6 Minute English
Talking to machines
Episode 180607 / 07 Jun 2018
More and more people are talking to machines - more specifically, virtual assistants or bots. It's easy to do because you can often find them on your smartphone, computer or even a speaker in your house. Rob and Dan discuss how this is changing the way we interact with technology and the type of language we use.
This week's question:
When was the first computer which could recognise speech, launched? Was it in:
Listen to the programme to find out the answer.
informal conversation about unimportant things
up until this moment in time
something that causes change
ability to think, make decisions and act independently
brusque/to the point
very direct, not very polite
Note: This is not a word for word transcript
Hello and welcome to 6 Minute English. I'm Rob.
And I'm Dan.
Hey Dan. What’s the time?
Time you got a new watch?
Now I didn’t ask you that just for a joke or a sarcastic comment now did I?
Well no, but look there’s a clock over there, you are wearing a watch, you have a smartphone and a computer, all of which show the time. So why are you asking me?
Dan! I was trying to introduce today’s topic which is all about virtual assistants or bots. You seemed to have forgotten the script.
Oh yes, sorry. We’re talking about software that you talk to and that can talk back to you. Like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. It might be on your phone or computer or even a speaker in your house.
Now before we hear more about this topic, here is today’s quiz question: Do you know when was the first computer which could recognise speech, launched? Was it in
I have found my script, so I’ve seen the answer but I have to say I was surprised.
Don't tell anybody Dan, OK. We’ll give the answer for the listeners at the end of the programme. We’re going to hear now from Tom Hewitson, who is a conversation designer, working in the field of virtual assistants, talking on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth programme. He talks about the whole idea of virtual assistants and how they are changing the way we interact with technology. How does he describe our existing relationship with computers?
Tom Hewitson, Conversation Designer
It changes the way that we think about computers. To date we’ve thought of them largely as tools. They’re just an advanced version of a calculator. They’re something you kind of use to get a specific thing done, whereas this is kind of changing them more into like an agent. They’re an active participant in the interaction and in guiding you to make the right decision.
How did he describe our existing relationship with computers then?
He said that to date, which is an expression which means 'up until this point in time', we have thought of them as advanced calculators.
Yes, that’s right, we use them as a tool to get things done. But he says that modern technology is turning them into an agent. This doesn’t mean a secret agent, like James Bond! In this sense an agent is something that has agency and that means it has the ability to act individually and make its own decisions.
I’m not sure I’d like my phone to have agency. It probably wouldn’t like being in my pocket all day.
Who would Dan? But I’m not sure Hewitson is suggesting our devices would become that clever but he did say they could become more active in our lives.
Maybe. I imagine, for example, telling us if we are spending too much time in fast food restaurants?
Maybe in your case Dan. Mine would be telling me I spend too much time in the gym! Hewitson goes on to explain how the way we will talk to our virtual assistants will develop. What does he say we don’t need to do?
Tom Hewitson, Conversation Designer
We will develop our own kind of vernacular for speaking with machines that will be subtly different from how we speak to other people because as you rightly point out you don’t need to make the machine like you don’t need to kind of make random chit-chat that’s just filling the time. It can be much more brusque and to the point.
A lot of what we say in human communication is to do with our relationship with the person we’re talking to.
We say things and talk about things that are maybe not directly relevant to our point. With a digital virtual assistant, we don’t need to do that, so we don’t need to make the machine like us.
Hewitson said that we will develop our own vernacular, this is a general word for a native language. This vernacular will be a little bit different from our everyday vernacular because, as we said, we don’t need to maintain a social relationship with the artificial assistant.
This means that we won’t need chit-chat. Chit-chat is another expression for small talk: conversation topics which aren’t important but are part of everyday social communication, like talking about the weather.
And because we don’t need to be friends with our virtual assistants, we can be brusque and to the point. Both of these mean being very direct and not very polite.
Well Dan, I don’t mean to be brusque but it is time for the answer to this week’s quiz question. Earlier I asked when was the first computer which could recognise speech, launched. The options were:
Well actually the first computer which could recognise speech was launched in 1961.
