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Pepper, the dim robot

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2018-10-18 11:31.

In Britain, on Tuesday, a 'robot' 'gave evidence' to the Education Select Committee of the House of Commons.

The 'robot' consists of a plastic or composite casing with a touchscreen fixed to its front. Its outer shell is effectively a clothes-store dummy, but with the modern android look, for which we ultimately have to thank the designers of R2D2 and Co. in the Star Wars franchise. Had it the head and body of a clothing dummy, everybody would burst out laughing. As it is, its audience wants to believe in the android robot narrative and so suspends disbelief entirely. It even has a non-human name: 'Pepper'.

FoS image, size 708x367

Why is nobody laughing? Image: ©ParliamentTV.

The 'robot' 'stands' on a three-wheel base, but cannot move independently, not even over a level surface, let alone cope with doors and stairs. The software it runs has no map of its surroundings or any sense of its environment. The humans and objects it sees around it – if it 'sees' at all – have no 'meaning' whatever for it. (The reader will realise from all these single quotation marks that we are at the edge of the capabilities of normal language.) Viewed functionally, it could be replaced with a laptop on a desk.

As we have seen in previous appearances of the 'robot', its skills in interpreting natural language – particularly oral – are at best trivial but certainly close to non-existent. Its utterances emerge with a mid-Atlantic twang reminiscent of Hawkingese, now mercifully gone silent. This machine fails our own 'Austin's AI test' for 'artificial intelligence' with a score of zero percent. It does some pre-programmed head waggling and arm gestures. Its minder, Joana Miranda, was supervising it from the large tablet in front of her.

For its appearance in front of the assembled Solons, the questions put to it were scripted, as were its responses. None of the wise ones risked mangling the questions: it would have been interesting to experience the 'robot' either uncomprehending or – even more interesting – giving the required answer anyway, however mangled the question. So much for the spirit of enquiry in the British Parliament. Being boringly functional again, we note that the circus could have been replaced by a list of written questions from MPs and a list of answers from Middlesex University. Everything else was showmanship.

In the competition to choose the most brainless idiot in the room, it is a toss up between the 'robot' and the MPs. The MPs win, since we cannot blame the robot for its insentience – it cannot help it. Of the MPs we foolishly have higher expectations. The event was a moment of shame for these political idiots. By their deeds shall ye know them.

The cleverest people in the room were the smoke and mirrors experts from Middlesex University who managed to get this high-profile gig for their piece of useless junk and will be dining out on taxpayer grant money for the foreseeable future.

It is interesting, is it not, that the tasks foreseen for the brainless Pepper, the education of children and the care of the elderly, lie at the opposite ends of the age spectrum: the young and gullible and the old and incapable. The hale and hearty, those of sound mind in the middle, will probably manage quite well without Pepper's help.