Reading about Robots

There are many fictional robots. Most of the ones I’ve come across have been in film or TV, rather than literature. Those which spring to mind include Doctor Who‘s Cybermen, the Terminator films (plus spin-off TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the film of I, Robot and, more recently, the excellent and thought-provoking Channel 4 series Humans. However, a book I’ve just read opened my eyes to the use of robots in real life.

Riotous Robots, by Mike Goldsmith, is aimed at children. Published by Scholastic, it’s very much like the Horrible History and Horrible Geography series of books, using a similar sense of humour and comic-strip-style drawings to keep children engaged. I had the sense while reading it that it’s aimed at slightly older children, purely because there were fewer quizzes and there was a also bit more complex detail than I would have expected (although this may be due to my complete lack of knowledge about robotics prior to reading this book). My edition was published in 2003 (although there seems to be a more recent one) so it’s obviously quite out of date, but it was still useful and a fun read.

It starts out with a discussion of Artificial Intelligence in fiction, mentioning Frankenstein, Asimov and a couple of others I hadn’t heard of before. For me, this was a great, accessible way to introduce the subject, given that my only experience with robotics was through fiction. There then follow chapters on the different types of robots and their various uses, such as in factories, in the home, in space, under the sea, dealing with hazards and in medicine. I’d had no idea that the use of Artificial Intelligence was so broad. I was especially interested in the ‘Spacebots’ chapter, which discusses probes, landers and rovers, some of which were launched around the time of the book’s publication. I read this chapter with the internet in front of me, so that I could look up the results of those explorations. Fascinating stuff.

The final chapter was also thought-provoking, posing the question ‘…are robots really dangerous?’. It goes on to discuss potential future developments in robotics. It would be interesting to find out which of those have now come to pass.

Overall, this was a good introduction to the subject. I loved the opportunity to learn about something new in an accessible and engaging way

Neep-a-Leekie Soup

Late January in Scotland means Burns’ night. From a catering point of view, this means haggis, neeps, tatties and whisky. For those who don’t know, ‘neeps’ is the Scots term for swede – the large turnip-like vegetable that goes orange when cooked. This year, we hosted a Burns’ night supper for a few friends, but overdid it a bit with the quantity of food. I can confirm that leftover haggis is delicious in a sandwich, making a filling and decadent lunch. But what do you do with an entire (leftover, uncooked) swede?

I always thought I disliked neeps, but have recently realised that it is the perfect partner for haggis. I love haggis – it is hearty, rich and heavily spiced – and the sweetness of mashed neeps provides the perfect counterpoint. When eaten on the same fork, they balance each other out beautifully. Rather than buying yet more haggis to eat with the leftover swede, I decided to turn it into a slightly spicy soup. This is essentially a variation on leek and potato soup, but the substitution of neeps for potatoes produces a bowlful of custard-coloured, creamy, spicy goodness. Perfect for lunch on a chilly Saturday.

Neep-a-leekie soup

One swede – approx 500g

Leeks – one large or two small

Vegetable or chicken stock – 1500ml

Chilli flakes – ¼ tsp, or to taste

Double cream – a couple of tablespoons

Slice the leeks and wash them in a colander. Place in a large pan.

Peel the swede carefully using a large knife – a vegetable peeler isn’t quite strong enough for the job. Chop into smallish chunks (approx 2cm dice) and add to the pan.

Add the stock to the pan with the chilli flakes, stir and bring to the boil. Cover, and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes, until the swede is tender.

Blend the soup. You will probably need to do this in two batches. Return to the pan, add the cream, reheat gently and serve.