before I went. It did amuse me to have a lecturer called Igor showing us photos of Frankenstein's monster, but beyond that he was actually a very good speaker. Basically he gave a recap on the history of conscious machines in fiction, and then spoke about the research that has been done in this area. His main theory is that consciousness derives from the separation between self and environment, so a conscious machine can't just be a brain in a jar, it actually needs to have a body.
He gave a quick plug for his new book at the end, so I'll put that on my pending reading list. He mentioned a few other people who've worked in this area (philosophers, psychologists, and computer scientists), going back to Socrates. Susan Greenfield (or Baroness Greenfield, I should say) was one I recognised, because I was very impressed by the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures that she did in 1995, so I've got one of her books on my shelf waiting to be read. Roger Penrose also came up, although I must admit that I got a bit bogged down at the end of chapter 2 of "The Emperor's New Mind". That's partly because pages 94-95 (in my paperback) consist entirely of binary code, i.e. 1s and 0s.
More generally, this was one of those times when I felt a bit uncomfortable about the fact that I'm doing "vocational" work (for want of a better term) rather than research. It's not that I feel threatened by people with PhDs; more the reverse, in that I feel guilty for not going down that path myself, so I suppose that says something about my level of confidence/arrogance. Regarding the whole AI field, it is something that interests me, but my forays into research projects haven't been very successful. My belated conclusion is that I'm happy to learn about it, but I don't really have anything to contribute. By contrast, I think that Artificial Life (e.g. the beehive simulation) is something that I can work on independently, and potentially break new ground in, particularly in terms of parallel computing. I have other priorities in the short term (e.g. paying off my debts), but in the longer term I keep thinking about Donovan Wylie's line at the end of X-O Manowar: "It's time I started living up to my potential."