Category Archives: Cumbria

Cumbrian voice skills and Martian course corrections

Grasmere Lake
Grasmere Lake

My first piece of news today is by way of celebration that I have been getting some Alexa voice skills active on the Amazon store. These can now be enabled on any of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices, such as the Dot or Echo. One of these skills has to do with The Review blog, in that it will list out and read the opening lines of the last few posts there (along with a couple of other blogs I’m involved with). So if you’re interested in a new way to access blogs, and you’ve got a suitable piece of equipment, browse along to the Alexa skills page and check out “Blog Reader“. I’ll be adding other blogs as time goes by.

Cumbria Events Logo
Cumbria Events Logo

The second publicly available skill so far relates to my geographical love for England’s Lake District. Called “Cumbria Events“, this skill identifies upcoming events from the Visit Cumbria web site, and will read them out for the interested user. You can expect other skills to do with both writing and Cumbria to appear in time as I put them together. It’s a pity that Alexa can’t be persuaded to use a Cumbrian accent, but to date that is just not possible. Also, the skills are not yet available on the Amazon US site, so far as I know, but that should change before too long.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

In the process I’ve discovered that writing skills for Alexa is a lot of fun! Like any other programming, you have to think about how people are going to use your piece of work, but unlike much of what I’ve done over the years, you can’t force the user to interact in a particular way. They can say unexpected things, phrase the same request in any of several ways, and so on. Alexa’s current limitation of about 8 seconds of comprehension favours a conversational approach in which the dialogue is kept open for additional requests. The female-gendered persona of my own science fiction writing, Slate, is totally conversational when she wants to be.

It all makes for a fascinating study of the current state of the art of AI. I feel that if we can crack unstructured, open-ended conversation from a device – with all of the subtleties and nuances that go along with speech – then it will be hard to say that a machine cannot be intelligent. Alexa is a very long way from that just now – you reach the constraints and limitations far too early. But even accepting all that, it’s exciting that an easily available consumer device has so much capability, and is so easy to add capabilities.

Artists's impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)
Artists’s impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)

But while all that was going on, a couple of hundred million kilometres away NASA ordered a course correction for the Mars Maven Orbiter. This spacecraft, which has been in orbit for the last couple of years, was never designed to return splendid pictures. Instead, its focus is the Martian atmosphere, and the way this is affected by solar radiation of various kinds. As such, it has provided a great deal of insight into Marian history. So MAVEN was instructed to carry out a small engine burn to keep it well clear of the moon Phobos. Normally they are well separated, but in about a week’s time they would have been within a few seconds of one another. This was considered too risky, so the boost ensures that they won’t now be too close.

Now this attracted my attention since Phobos plays a major part in Timing – it’s right there on the cover, in fact. In the time-frame of Timing, there’s a small settlement on Phobos, which is visited by the main characters Mitnash and Slate as they unravel a financial mystery. This moon is a pretty small object, shaped like a rugby ball about 22 km long and about 17 or 18 km across its girth, so my first reaction was to think what bad luck it was that Maven should be anywhere near Phobos. But in fact MAVEN is in a very elongated orbit to give a range of science measurements, so every now and again its orbit crosses that of Phobos – hence the precautions. This manoeuvre is expected to be the last one necessary for a very long time, given the orbital movements of both objects. So we shall continue getting atmospheric observations for a long while to come.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Thin slices of intelligence – meet the bot ‘Blakeley Raise’

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

The first part of this blog talks about background, so if you’re keen to read instead about my new chat-bot Blakeley Raise, just skip down a few paragraphs… I’m very excited about Blakeley Raise, and hope you’ll check out the new possibilities. If you can’t wait to give it a go, click here.

So, the background… I had the great pleasure of going to the technical day of the Microsoft  London Future Decoded conference last week. It was packed with all kinds of interesting stuff – far too much to take in in the course of a single day, in fact. There were cool presentations of 3d technology – the new Hololens device, enhanced ways to visualise 3d objects within a computer, and how 3d printing is shaking up some parts of the manufacturing industry. And lots of other stuff.

HAL 9000 from 2001 - A Space Odyssey (Wiki)
HAL 9000 from 2001 – A Space Odyssey (Wiki)

But it all threatened to be a bit overwhelming, so I kept my focus quite narrow and stayed mostly with the AI stream of presentations. Top level summary: Slate (in Far from the Spaceports and Timing) has no need to worry about the competition just yet, but there is some really interesting work going on. It will take a lot of generations for Slate to emerge! But the work that is being done is genuinely exciting, and a mixture of faster hardware, reliable communications, and good programming practice means that some tasks are now trickling into general everyday use.

One speaker used the phrase “slices of intelligence” to capture this, recognising that real intelligence involves not only a capacity to learn tasks and communicate visually and in words, but also to reflect on success and failure, set new challenges and move into new environments, interact with others, be aware of moral and ethical dimensions of an action, and so on. We are a very long way from producing artificial intelligence which can do most of that.