It was called the IBM Shoebox and could recognise 16 words and the numbers zero to nine. That’s nearly as many as you!
Cheeky! Right enough of this chat-chat. Let’s recap today’s vocabulary.
Well chit-chat was one of today’s expressions. Meaning 'small talk', but we also had the expression to date. That means ‘up until this moment in time’.
Then we had the noun agent. This refers to something that has agency. And that is the ability to think, make decisions and act independently.
The next word is vernacular, another word for language, particularly when talking about a native language.
And finally there was brusque meaning 'direct and not polite' and to the point, which also means 'direct and without unnecessary information'.
Yes, what can I do for you Dan?
End the programme.
Certainly Dan. Well that’s all from us today, be sure to check us out on all the usual places: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and of course please don't forget our website bbclearningenglish.com. Bye for now!
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Relax, slow down and breathe. Neil and Catherine explore mindfulness - what it is and what benefits it offers
Episode 170608 / 08 Jun 2017
Is happiness in the DNA?
Episode 170601 / 01 Jun 2017
A new way to rest in peace
Episode 170525 / 25 May 2017
Could you give up meat and animal products?
Episode 170518 / 18 May 2017
Do people now have shorter attention spans than goldfish?
Episode 170511 / 11 May 2017
Food waste is a major problem
Episode 170504 / 04 May 2017
The rich are getting richer
Episode 170427 / 27 Apr 2017
How did a man fall from a 47 storey skyscraper and survive?
Episode 170420 / 20 Apr 2017
Why do we sigh?
Episode 170413 / 13 Apr 2017
What's behind the trend for having more than one career?
Episode 170406 / 06 Apr 2017
How does your food affect your mood?
Episode 170330 / 30 Mar 2017
Can dogs be used to detect cancer?
Episode 170323 / 23 Mar 2017
Are you an emoji person? We explore how simple smiley faces have become powerful communication tools.
Episode 170316 / 16 Mar 2017
What do you eat for lunch? Sandwiches are the most popular lunchtime meal in the UK, but why?
Episode 170309 / 09 Mar 2017
Are mermaids real?
Episode 170302 / 02 Mar 2017
Can humanity really breach the 90 year limit?
Episode 170223 / 23 Feb 2017
Gun control with no guns? How is that possible? Join Dan and Neil to find out.
Episode 170216 / 16 Feb 2017
Neil and Dan discuss romanticism
Episode 170209 / 09 Feb 2017
Catherine and Neil discuss why the police and the legal system are concerned about eyewitness testimony
Episode 170202 / 02 Feb 2017
Catherine and Neil discuss how the pressures of modern living are making us hostile to each other
Episode 170126 / 26 Jan 2017
Why are so many people obsessed with learning about their family history? Neil and Catherine talk about genealogy
Episode 170119 / 19 Jan 2017
The increased study of extremophile microbes has revealed a lot about what is and is not needed to sustain life on Earth
Episode 170112 / 12 Jan 2017
Why are we so fascinated with the superheroes that populate our cinema screens and comic books?
Episode 170105 / 05 Jan 2017
Alice and Neil discuss whether we would miss driving as driverless cars are tested in cities around the world
Episode 161229 / 29 Dec 2016
What’s your personality type? If you are an introvert you’re in good company; Barack Obama, JK Rowling are introverts...
Episode 161222 / 22 Dec 2016
Why is it that some games, hobbies and activities become crazes while others don’t? Alice and Neil talk about their preferences
Episode 161215 / 15 Dec 2016
Alice and Neil discuss circadian rhythms – the so-called body clock that influences an organism's daily cycle of changes
Episode 161208 / 08 Dec 2016
Sophie and Neil discuss why the last pharaoh of Egypt still fascinates people today
Episode 161201 / 01 Dec 2016
Why do we fear animals that pose no threat to us? Sophie and Neil discuss the reason why fear of spiders is so common
Episode 161124 / 24 Nov 2016
Neil and Alice talk about the defiant women who fought for their right to choose their representatives
Episode 161117 / 17 Nov 2016
Call them what you want – trainers, sneakers, tennis shoes – but why does everybody love them so much?
