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