Adam's Weekly Blog

Search and Beyond

Search and Beyond

The emergence of the knowledge economy is one of the defining...
The emergence of the knowledge economy is one of the defining characteristics of this age. In this episode on ‘Search and Beyond’ we bring real life examples of how the world of cyberspace is reaching into the physical world and how new products, new economies and new thinking is changing the world.

My filming trip for this programme started in China. When I was a kid almost everything seemed to be made in China; my toys, my favourite cheap sweets – you know the ones that you would get out of a machine for two pence. China seemed to have mastered the mass production of cheap stuff. As I grew up, China’s economy did too. It developed mass high quality manufacturing bases. Much of its success was down to its ability to produce huge quantities of odds at hugely competitive prices. But now others are competing on price it has moved to a new industrial phase. China is no longer, just a manufacturing base – it has developed into a knowledge economy where scientists, technologists and companies are busy re-defining the way we work, think and play. In this weekend’s episode of Horizons we met with the Chinese version of Google, Baidu. Baidu is the largest Chinese language internet search provider with over five billion searches a day. But Internet search is just one if the things they do and they are now reaching beyond the computer screen into the physical world.

One of Baidu’s new and rather exciting products was born out of an April Fools’ joke of all things. The PR team decided to create a video demonstrating some intelligent chopsticks that could tell you whether the food you were eating was healthy or not. But the PR stunt went wrong. The videos were so convincing that people actually thought they had produced these chopsticks. Then the technology team decided the response was so good they should work out whether they could produce such an intelligent chopstick – and the answer they found was yes.

One of the problems with food safety that has hit the headlines recently in China is that of so-called gutter oil. China has a real problem of restaurants throwing their used cooking oil out onto the streets and other people collecting it and reusing it – hence the name, gutter oil. So these chopsticks - which look like totally normal chopsticks with a light at the top – can determine if the food you are eating is safe or not and if it’s dangerous, the light goes red.

Wang Guanchun, Senior Manager at Baidu, demonstrated how these chopsticks work by dipping them into olive oil, medium quality oil and then gutter oil. Sensors in the ends of the chopsticks measure the amount of TPM –or Total Polar Materials to you and me – within the oil. The more times the oil has been used, the more TPM builds up and anything above 25% is considered unsafe. The results are then fed through to a phone via Bluetooth which will show you the temperature and quality of the oil. If the oil is unsafe the LED lights at the top of the chopstick will go red.

As Baidu were developing these chopsticks they wanted to push the technology further.

The chopsticks are recharged on a charging station which they are now developing to check the content of the food you are eating. When you place your food on the charging station it uses light to determine what is in the food and where it came from. It is still in development stages but we put it to the test using fruit as our food item of choice. We tested it a number of times and the results weren’t always accurate – I seem to remember it thought a pear was a peach at one point – but for the most part it was able to determine whether an apple was from China or the US. More than that it could tell us very important nutritional information – so we could see which was the better apple to buy and eat. The signs are very promising.

While filming we wanted to show the chopsticks in action so I popped down to the Baidu canteen for lunch my high-tech chopsticks in hand.

As a non-Chinese speaker, ordering food in a Chinese canteen where they speak no English was no easy feat. The food itself was very confusing – it was hard to tell if it was meat, fish or vegetables and didn’t look like anything I got in my local Chinese restaurant. I saw what I thought was some green vegetables and some red stuff so I took some of that but I could see people around me shaking their heads and laughing. At the time I couldn’t quite understand why but when I sat down it all became clear, I had basically selected a few leaves of Bok Choy and almost a half a bowl of chilli – oops!

Well of course I ate it but, as I think any bald person will understand, when I eat something spicy the top of my head starts to sweat. If this is just me – do get in touch as I may have a unique bald head. This made filming my piece to camera particularly tricky as I was attempting to hide the fact that I had just eaten a huge amount of chilli and the sweat pouring down my head – in the end we had to stop because it just got so ridiculous.

Back in London, our journey to understand more about search engines and beyond also took us to Google’s voice booths in the centre of town quite near the BBC’s headquarters. Google are working on speech synthesis which converts text to speech, creating the beginnings of an actual conversation between man and machine.

Of course I wanted to have a go so that my voice could be used as the voice of Google, and since I basically talk for a living, I figured it wasn’t going to be a hard thing to do. But actually, I was rubbish.

They asked me to read statements and sentences out so I thought I had to talk very clearly and slowly with good annunciation to let the machine capture each word. But the studio technician, Anthony Tomlinson, explained to me that they were actually trying to isolate the gaps in between words. He explained that the way we end one word is often determined by what word we are going to say next, and as a lot of words sound the same it is these different endings that they use to determine what is being said.

So my annunciation was far too precise, they kept saying “you’ve got to cool it down, you’ve got to speak a lot more ‘street’ for this” and I was saying “no I want to speak like a BBC announcer.” Suffice it to say, I don’t think I’ll be the future voice of Google machines.

But this is all very promising technology for the future with Google’s voice search software engineer, Bjorn Bringirt, suggesting that a long-term, end goal would be to create a machine that you can have a conversation with, without realising that you are talking to a machine. The experiment to see whether you can fool someone into thinking they are talking to a person and not a machine is called the Turing Test and was introduced by the early computer expert Alan Turing in an Academic paper in the 1950s. Since Turing first introduced his test, it has proven to be both highly influential and widely criticised, and it has become an important concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence.

That is what is so fascinating about this programme, we are beginning to see how businesses involved in the Internet are now branching out to change the nature of our world – the future is going to be filled with clever chopsticks and intelligent knives and forks, self-driving Google cars, phones that remind you to do things and computers we can chat to.
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