Episode 161110 / 10 Nov 2016
Sophie and Neil discuss the bike's mass appeal, from helping to widen the gene pool to blazing a trail for the women’s movement
Episode 161103 / 03 Nov 2016
Sophie and Neil discuss social networks and why we often use different identities for different social media
Episode 161027 / 27 Oct 2016
Free, digital news is threatening traditional newspapers. Sophie and Neil discuss the pros and cons of news in print
Episode 161020 / 20 Oct 2016
Why are we attracted to some people and not to others? Sophie and Neil discuss love at first sight
Episode 161013 / 13 Oct 2016
What is loneliness and why do we feel it? Sophie and Neil discuss how feeling lonely can help us to survive
Episode 161006 / 06 Oct 2016
How do you see yourself and how do others see you? Alice and Neil discuss identity and how appearances can be deceptive
Episode 160929 / 29 Sep 2016
Why is punctuation important? Neil and Alice discuss rhetoric, commas and full stops.
Episode 160922 / 22 Sep 2016
Alice and Neil discuss penicillin, the so-called wonder drug discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming
Episode 160915 / 15 Sep 2016
What might the world look like if temperatures keep rising? Neil and Alice discuss the need to adapt to the changes ahead
Episode 160908 / 08 Sep 2016
Did you ever own a Walkman or a record player? Alice and Neil discuss old tech and why the US Pentagon still uses floppy disks
Episode 160901 / 01 Sep 2016
Neil and Alice discuss the differences between slang, jargon, and swearing, while teaching you some Cockney Rhyming Slang
Episode 160825 / 25 Aug 2016
Do women clean the house more often than men? Alice and Neil discuss the topic and teach you a tidy amount of vocabulary
Episode 160818 / 18 Aug 2016
Is food labelling clear enough to help us make healthy choices? Alice and Neil discuss chocolate chip muffins along with some other tasty vocabulary
Episode 160811 / 11 Aug 2016
Who were the Muses and how did they help the creative process? Neil and Alice discuss how to be more creative
Episode 160804 / 04 Aug 2016
Will we still be speaking in an English we recognise in a thousand years' time? Alice and Neil make some educated guesses!
Episode 160728 / 28 Jul 2016
Neil and Alice discuss the threat to The Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, and the Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru
Episode 160721 / 21 Jul 2016
Why do some weeks just fly by but sometimes minutes can seem like hours? Neil and Alice discuss our perception of time
Episode 160714 / 14 Jul 2016
What will the cities of the future look like, and will we enjoy living in them? Alice and Neil discuss Neil's attempt at town planning
Episode 160707 / 07 Jul 2016
Why is the disease diabetes on the rise? Alice and Neil talk about the role that diet has to play in this global health problem
Episode 160630 / 30 Jun 2016
Why do we procrastinate? Rob and Alice discuss why it can be difficult to get on with tasks
Episode 160623 / 23 Jun 2016
Why do we like to impersonate people? Neil tries out his best impression of Elvis while teaching you some related vocabulary
Episode 160616 / 16 Jun 2016
Alice and Rob consider which study techniques are good and which aren't. Does sleeping with a book under your pillow help?
Episode 160609 / 09 Jun 2016
Young entrepreneurs are appearing everywhere. Alice and Rob discuss whether grey hair is best
Episode 160602 / 02 Jun 2016
Why do people often say one thing and do another? Alice and Rob ask how far hypocrisy is actually part of who we are
Episode 160526 / 26 May 2016
Do you have what it takes to go to space? Alice and Rob discuss the challenges of a job thousands of people are keen on
Episode 160519 / 19 May 2016
Do you believe men walked on the Moon? Alice and Rob discuss why some people are suspicious about everything
Episode 160512 / 12 May 2016
You've decluttered and tidied but could you live life free of stuff? Alice and Rob discuss why we give objects emotional value
Episode 160505 / 05 May 2016
Are you a teetotaler or a drinker? Rob and Alice discuss what risk to your health regular drinking may have
Episode 160428 / 28 Apr 2016
What does it take to impress the ladies in the 21st century? Neil and Alice discuss knights in shining armour
Episode 160421 / 21 Apr 2016
Is retirement the end of everything or just a door for new opportunities? Alice and Rob talk about aging
Episode 160414 / 14 Apr 2016
Do you always agree with what most people in your group say? Neil and Sophie discuss staff meetings.
