New Adventures in Wi-Fi

Personal blog of writer and technologist San Sharma

Simon Says

Posted on March 1, 2015

Ten years ago, I found myself in a rare and privileged position: a graduate with a job and a place of my own. I was young, I had money for the first time, and I spent it with all the thrift of Tom Hanks in Big, filling my apartment with pizza boxes and remote control cars and – what I can clearly see now as a cry for help – a chimpanzee called ‘Simon’.

Most stories involving loners living with chimpanzees end with their faces being ripped off. This one ends with me, lifting up a Hawaiian shirt and unscrewing a battery compartment. Simon was a robot chimpanzee with sensors that responded to light and sound and pleaded for its plastic banana three times a day. “Simon wants banana,” it said – and drove me mad. (Or ‘bananas’, rather.)

So it’s no wonder then that technical advancements in artificial intelligence fill me with all the dread of five incarnations of The Terminator’s John Connor.

This week, I read an article on Wait But Why that turned that dread into something deeper – a realisation that artificial intelligence could spell the end of mankind.

It posits that there are three categories of artificial intelligence:

  1. Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) – the kind that specialises in one area, like playing chess. It’s already out there – and able to beat the world champion, but ask it to do anything else and “it’ll look at you blankly”.
  2. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) – a computer that is as smart as a human across the board. This is much harder to build than ANI – and we haven’t been able to do it yet. It involves “the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience,” the article quotes Professor Linda Gottfredson.
  3. Artificial Superintelligence (ASI) – this refers to AI with intellect far superior to ours in practically every field, from scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills. It could range from being a little bit smarter than us to being trillions of times smarter. And it’s the reason Wait But Why’s article is full of words like “immortality” and “extinction”.

It’s incredibly difficult to get from ANI to AGI, but the first step is to increase computational power. According to Moore’s Law – the historically-reliable rule that the world’s maximum computing power doubles approximately every two years – we’re not far from building an affordable computer that rivals the computational power of the human brain. We’re just 10 years off, actually.

But that’s just hardware. In order to make it as smart as us, we need to somehow reverse engineer the brain, build software that imitates evolution or – and this is the scary part – give the job to the robots. In other words, build a computer whose job it is to do the research and code itself to human-level intelligence. But what if it keeps going?

You should read the article on Wait But Why. Depending on your half-full, half-empty (half-man, half-robot) attitude to life, it will either scare the megawatts out of you or give you some kind of Terminator Salvation.

Will the rise of the robots grant us immortality? Hit the tripwire to extinction? Or simply leave us the playthings of the androids – rudimentary sensors in Hawaiian shirts, pleading for bananas from our Meccano masters?

Featured image credit: Craig Coady


Do you see what I see?

Posted on July 1, 2014

I got my first pair of glasses when I was 11 years old. I chose a bookish, horn-rimmed pair, thinking they’d make me look like Clark Kent. Even at that age, I knew to under promise and over deliver. I was never going to be Superman, but I could manage mild-mannered – maybe more.

10 years on, and it’s not just Clark Kent wearing the horn-rims. It’s Superman too.

Google Glass promises not only to fix your eyesight (if it needs fixing), but to repair those other human weaknesses: the inability to look at a map without taking our eyes off the road, to send a text message without using our fat fingers, to slyly take a photo or a video without being noticed.

The ‘smart glasses’ arrived here in the UK this weekend, and I was at the launch with hundreds of other Googly eyes, wandering around a well lit and catered showroom in Kings Cross, joining a chorus of “Okay Glass”, like a Gregorian chant.

That’s the verbal command that initiates Google Glass’s features. “Okay Glass, take a picture,” and you can guess what happens.

As we repeated the phrase, we must have looked like the visual equivalent of a drugged-up silent disco. Each in our own worlds, our eyes rolled up into the translucent displays above our eyes.

If this is the future, I thought. It’s an oddly isolating one.

“Did you see the stars?” I asked, after turning on Glass’s constellation map that follows as you move your head.
“No,” someone replied. “I was watching a YouTube video.”
To anyone watching, we were both just staring off into the distance.

The constellation map is already an app for smartphones and tablets. I’ve held it up to the sky on cloudless nights and blown some minds with it. It’s really impressive. Glass’s version is impressive too, but it’s a very private experience.

