I spend the morning visiting the MIT museum. I’d expected an ultra-modern edifice to public engagement. Actually it’s several rooms of artefacts (including the remains of Cynthia Breazeal’s ground breaking social robot ‘Kismet’) sitting sadly in display cases with explanatory panels that say, in totality, “MIT thinks about a lot of things, but not the role museums”. I suspect a lack of funding is forcing the museum staff to do the best they can, but I can’t help feeling that MIT is treating its heritage like an ex-lover that it’d rather not see anymore.
In one room I find a computer running START “the world’s first Web-based question answering system” developed by the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. It’s one of many attempts to make web-searching more amenable to natural language. So, when I type in a question “What is consciousness?” it returns with the Wikipedia entry on the subject, but when I ask it where the nearest T-station (underground metro) is it says, “Sorry, no one has told me where the nearest T-station is”. “Will machines ever become sentient?” I type. “Unfortunately I wasn’t told if machines will ever become sentient” comes the reply, which demonstrates a good ‘understanding’ of grammar at least, but fails to link me to any of the numerous resources on the web about Artificial Intelligence (something its parents at the MIT AI lab would surely be ashamed of). START lets itself down grammatically over my next (admittedly facile) question “Should I start dating again?” I ask. “I don’t know if you should START the dating again”. The capitalisation and the extraneous ‘the’ give the reply a kind of inadvertent psychotherapeutic gravitas. Is the program trying to infer that I’ve never really had a break from dating?
Despite its limitations I enjoy the museum, the rather staid panels are good revision for some of the subjects I’ve been covering. The explanation of DNA, whilst tired and broken in places, helps ‘bed down’ some of the knowledge I’ve been acquiring – it’s becoming ‘familiar’. The challenge for the book will be to make sure that I explain this knowledge without that familiarity making my explanations opaque to someone as new as I was to the subject a few short months ago.
The rest of the afternoon is taken up with more research, which I am momentarily distracted from by an e-mail from Amy O’Reilly. I’ve never met Amy but she got in touch after the British Science Festival gig to say how much she enjoyed it and has forwarded me some fantastically funny research (coincidentally by some students at MIT). Ever heard of those conspiracy theorists that like to wear silver foil hats to keep ‘government spies’ out of their brainwaves? Well, a group of dedicated researchers wanted to see if this strategy was effective…
Among a fringe community of paranoids, aluminum helmets serve as the protective measure of choice against invasive radio signals. We investigate the efficacy of three aluminum helmet designs on a sample group of four individuals. Using a $250,000 network analyser, we find that although on average all helmets attenuate invasive radio frequencies in either directions (either emanating from an outside source, or emanating from the cranium of the subject), certain frequencies are in fact greatly amplified. These amplified frequencies coincide with radio bands reserved for government use according to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). Statistical evidence suggests the use of helmets may in fact enhance the government’s invasive abilities. We speculate that the government may in fact have started the helmet craze for this reason.
See the full paper here
In the evening I head to the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square. Rick the promoter has a full bill of 12(!) and therefore can’t even find 5 minutes for me, so I have the odd and pleasurable experience of being a club without performing. A number of the comics seem impressed I’m writing a book and, I think, get the impression that back in the UK I’m more famous than I am. The second most (obviously) gay comic in the room asks me if I’m single and flirts with me. I’m flattered but suddenly wish I was on stage.
The club is well run, has a great vibe and clearly attracts not only a better class of comic, but encourages the best out of them. It’s one of the places TV producers scout for new talent on the East Coast and you can see why. Next time I’m in Boston I’ll be here again, but behind the mic.