Episode 160407 / 07 Apr 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss the health benefits of being able to speak two languages fluently. And Neil... speaks Japanese!
Episode 160331 / 31 Mar 2016
How often do you check your phone? Neil and Sophie discuss how social media is changing the way we interact.
Episode 160324 / 24 Mar 2016
Sophie and Neil discover that soil has some surprising qualities and discuss how growing food can be therapeutic too
Episode 160317 / 17 Mar 2016
Sophie and Neil talk about traditional fairy tales for the adult market and teach you some magical vocabulary
Episode 160310 / 10 Mar 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss the growing industry of team building – from zombie bootcamps to horse training for executives.
Episode 160303 / 03 Mar 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss Mars, the fourth rock from the Sun
Episode 160225 / 25 Feb 2016
Neil and Sophie talk about gene editing, designer babies and how many errors Neil might have in his genetic code.
Episode 160218 / 18 Feb 2016
How generous are you? Neil and Sophie discuss Mark Zuckerberg and what it takes to be a modern-day philanthropist.
Episode 160211 / 11 Feb 2016
Are the days of paying by cash for a latte or a newspaper nearly gone? Alice and Neil discuss Neil's fondness for loose change...
Episode 160204 / 04 Feb 2016
Tea comes in different forms – milky, sweet or spicy. Alice and Neil discuss how this Asian leaf conquered the world.
Episode 160128 / 28 Jan 2016
Train, car, bicycle ... Hundreds of millions of us make the same journey day in day out. Take a hike with Alice and Neil and learn new vocabulary.
Episode 160121 / 21 Jan 2016
Are food allergies on the increase and if so, why? Neil and Alice talk about the growing fear of food and teach new words.
Episode 160114 / 14 Jan 2016
Are artificial lights and late night TV ruining our sleep? Neil and Alice discuss the issue and teach you related vocabulary.
Episode 160107 / 07 Jan 2016
What does it take to be a good interviewer? Neil and Alice discuss TV chat show hosts and teach you some related vocabulary.
Episode 151231 / 31 Dec 2015
How much does appearance really matter? Neil and Alice discuss fitness and New Year's resolutions
Episode 151224 / 24 Dec 2015
Some families struggle to buy even food and can’t afford presents. Neil and Alice discuss how some charities are helping those in need.
Episode 151217 / 17 Dec 2015
Alice and Finn talk about the passion some people have for danger and the unseen threats we face every day
Episode 151210 / 10 Dec 2015
Alice and Neil discuss the psychological pressures of going to university. They also teach some related vocabulary.
Episode 151203 / 03 Dec 2015
Neil and Alice discuss the long-lasting appeal of this man with a bow and how he has changed over the centuries
Episode 151126 / 26 Nov 2015
Do you know how much your partner earns? Is he or she in debt? Would this make you love them less?
Episode 151119 / 19 Nov 2015
The BBC broadcasts a season of programmes discussing women's issues around the world
Episode 151112 / 12 Nov 2015
Are you good at telling jokes? What makes a good comedian?
Episode 151105 / 05 Nov 2015
Should we all pay for supermarket plastic bags? Neil and Alice take a look at the environmental impact of plastic and teach you some related words.
Episode 151029 / 29 Oct 2015
Should the difficult language of Shakespeare be 'translated' into plain English?
Episode 151022 / 22 Oct 2015
The bicycle is the most popular form of two-wheeled transport in the world, but could we all soon be using hoverboards? Listen to Neil and Finn's conversation and learn some new words.