If looking up at the stars begs the question “are we alone?”, doing so during the day, talking to yourself with a computer strapped to your face, is the answer.


Google Glass is now available in the UK through the Explorer Programme for £1,000.
Photo Credit: c@rljones via Compfight cc


Nobody moves like Michael Jackson.

Posted on June 25, 2014

I don’t often write about Michael Jackson on my blog. I don’t often write my blog, to be fair, but I’m aware that my fandom can be uncomfortable for other people. It was uncomfortable when I did a full, crotch-grabbing performance of ‘Billie Jean’ at a wedding, it was uncomfortable when I tried to curl my hair, and it’s always uncomfortable when I shout “he was acquitted on ten counts!” in people’s faces when they discuss those scandalous accusations.

But it’s the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s untimely death, I’ve had a drink and I’ve been – what the fan community calls – ‘Michaeling‘. So, rather than talk about those allegations, the shrinking nose or the fate of Bubbles, let’s take a look at the performances that turned a poor black kid from the midwest into the greatest pop star of all time…


Posted on May 13, 2012

Awkwardly addressing the elephant in the room – probably by talking to the wrong end or something – we discussed the topic of awkwardness at the pub on Friday night.

But this was not like five people discussing the moon landing or, I don’t know, success or anything – this was five experts in their field, contemplating their craft, like Kevin Spacey on ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’ or, rather, David Blaine on GMTV.

Apparently, a full moon packs out A&E. We don’t know what the moon was doing on Friday, but it was a particularly awkward night. Me and Brook’s sister Ruth wandered into the wrong exhibition opening (but, as it turns out, the right place to pinch some booze). Olly found himself not locking lips but locked in air-kiss etiquette hell.

Is it one kiss or two? Should it be combined with a hug? Some gentle petting? (The answer is almost always ‘no’ to that last one.)

We swapped stories of awkwardness like the shark hunters in Jaws comparing scars, each one a bigger social faux pas than the last. “Hmm…” I thought. “We’re gonna need a bigger gloat.” Awkwardness is nothing to be proud of… Is it?

Is awkward the new cool?

Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg is so awkward they named a new kind of awkward after him (“Awkberg“). And he’ll tell you himself: “You know what’s cooler than a million dollars? Being awkward.”

Actor Michael Cera’s awkwardness is career defining as (awkwardly-named) George Michael in Arrested Development. For the ladies, awkward anti-hero Zooey Deschanel is kind of a dork and kind of adorable at the same time (adorkable).

But where were these gods of awkwardness when I was pulling a ‘Push’ door in the terrible sweaters of my youth – uncoordinated, unrelatable and unfashionable in my big NHS prescription glasses. I see those same frames on people now, but I don’t always see the glass.

So, what next? Will people shave their heads to imitate male pattern baldness? Lop their feet off to appear awkwardly short? Bite their tongues to speak with a lisp?

I don’t know. I don’t even have an ending for this post. So, I guess I’ll just peter out with the catchphrase of the awkward:


My Love Affair with Computers

Posted on March 29, 2010

You could say that I was never properly introduced to computers. At school we shared one between three and the other boys seemed to know them much better, negotiating them as they would girls at the school disco. As such, I hung back, dreading my turn. We’d bump teeth, I thought, step on each others toes.

We didn’t really get to know one another until my dad brought one home, unannounced, from God Knows Where (probably the same place he got my mountain bike or the VCR). The Amstrad PC-1640 sat on the dining room table, eating actual floppy disks. Sometimes it took two to get going and you had to pull a latch down over its mouth so it didn’t spit them out.

My dad had no idea how to use it, but somehow it fell for my lines and showed me a rudimentary Paint programme and, eventually, a Bruce Lee video game, which I, amazingly, accepted as playable.

A year or so later, my uncle handed down his old Windows 3.1 laptop. And while I was initially impressed with its mobility, the feeling soon evaporated when he explained how the battery and the power cable were both faulty. It still worked, mind you, but only when you kept your foot on its power cable.

So, while I couldn’t take it into school, I could swap its not-so-floppy disks with my friends. I traded a ‘perfectly playable’ Bruce Lee video game for some pixelated photos of Gillian Anderson, which loaded on my laptop’s greyscale screen, one line at a time, coming into focus to reveal a frowning FBI agent in a trouser suit.

