My Brush with Royalty


On occasion of the visit of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh to the Cambridge University Engineering Department, November 1994


One of the hazards of my occupation is The Demonstration. People, usually important ones responsible for funding or management, often have an irritating desire to see something actually working. What with all this beavering away, one surely has something to show for it, yes?

Right. So His Royal Highness Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, the Duke of Edinburgh, is to visit the Engineering Department, we learn, and as one of the leading speech recognition groups in the world, we are to produce A Demonstration. Now ordinarily I enjoy doing the demo thing, especially because the people attending usually a) are interested in what we're doing, or b) can give us lotsa money, but HRH seems to fit into neither category. Regardless, we drop everything else, work a few late nights, and come up with something sort of cool to show the old boy. We built a voice-controlled BBC schedule browser --- sort of a TV Guide that understands when you talk to it. It downloads the latest BBC schedules from the Internet, and displays it on the screen. You can ask it things like "Show me Tuesday's films" or "When is the football match tonight?" and, surprisingly often, it recognizes what you've said and displays the requested information.

So the big¹ day arrives. All the trash bins mysteriously disappear. I'm not scheduled to be one of the actual people giving the Demonstration, not only because the system, trained on British English, works terribly on my Yank accent, but the Duke is rumoured to be xenophobic², and has been overheard muttering things like "Awful bloody lot of AMERICANS around, eh what?" So I join my cronies Valtcho (Bulgarian) and Matt (Welsh) in the Accent Ghetto. Our demo (as opposed to the Soil Engineering demo or the Guys Who Make Big Things With Concrete demo) is to be in the undergraduate workstation lab, and from this accident of history was born The Plan. The Plan, of course, was to feign being undergraduates doing whatever undergraduates do at the undergraduate workstations. Naturally, we'd arrange ourselves so as to witness first hand either the spectacular triumph or the humiliating failure of The Demonstration.

So the scene is set. The entourage pulls up (only forty minutes late) in a motorcade of Jags. We wait. And wait. Wait. Tea time. Wait some more. At length, in comes an obvious security bloke, followed by HRH. He wears the unmistakably royal air of ovine complacency, not to mention a nice suit.

Well, the demo comes and goes, and apparently works OK, as far as we can observe without looking like we're actually, well, observing. But as HRH is leaving, he passes our bench, and (always in touch with the common folk), asks us, "so what are you doing here?" Matt, with admirable honesty, replies "Well, we actually came to watch you try our demo." Laughter, some guilty. So we chat, or rather listen. Do we do machine translation? Well, not really. Did we know that Chinese might be a good interlingua (not the word he used) for automatic translation, because it doesn't really matter where the words go in a sentence? Interesting idea, that. Had we ever seen a Chinese typewriter? No, but we gather they have a lot of keys. And so forth. Someone must have bent his ear once about machine translation (or he's been brushing up on his Leibniz). Eventually, he proceeds to the next scheduled stop. We hang around and chat with the security bloke, who incidentally does really well with our recognizer demo.


The ostensible reason for The Duke's visit was to officially open a language lab. It was explained to him that, what with the European Union and all, it was important that engineers and other technical professionals have the language skills to communicate with their European colleagues. Replies the gaffe-prone royal, ``I should think it would be easier if everyone just spoke English, eh?''

No one is quite sure that he's not joking.

¹You can tell it's a big deal because they've turned on the courtyard fountain and polished the floors, but, naturally, only where the Duke will actually be walking

²Pretty rich --- he's half Greek, and his wife, of course, is of German extraction