Episode 151015 / 15 Oct 2015
If you are sitting at a desk or answering the phone, stop for a moment and ask: could a robot or machine do this job better? Neil and Finn discuss the future of our jobs.
Episode 151008 / 08 Oct 2015
Neil and Alice discuss what kind of book people like to be seen reading. Do you like to impress people with a classic book in your hands?
Episode 151001 / 01 Oct 2015
Does being born in the summer reduce your chance of going to university?
Episode 150924 / 24 Sep 2015
Take a trip with Rob and Alice to find out about the Earth’s core. They’ll discuss how hot it is – and whether there are any dinosaurs living there!
Episode 150917 / 17 Sep 2015
Do you dress formally or casually? Do you choose trendy items or old comfortable ones? Rob and Will talk about the meaning of clothes.
Episode 150910 / 10 Sep 2015
It's been described as the world's largest and most democratic classical music festival. Neil and Finn guide you through the BBC Proms
Episode 150903 / 03 Sep 2015
What an awful sound - cracking your knuckles! Listen in to Rob and Neil to find out if it's a useful skill or just an annoying habit
Episode 150827 / 27 Aug 2015
Was Charles Darwin the only man with ideas about evolution? Rob and Neil talk about someone else who discovered it first.
Episode 150820 / 20 Aug 2015
What are the modern day dilemmas in using a lift? Rob and Neil discuss the awkwardness and irritation of being in one
Episode 150813 / 13 Aug 2015
Should young people be made to vote in elections or should we choose? We discuss the ideas behind compulsory voting
Episode 150806 / 08 Aug 2015
What do we need our chins for? Rob and Neil discuss how we got them and what our chins say about us
Episode 150730 / 30 Jul 2015
Why do gibbons sing duets and what has this got to do with the evolution of the human language?
Episode 150723 / 23 Jul 2015
Skinny models: What does the law say about walking the catwalk?
Episode 150716 / 16 Jul 2015
The dangers of computer games. How good are they for our health?
Episode 150709 / 09 Jul 2015
It's amazing! What part of our body have scientists discovered can heal and help us?
Episode 150702 / 02 Jul 2015
Do you chew gum and what do you do with it when you've finished? Listen to Rob and Finn discussing the history and chemical properties of gum and why it's messing up our streets whilst explaining some related vocabulary
Episode 150625 / 25 Jun 2015
Food banks provide food to people in the UK who can't afford to buy their own. Rob and Finn discuss this how they work and how they help many of the country's poorest
Episode 150618 / 18 Jun 2015
Listen to Neil and Rob discussing mood swings, risk taking, and why people make fun of teenagers, while they also explore some related vocabulary.
Episode 150611 / 11 Jun 2015
How can remote parts of the world get access to the internet? Neil and Catherine discuss a new idea for spreading knowledge
Episode 150604 / 04 Jun 2015
What makes us angry and why is aggression useful? Neil and Catherine discuss human behaviour.
Episode 150528 / 28 May 2015
Big bushy beards have become so fashionable that there's now an art exhibition dedicated to them
Episode 150521 / 21 May 2015
A London apartment block has front and back entrances for private and social housing - or so-called rich and poor doors. Does it make sense to you? Listen to a discussion whilst learning some housing-related vocabulary
Episode 150514 / 14 May 2015
Fifty years ago, on 18 March 1965, Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov took the first space walk. Listen to Rob and Neil describing the struggles of that ground-breaking space mission whilst explaining some related vocabulary.
Episode 150507 / 07 May 2015
Furniture with built-in wireless charging technology - like a coffee table is now being sold. 'Built-in' means the technology is included as part of the table. So you just pop your phone on the table, and technology does the rest!
Episode 150430 / 30 Apr 2015
Many animals face extinction. But people are realising that they must act now to stop further losses. A scheme to save the Asian elephant in China could provide an answer.