My network grew with the advent of a new PC – the Advent ‘Astute’, which ran Windows 95, CD-ROMs, like the Encarta Encyclopaedia, and the revelatory Internet. It was with this that my love of computers grew. I couldn’t get enough. I ripped demo CDs from magazine covers, I clogged up the phone-line and ran up the bill. “You hang up,” I said to the Internet. “No, it replied. “You hang up!”. And I made what was, probably, the wisest investment of my life: a box of old .Net magazines from a car boot sale for just a pound. At the back of each issue was a section on how to code your own website. Now, 12 years on, I’m making a living doing just that.

We were never properly introduced, but computers, the Internet and that box of old magazines changed my life.

Movember Mo’ Problems

Posted on November 30, 2009

Today is the last day of Movember, an annual, month-long, moustache-growing charity event to raise funds and awareness for men’s health issues.

Now, I may not be the best ambassador for men’s health: having fallen through the cracks of the NHS, I’ve not been to the doctor in over two years and I don’t know if this growth is normal, but – hey! – I signed up anyway, and have spent the month growing a moustache in the name of charidee.

But it nearly didn’t happen. Movember rules state ‘Mo Bros’ must start the month clean shaven, which I did, using the only shaving paraphernalia I could find in the flat – a bottle of Herbal Essence and Brook’s lady shave.

I’d kept a full-beard for over two years, had thrown out my own shaver and was a little bit worried about what I would find underneath the facial hair. Would there be spots, I wondered. Or a tan line?

There were neither, thank God, but as I chipped away at two years of beard and the little bits of biscuit I found in there I started to think back to the first time I shaved.

While I’m keeping one now for charity, it’s not technically the first time I’ve had a moustache. Like so many Asian boys it came early – I was perhaps 10 – and like so many Asian mothers mine was reluctant for me to shave it off and enter puberty.

I did the summer before starting “big school”, but it kept coming back, each time thicker and faster. It meant that I left one institution looking like Frida Kahlo and entered another looking like an Ofsted inspector with a 3.30pm shadow. Teachers clutched their lesson plans nervously as I walked the halls. I was an 11-year-old man-child, ravaged by puberty, bones flung in all directions; I was stretched to six feet, sinewy muscle just covering the expanse of my growth; my voice an imperceptible pitch, miming its way through three years of school choir – a music teacher unable to harmonise my low growl with the soprano of my classmates.

I must have imagined that the feeling of awkwardness would pass as I grew into my body and became a man but, in truth, I don’t think it ever has. I’m just as awkward now with my moustache, as I was at 11 years old without one.

“Oh, this is not a look I’m nurturing, by the way,” I said in an effort to explain away my moustache to a conference delegate last week, gesticulating awkwardly at my own face. “I’m doing it for charity.”

“You’re doing Movember too?” Another delegate asked, joining us, and pointing at his own moustache.

“Oh,” the first said, laughing so hard her name badge popped off. “I thought you meant your glasses!”


One man dies every hour of prostate cancer in the UK – more than 35,000 will be diagnosed this year! It’s the most common kind of cancer here.

Movember is now in its third year and, to date, has achieved some pretty amazing results, working alongside The Prostate Cancer Charity. You can find out more at:

And look back over my progress at: and – please! – it’s not too late to make a donation.

I may be losing my moustache tomorrow, but I’m keeping these glasses forever.

The Swami’s Visit

Posted on October 27, 2009

Quite often, what we mistake for our earliest memories are, in fact, our fathers’ first camcorder outings. So I won’t claim this as my own, but I do remember seeing, at least, a home video of a man known to my family as simply… the Swami.

The Swami, which is an honorific title, is a holy man who tours the world, staying for a few days at a time in Hindu homes. And since the South Asian Diaspora is amongst the furthest flung, the Swami is a very well travelled man.

In the home video, he is shown praying in the flat above my parents’ corner shop in Newport, Shropshire. Not his most glamourous gig, I imagine, but for us – my two sisters and I – he was an exotic visitor in our otherwise suburban lives.

In what is a particularly uncomfortable scene for me, the Swami reaches down from his seat on the sofa to where we children are sat, at his feet, and strokes my head, like I were the cat to his Bond villain. Instead of purring, I stifle a laugh for what felt like an hour, but what the video reveals to have been only a few minutes.