Blakeley Raise icon
Blakeley Raise icon

But within particular slices lots of progress has been made. Natural language parsing is now tolerably good rather than being merely laughable. Face recognition, including both identity and emotion, is reasonably accurate – though the site http://how-old.net/ produces such a vast range of potential ages from different pictures of the same person that one can be both flattered and disappointed very quickly (give it a try and you will soon find the limitations of the art at present). On a philanthropic note, image recognition software has been used to provide blind people with a commentary of interesting things in their immediate neighbourhood: see the YouTube snip at the end of this blog.

Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)
Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)

Here’s the bit about Blakeley Raise… For those of us who develop our own software, it is an exciting time. It is extremely easy now to develop a small program called a chat-bot which can be incorporated not just into web pages, but also message applications like Skype, Facebook Messenger, and a host of others. So inspired by all this I have started developing Blakeley Raise, a bot who is designed to introduce potential readers to my books. You can think of Blakeley Raise as a great-great-ancestor of Slate herself, if you like, though I don’t think Slate will be feeling anxious about the competition for a long time yet.

But one of the great things about these bots is that they can be endlessly reconfigured and upgraded. Right now, Blakeley Raise just works by recognising keywords and responding accordingly. Type in “Tell me about Timing” – or another sentence containing the word “Timing” and you’ll get some information about that book. To find out more, navigate your browser to http://www.kephrath.com/trial/BlakeleyRaise.aspx and see what happens. All being well – meaning if I can solve a few technical problems – Blakeley Raise will soon appear on other distribution channels as well. (For those who remember the episode where a Microsoft bot quickly learned how to repeat racist and other inflammatory material, don’t worry – Blakeley Raise does not learn like that)

Finally, here’s a video of one of the more philanthropic spinoffs from Microsoft’s enthusiasm about AI in practical use…

 

Buttermere, Rannerdale and the Norman Conquest

There’s a lot of interest in the Norman Conquest just now, what with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings approaching. So I thought I’d post about a loosely related event up in the Lake District, in the adjoining valleys of Buttermere and Rannerdale. Today’s Buttermere is a quiet and peaceful spot, with only a small scattering of houses set along the valley. Rannerdale itself is entirely unpopulated.

Buttermere and Crummock Water from below Fleetwith Pike
Buttermere and Crummock Water from below Fleetwith Pike

Back in the 11th and 12th centuries, however, they are said to have been a centre of Cumbrian resistance to the Norman invaders. Northern England tried to prevent assimilation into Norman rule, and suffered very considerably by way of reprisals. Cumbria was at this time considered part of Scotland – this lasted until the mid 1200s – and its population derived heavily from Viking stock. It seems that there was no appetite for submitting to William the Conqueror or his representatives here.

So – allegedly – resistance focused around a man called Jarl Buthar, who established for himself a secure defensive position (some say that the name Buttermere is a corruption of Buthar’s Mere). It’s a good place to defend – if you don’t know the area, or you’re trying to move in with a substantial body of troops, there are not many options. You can come round the outside of the Cumbrian fells, requiring a long march and exposing your supply chain to endless harassment. Or you can try coming over what we now call the Honister Pass, a difficult and rugged journey which again leaves you at the mercy of those who know the land better. The side walls of the valley containing Buttermere and Crummock Water are out of the question.

From Buttermere towards Haystacks
From Buttermere towards Haystacks

So there Buthar dug himself in and conducted a guerilla war for the better part of 50 years. The Domesday Book of 1086 says nothing about the area, and we have to presume that it remained at liberty. Norman nobles tried several times to break in, but the region was only secured and subdued in the 12th century

Rannerdale from Whiteless Breast with Crummock Water beyond
Rannerdale from Whiteless Breast with Crummock Water beyond

Which brings us to Rannerdale (Ragnar’s Dale). As I mentioned, today it is a quiet offshoot from the main valley, nestling under the slopes of Whiteless Pike and Grasmoor. It is best known for a spectacular crop of bluebells, which unusually grow out in the open here rather than in woodland. But according to rumour it was the place where Buthar lured a group of Normans led by Ranulph les Meschines and then slaughtered them in an ambush. The bluebells originated from the blood of the fallen.

How much of the tale is truth and how much legend? It has to be said that archaeologists are sceptical of the account, largely through lack of supporting evidence, and a common idea is that it is a romanticised version of the last stand of the Cumbrians against the unstoppable Normans. Be that as it may, it has triggered at least two work of fiction – The Secret Valley: The Real Romance of Unconquered Lakeland, by Nicholas Size in 1930, and Shield Ring, by Rosemary Sutcliff in 1956.

When you have finished exploring it, there are the more sedentary delights of Buttermere Village, including Syke Farm with its splendid icecream and other menu items…