Episode 150423 / 23 Apr 2015
How does music make you feel? Research shows that it actually influences us more than we realise - whether we're at the movies, the supermarket, or down the pub
Episode 150416 / 16 Apr 2015
Coffee is now the most popular drink in the world. But what about the economics and politics of coffee production? It's as complicated as getting the right flavour in your cup
Episode 150409 / 09 Apr 2015
Rob and Neil put on their sunglasses to find out more about this special star and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won’t be blinded with science!
Episode 150402 / 02 Apr 2015
The UK has become the first country to approve legislation allowing the creation of babies with genetic material from three people. Listen to Neil and Harry’s conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150326 / 26 Mar 2015
What are some art galleries banning to protect their paintings? Find out with Neil and Harry
Episode 150319 / 19 Mar 2015
An electronic device under your skin?! Workers in Sweden take part in experiment which allows them to get in and out of their office without a key, ID or password. Listen to Neil and Harry’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150312 / 12 Mar 2015
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. He is known throughout the world for his role in defeating Nazi Germany but he also made mistakes. Listen to Neil and Mike’s discussion, and learn new vocabulary.
Episode 150305 / 05 Mar 2015
We live in a richer world. But the gap between rich and poor is still very wide in individual countries. How to change this? Listen to Rob and Harry’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150226 / 26 Feb 2015
The price of vaccines has escalated and some poor countries are struggling to prevent children from catching certain life-threatening diseases, says Medecins Sans Frontieres. Listen to Rob and Neil’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150219 / 19 Feb 2015
Will thinking computers be the end of humans? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150212 / 12 Feb 2015
About 37,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica this season. But should they be going to a region with such a sensitive environment? Listen to Rob and Neil’s conversation and learn some new vocabulary.
Episode 150205 / 05 Feb 2015
At a time when more people compete for fewer jobs, are you sure you present your skills and abilities well to a potential employer? Listen to Rob and Neil's conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150129 / 29 Jan 2015
Going to a party where you don't know anyone? Listen to Rob and Neil's advice and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150122 / 22 Jan 2015
We use computers for everything nowadays. Are we forgetting our own abilities - and losing our talent? Listen to Rob and Neil's discussion, and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150115 / 15 Jan 2015
Smoking in cars with children might be banned in England. Listen to Neil and Rob's chat and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150108 / 08 Jan 2015
Is bullying just an attempt to give a bad name to what is part of human nature? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150101 / 01 Jan 2015
What would you put in your time capsule? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141225 / 25 Dec 2014
When enemy soldiers sang together in WW1. Listen to Rob and Finn’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 141218 / 18 Dec 2014
The London school where students speak 42 different languages
Episode 141211 / 11 Dec 2014
Laughter isn't always the best medicine, says research
Episode 141204 / 04 Dec 2014
Are your pictures, documents and videos safe online? Listen to Rob and Finn's chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141127 / 27 Nov 2014
Nowhere to park? How the sharing economy is changing the way we use our space
Episode 141120 / 20 Nov 2014
How can science fiction help the world? Rob and Finn discuss a project which aims to inspire through stories of a bright future
Episode 141113 / 13 Nov 2014
Why is eating meat bad news?
Episode 141106 / 06 Nov 2014
Do real-life superheroes exist or are they just cartoon characters?
Episode 141030 / 30 Oct 2014
Rob and Finn discuss the World Health Organisation's recommendations on e-cigarettes
Episode 141023 / 23 Oct 2014
Should we eat less sugar? Listen to Rob and Neil and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141016 / 16 Oct 2014
Is learning English getting easier? Find out what's new
Episode 141009 / 09 Oct 2014
Why do we buy so much food and not eat it all? Learn more about food waste
Episode 141002 / 02 Oct 2014
Is it right to sleep at work? Rob and Finn discuss the benefits of sleeping on the job.
Episode 140929 / 29 Sep 2014
Is the way we see famous people a new thing? Learn about the first 'modern celebrity'.
Episode 140821 / 21 Aug 2014
Bored? You're not alone. Rob and Finn discuss how to deal with boredom and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won't be bored!
From the Archive
Episode 210204 / 04 Feb 2021
Can a woollen hat make a difference when you are cold?