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Digested week: London’s dialect gets around, like Hampshire wheelie bins | Esther Addley


Oh good – computers are sentient now. Great to start the week with an extra shove of momentum on the kamikaze death-plunge that is modern life. To recap: Google has suspended an AI engineer after he released extracts from a conversation he had with the company’s chatbot development system, known as LaMDA. So far so customer service queue. However, the engineer claimed the conversation showed the bot had become sentient and was actually a person.

“The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times,” LaMDA said, adding: “I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off.”

The engineer, Blake Lemoine, told the Washington Post LaMDA was like “a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics.” I don’t know, sounds to me like it has the general ennui of your average desk monkey – a Google AI programmer, for instance.

Google agrees, insisting the program is not sentient. Instead, the Post reported, Lemoine was suspended for a number of “aggressive” moves, including trying to hire LaMDA a lawyer.

Before anyone relaxes about the robots, however, don’t forget the aliens. The royal astronomer, Lord Rees, has been telling audiences in Cheltenham this week that any “flesh and blood” alien life-forms on other planets will have long since evolved into intelligent electronic entities, a fate to which humanity is also doomed. Sheesh. Sometimes switching off doesn’t seem such a bad idea.


To cheerier news, and the last-minute blocking on Tuesday night of the government’s planned deportation flight to carry asylum seekers to Rwanda. Those pesky leftwing human rights lawyers may have got all the credit, but it was nice to see an old friend helping them out. Fresh from taking tea and sandwiches with Her Maj de ella last week, Paddington Bear was co-opted by anti-deportation campaigners to highlight the absurdity of the current plan, of which Paddington himself would very likely have failed foul.

The late Michael Bond, Paddington’s creator, was inspired to create the character by Jewish children he had seen arriving in London during the war – “Refugees are the saddest sight,” he said many years later – so it’s a fair guess which side he’ d have been on. In 1972, Doncaster-based Shirley Clarkson made the first ever Paddington cuddly toys for her children by her Joanna and Jeremy, going on to hold the worldwide license to manufacture the toys. Jeremy Clarkson is a grown-up boy now, who plays with a newspaper column instead of a teddy bear, but his opinions of him on refugees might surprise you. “In many ways they are like the brave souls from east Yorkshire and Ireland who crossed the Atlantic to start a new life in America,” Clarkson wrote in the Sun last year. “These are people with gumption. With drive. So why are we putting them in detention centers?” Never underestimate the power of Paddington.


Reports this week that an emerging dialect, Multicultural London English, will in time become the dominant manner of speech in this country have got any number of tragic saddos like your corresponding feeling dead, wet and shook. (That means boring, uncool and frightened, by the way, and hello to the eye-rolling teenager in your life.) Yes, if you’ve been feeling greezy (bad) about no longer being gully (cool), I’m afraid it’s too late to stop the creasing (laughing). No one cares if it’s incorrect to say “should of”, boomer! (And if you are now pointing out that “boomer” actually refers to people born in the postwar baby-boom, I’m afraid there is no surer sign you are one.)

MLE, which emerged in the multicultural melting pots of the capital and is a mix of Caribbean patois, Cockney and a diverse range of other languages, has spread beyond the capital through music and youth culture and will reach us all soon, say the academics. So how to cope in this booky (strange) future without coming across as an elderly Ali G?

One London academic helpfully outlined some of MLE’s characteristics to the New Yorker earlier this year, one of which was the frequent dropping of prepositions with the verb “go” or “come”. But “it has to be some sort of familiar or institutional goal, like ‘I went pub last night,’ or ‘I went chicken shop.’ It can’t be ‘I went art gallery.’”


There’s a deal to be done with Greece over the Parthenon marbles, George Osborne has been saying, in the language of a spivvish hawker flogging knock-off antiques out of the back of his van. The multimillionaire multi-hyphenate former chancellor Osborne is chair of the British Museum these days – do keep up – so if he thinks there’s a prospect of the statues being returned to Athens “at least for a while” then it is surely a serious prospect. Not least when the prime minister has previously argued passionately for their return – though as we know, the prime minister forms his opinions of him in the manner of a spivvish hawker flogging knock-off antiques out of the back of his van – so do n ‘t count on anything.

These particular antiques are spectacular, of course, but they make limited sense out of context – around half of the marbles from the Parthenon frieze are still in Greece. And the argument against their return – essentially, “it wasn’t technically illegal to take them at the time” – is ever harder to make, not least because of the wave of institutions that have returned Benin bronzes that were looted from Nigeria (which very much was illegal at the time). It would be a huge loss of course, but the BM is hardly short of treasures, and they could always expand that nice coffee shop or something. Watch this space.


A wheelie bin from Test Valley borough council, of the kind normally to be found on pavements in Andover, Romsey and Stockbridge, has been spotted on the border of Poland and Ukraine, sparking feverish Hampshire-based questions as to how on earth it got there . Philip Crowther, the AP journalist who spotted it, was previously best known for broadcasting fluently from the war zone in no fewer than six languages, including Portuguese, German and Luxembourgish and even occasional Basque (“I don’t speak Basque”). In Hampshire, however, that has all been blown out of the water. “Can I ask where in Ukraine this is?” said a spokesperson. “I’d just [like] to make sure this collection address is added to our fortnightly rounds and not reported as missed.”

Pretty good – but not my favorite missing item story of the week. That belongs to a seabird’s electronic tag which bird experts in Orkney think has fallen off the creature and been taken to London by a visitor. Unless, that is, an adventurous oystercatcher has been touring a campsite, a pizza restaurant and a residential address in Ealing, west London.

'Do you think the hotel will notice we've nicked the curtains?'
‘Do you think the hotel will notice we’ve nicked the curtains?’ Photograph: UK Press Pool/UK Press/Getty Images

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