All that great BETT show stuff is so tame compared to the gadgets in your head

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Arnold Evans pines for electric monks and sorting hats.

You trudge around the BETT show stifling the inevitable yawns and complaining to anyone who's willing to listen that new technology isn't nearly as interesting as it used to be. You concede that there has been some progress - the PCs are perkier, and the iMacs are prettier - but somehow nothing in Olympia can ever compare with those great computers on permanent exhibition at a show being held somewhere in the back of your mind.

For example, you'd think that in 2001 - the year Arthur C Clarke chose for his space odyssey - that educational suppliers would be able to offer schools a computer modelled on HAL 9000. It managed the day-to-day running of an interplanetary spaceship very efficiently - or at least it did, until it seemed to develop a will of its own. But as anyone who uses SIMS understands, this is something that even the best management software does from time to time.

Or then there's Holly, Red Dwarf's onboard computer which once tried to account for its own limitations by confessing that it only has an IQ of 6,000 - "the equivalent of 12,000 PE teachers". Or there's The Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Neutron Wrangler which, according to Douglas Adams, "could talk all four legs off an Arcturan MegaDonkey". It was also Adams who provided us with the computer by which all others are judged: Deep Thought, which held in its teeming circuitry "the ultimate answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything". Nothing on the RM stand is likely to match up to that.

You sometimes get the impression at BETT that the members of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) aren't really trying. It's true that this year, for the first time, robotics was planned as a feature of BETT. But you can bet your bottom dollar it will not live up to your high expectations. This is a particular shame since so much serious thought has already been devoted to the subject of educational robotics. Innumerable school stories and comics have investigated how a robot can be used effectively in the classroom, and offered sensible guidelines as to the minimum specifications. It must clank. It must blink. It must bleep.

It must be able to deliver not only the curriculum but also six-of-the-best with sufficient force to provoke from the recipient a heartfelt "ouch", or "owh" or "ahh". X-Ray eyes are of course essential for the detection of concealed catapults, purloined postal orders and buried treasure.

Obviously robots could provide a solution to the present crisis in teacher recruitment. Whether it's a Robocop suitably modified to teach maths and modern languages in a failing school or a complement of Stepford Wives pre-programmed to meet the exacting requirements demanded by the TTA. And no staffroom would be complete without an Electric Monk - a robot that struts its unlikely stuff in th pages of Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. It works on the same principle as the answer machine that talks to the people you'd sooner avoid, and the VCR that watches those worthy documentaries on BBC2 you record but can never quite get round to watching. The Electric Monk can be programmed to believe those things that you'd happily believe yourself if only you could. It's useful to have one with you before visiting NGFL's remorselessly upbeat website ( - or if you attempt to whistle Things Can Only Get Better.

Today's primary school pupils wouldn't be impressed by anything on display at BETT. They will notice that conspicuously absent from the list of exhibitors are such respected suppliers as Eelops Owl Emporium, Madam Malkins' Robes for All Occasions and Ollwards, Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC. Children besotted by the Harry Potter saga will tell you that any school hoping to appear in the same league table as their beloved Hogwarts must be equipped with at least the Mirror of Erised, a Sorting Hat, a few Rememberballs and a flotilla of Nimbus 2000 broomsticks.

I suppose that most children will reluctantly admit that this paraphernalia belongs strictly to the world of make-believe. Yet when I was a child, I'd have said much the same about robots or computers that helped pupils study. As Arthur C Clarke pointed out a long time ago, any advanced technology is ultimately indistinguishable from magic.

The truth of this dawned on me when I popped along to Edelston Primary in Crewe - a school which seems to have more than its fair share of knowledgeable and zealous Harry Potter fans. In fact, it was their enthusiasm that convinced me that I should read the books for myself. I've told them that if I have any difficulties understanding life at Hogwarts, I'll come to them with my questions.

But the thing is, I've never set foot inside Edelston. The only reason that I feel that I know the school or can chat with its staff and pupils is because it is on the Web. Pupils have the opportunity to share their ideas with millions of people. It's remarkable to think that kids have access to such power. Indeed, it's every bit as strange and as magical as anything J K Rowling ever dreamed upI and we take it for granted. As with every other technological miracle, we're suitably awed at first, but in a shamefully short space of time, we find ourselves stifling yawns and complaining that new technology isn't nearly as interesting as it used to be.

Edleston School

At BETT 2001, Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University will lecture on "Will it be super intelligent machines or cyborgs?" He plans to bring along examples of intelligent machines and robotsWednesday 10 January, D1 at 11am

Build specifications for the Electric Monk should be sent to:

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