22nd October 2015
I am a university professor working on robots for automatic harvesting of broccoli. So I was delighted to be asked to judge the Hour of Writes competition on ‘The Broccoli Debate’.
As well as developing robots, my job involves a fair amount of writing, especially in the production of grant proposals and research papers. Although this writing is mainly factual, I like to think it still has a lot in common with writing fiction. Above all else, it should tell a good story.
I’m also aware that writing fiction brings its own challenges, particularly in the development of characters, their motives and interactions with one another and the world around them. Einstein once said: “Life is a great tapestry. The individual is only an insignificant thread in an immense and miraculous pattern.” Bringing those individuals to life, however, is fundamental to the art of writing good fiction, and I am in awe of some of the work by the writers in this competition.
The overall quality of submissions was high, and it was a shame I could pick only one winner. Three stories in particular stood out for me, and it was a tough job to choose between them. I am indebted to my partner Sam for her help in discussing the different entries and helping me to make the final selection.
I really enjoyed the good old-fashioned storytelling in the former piece, which was very well-written and a lot of fun to read. I loved the mad Professor with his franken-vegetables and the franken-pet at home, as well as the face off between the fractious head of the judging panel and the poor Professor. Great stuff! Reading this story brought back fond memories of the Professor Branestawm books and the transmogrification stories from the BBC’s Doctor Who TV series of the 1970s, which I always found to be a great source of inspiration for my work in robotics.
And as a roboticist working on automated harvesting of broccoli, the second one was right up my street. I found this really imaginative and powerful writing; great ideas, perfectly weighted and delivered; every word has its purpose. This piece captures in microcosm the great societal shifts of the coming robot revolution, the ever-changing relationship between humans and technology, and even the very nature of consciousness and existence. Bright imagery helps to tell the story, from pub talk to joyful robots in sunlit fields, and all in less than 200 words. The contrast between the “anodyne supermarket” and the robot’s simple joy at picking the broccoli was a delight. I loved the story’s optimistic outlook too.
Finally, let me announce the winner of the competition: “The Council of Vegetables”! I found this a hugely enjoyable piece of satire with some fabulous dialogue and characterisation. The writing really brought the characters to life. The Council reminded me a lot of academic life, particularly with the heated debate about the perceived affront to their Professional Standards. I especially loved the dialogue between the prima donna Carrot, who “turned away with a toss of his green shoots”, and the Potato (“Not so fast, you skinny red snob!”).
Funnily enough, I worked for many years researching artificial vision systems for quality inspection of potatoes, or “spotting sick spuds” as the BBC Technology website reported it. This work was done in collaboration with the British Potato Council, who I always visualised as a bunch of potatoes sitting around a table in the Council boardroom. So the Council of Vegetables in this story really made me laugh.
That’s all from me – congratulations to the winners, and many thanks to the Hour of Writes for asking me to judge this fantastic competition!
Tom Duckett is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, UK, where he also leads the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems. His research interests include autonomous robots, artificial intelligence, sensor fusion and agricultural robotics, and he also enjoys contributing to teaching and learning at the University’s School of Computer Science. He joined the University of Lincoln in 2006, after spending 7 years working at the Centre for Applied Autonomous Sensor Systems, Örebro University, Sweden. He obtained his PhD in the AI Group at the University of Manchester, UK. Prior to becoming an academic, he worked for several years as a programmer, developing and supporting software solutions for the fresh food industry.