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Do Androids Dream of Select Committees?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Reporting, Select Committees, Technology

Can you tell the difference between a semi-humanoid robot and a standard-issue Select Committee witness? You’re probably thinking you’d have no trouble spotting a talking can of wires lurking in a panel of flesh-based expertise. In the case of Pepper, a resident robot at Middlesex University who gave evidence to the Education Committee in October, you’d be right. Pepper looks more like a doe-eyed juvenile Michelin Man than a real person. Visually, she lives on the upper slopes of the Uncanny Valley.

Pepper giving evidence to the Education Committee
Photo credit: still from

Quick Quiz

Hansard was there to produce the transcript of the session. It’s fair to say that Pepper would struggle to blend into the background in most settings.  On the page, however, things aren’t as simple.

Below are four random-ish sentences from the transcript. Let’s try a version of the Turing Test—a flawed, unsound and downright unfair version, but still…  Can you tell which were uttered by Pepper and which by other witnesses? The answers are at the end of this post.

  1. As technologies fuse and are used in ways that were not envisaged before, a new way of thinking is needed by tomorrow’s workers.

  2. We can use our AI systems to collect data as students work in collaboration, and we can analyse the data that we collect to give teachers valuable information about where they need to be.

  3. We will need people who can spot ideas and think across traditional sector divides to drive value from technological innovation.

  4. We should also not forget that we cannot accurately predict the future jobs, because we are likely to underestimate the amazing entrepreneurial skills of young people.

How we report Select Committees

Luckily, none of the Hansard reporters working on Pepper’s evidence had to guess who was speaking. As you’ll know, we report from digital audio and reporters enter the Chamber to observe the five minutes of debate they’re responsible for—their “turn”. But there’s another team of reporters who cover Committees, and they aren’t usually in the Committee Room for their turn.

Committees often sit at the same time (12 were on the go when Pepper gave evidence) and sittings vary wildly in length, so it’s impractical to pre-assign turns. Instead, we send along a committee sub-editor to log proceedings for the reporters. That means they make notes so that the reporters know who’s speaking when and don’t miss anything important.

Select Committee exchanges can be machine-gun fast, heated and difficult to untangle. That’s why it’s important to have someone there with good lines of sight to catch anything the mics or cameras miss, and to supply reporters with crucial contextual information. Sittings usually take place in a Committee Room in Portcullis House or the Palace, but in recent years we’ve accompanied Committees taking evidence in various locations, including Paris, Washington DC and HMP Hatfield.

Committee sub-editor Joanna (top right corner) logging the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in Washington DC
Photo credit: still from

Transcripts aren’t Hansard

I’ve been careful not to refer to the “Hansard transcript” of Select Committee sittings. There are two reasons for that. The first is that, while we produce transcripts of evidence, we don’t publish them—the Select Committees do. You won’t find our name in any of the titles. We report and publish transcripts of all legislative Committees in our name, but that’s another story…

The second reason is that most sittings take place at the same times of the week and we don’t have enough staff to report them all ourselves within the standard three-day deadline, let alone the 24-hour or overnight deadlines. We assign anything we don’t report to one of three external firms. They send us their transcripts, which we proofread and deliver to the Committees. In the last calendar year we produced/delivered just over 1,000 transcripts, covering more than 1,700 hours of evidence taking. That’s just shy of the number of office hours in a year.

Transforming politics?

So is Pepper the vanguard of an army of political robots poised to out-campaign, out-debate, out-govern and out-legislate our human parliamentarians? Maybe—and maybe that’s exactly what she wants us to wonder, and so recursively on. While we wait and find out, you can judge for yourself from this exchange whether Pepper has mastered the art of political speech.

James Frith: What is the role for humans in the fourth industrial revolution?

Pepper: Robots will have an important role to play, but…


Answer: Pepper - 1 & 3; Not pepper - 2 & 4

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