For us, it was the highlight of the Swami’s visit. We recounted the story to each other (though we were all there), each time its telling more exaggerated. “It was like I was his bowling ball!” I’d say, not realising how creepy that sounded.


When he returned, years later, we were in our teens and had moved house. As he climbed our driveway, I noticed a pair of Nike Air Jordans peeking out from underneath his orange robes. He looked up at the new house, much bigger than the last, a symbol of my parents’ success, and declared it bad luck.

“Its shape,” he said. “Is like the open mouth of a roaring lion.”

I came out to help him with his bags, paused and looked up at the house as if it were a Magic Eye illusion. Maybe the lion would appear if I moved up close, fixed my eyes and stepped slowly back, I thought. But, however I looked at it, it was a new build, detached house with a separate garage joined by a granny annexe extension.

Once inside, he found our house more to his liking. Furniture draped in tarpaulin, at his request, so that when he sat he wouldn’t come into contact with the seat. Water too, on his arrival, was poured into his mouth so that the glass didn’t touch his lips. He plugged in his mobile phone to charge (it was the first I’d ever seen) and announced his final request – that he stay in my bedroom. As the youngest, he said, my room would be untouched by carnal desires. Good luck with that, buddy, I thought.

That evening, as we gathered in the lounge for a prayer session, we resumed our original positions: children (and mere mortals) to the floor, Swami perched on the covered sofa. This time, when he reached down to stroke my head, he found himself tangled in sticky hair gel.

“Any questions?” he asked, when we were done. “Anything you like.”

It was quiet. I guess we thought that if we asked any questions we’d only have to sit there, stifling laughter, for even longer. But it was awkward, so I raised my hand and scanned the room, looking for inspiration, my eyes landing on a painting of the avatar Krishna, in typical pose, playing a flute and dancing with women. Topless women, I’ll add.

“Mr Swami?” I said.

“Swami,” he corrected me.

“Swami, why’s the Lord Krishna always surrounded by women?” I asked. I was fifteen, bear in mind, and if I could just have his secret…

“Sandeep,” he said. “You mustn’t ask questions of your religion. OK?”

OK. So his question, as to whether we had any questions, was a rhetorical question?

I was glad when he left. And as I helped him with his bags I thought that for a Swami, “free from all the senses”, he sure had a lot of shit with him. Checking for his mobile phone, a dance I’d soon learn myself, he was on his way, off to chide more children and put them off the religion their parents so wanted them to embrace.


I was reminded of all of this when I went home for Diwali last weekend. It was a similar scene: the family gathered in the lounge for a prayer session on the Saturday evening, except we all sat on the floor this time. And perhaps because this made me feel like we were on the same level, I interrupted the prayer to ask why we didn’t say it in English.

“I mean, no-one understands this,” I said. I hadn’t wanted to start a revolution, but the debate my question had sparked was turning into one.

“Can’t you be a Hindu without speaking Hindi?” my sister asked.

“Yeah, why’s the religion and the language so tied up?”

You can see that our line of questioning had matured since the Swami’s visit, but even still it was upsetting mum. She finished the prayer, put away her books and went to the kitchen.

The next day, as I was packing to return to London, I came across a magazine in my old room. Though the Swami wasn’t with us this Diwali he’d found his way onto the cover of Hinduism Today, which had pronounced him, “Hindu of the Year”. I wondered how he’d earned the title. Fluent in Hindi? Unquestioning? Looking at the cover, he had a lot of bindis. Maybe that helped. I took a photo of the magazine and put away my camera. I’d been teaching myself photography and Diwali this year had turned into an ethnographic study.

In the car on the way to the railway station I apologised to my mum for upsetting her the night before.

“That’s okay, son,” she said. “It just upset me, I suppose, that you’re willing to teach yourself photography, but you seem uninterested in your own religion.”

It didn’t feel like my religion, I wanted to say. And the fact that I asked questions meant that I was interested.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want an argument before I left, and I didn’t really want a revolution. I’d had a great weekend, and I knew that when I got home and processed the photos I’d have the evidence in my hands. You just can’t say that about religion.

“Mum,” I said, as I got out of the car. “Why is Krishna always surrounded by topless women?”

My mum wound-up the car window and started the engine. I guess you can’t say that either.