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Man: How are you finding the teaching course, Susanna? You seem to have been making good progress so far.
Woman: Yeah, I’m feeling more confident in front of my students. But I worry about whether they’re inspired by the activities I do with them sometimes. I guess this is a wake-up call for me – that it’s just too much to expect them to be as excited about Maths as I am.
Man: I think when a teacher’s motivated, that can’t fail to make an impression. You can’t expect your students to love a subject unless they can see you love it yourself. Sure, your students will think you’re crazy if you talk about Maths as if it were a spectator sport, but in the end your attitude will rub off on them. 
Woman: I was reading about some techniques I could try in the classroom to keep their interest levels up . I’ve been trying to get some more hands-on stuff into my classes – you know trying things out in a practical sense rather than sticking to boring theory.
Man: Sounds like an excellent idea. Students always appreciate a teacher who goes the extra mile for them.
Sam: So you decided against the concert then?
Ella: I thought about it, but I don’t really think it’s possible to get caught up in the atmosphere when all you see is someone pressing buttons on a computer and tinkling the keys on a synthesiser. That’s all this electronic music amounts to.
Sam: Admittedly the performer was dressed all in black and she looked like a scene shifter. And the visuals were limited – there was a screen, but just with some sober animations on it – trees, castles, rippling water – that sort of thing.
Ella: That says it all.
Sam: But does that matter, if the music’s brilliant? And it certainly was. But that’s just my opinion. 
Ella: Tell me something about her then.
Sam: Well – she’s a student – studying comparative literature I think. That seems to give a bit of substance to her music, make it thoughtful and rigorous. 
Ella: Sounds overly serious!
Sam: Well, it all paid off. When the audience got more lively towards the end, she kept it steady and didn’t change pace to build excitement. And she didn’t seem to need the pyrotechnics and lasers that so many techies rely on.
Man: I heard that people from your office were planting trees last week. What’s going on?
Woman: Sustainability’s the new watchword these days. Last year we concentrated on cutting down on our use of paper, and providing raw material for more also seemed a good thing to do.
Man: And easier too – your office is next door to a big forest, isn’t it?
Woman: Yes – very convenient. We’re really keen on the idea that the company should be seen to identify with a certain set of values – and I think we were doing just that out there in the woods.  So much internal conflict seemed forgotten too – which may not last, of course!
Man: What else have you done?
Woman: It’s not just the trees of course – we’ve cut down our carbon footprint and reduced staff travel by encouraging remote working and flexible home working, so people have been understandably pleased about that. And word seems to have got round because the last bunch of job applicants were a very noticeably higher calibre than previously- and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t just a coincidence, though it wasn’t part of our original thinking.  There are certainly plenty of happy clients, but they’ve always been keen on the idea of supporting community projects through our efforts!
Jim: Hi. I’m Jim, and together with colleagues I’ve been attempting to create a group of robots that build things in the same impressive way that termites do. Termites are like large ants and build amazingly complex structures called mounds to live in. Unlike bees, termites don’t receive instructions from their queen about what to do.  In fact, a single worker doesn’t know what the other termites are doing or what the current overall state of the mound looks like.
This tells us that large numbers of units working independently can, paradoxically, build complicated, large-scale things together. So, we decided to make and to program what I like to call a colony of robots.  Now, by giving the robots a picture of what we want them to build – and it doesn’t matter how many of them there are or which robot does what – they do indeed end up building what they’re asked for. The robots and termites both have very restricted sensing – a single unit can only tell what’s going on right around itself. It’s the same with communicating.
Rather than communicating with one another directly, termites make alterations to their shared environment, and others respond. One deposits some soil, for example, or half-eaten wood…another one comes along later and on seeing this, a reaction is triggered.  We observed this and devised a similar system with the robots.
Like termites, the robots often make errors, for example trying to pick up a brick and failing. Rather than trying to prevent those errors, we give them enough feedback to help with the recognition and correction process , so they try again until they get it right. So they keep patrolling the structure, fixing only what needs fixing.
I’ve demonstrated this in action several times in public presentations, with one of our robots. It had to try to complete the structure I asked it to, in this case a staircase.  And there was a block missing at the top, so it had to try and pick up building material from the loading area and walk up the structure until it discovered exactly what needed attention.
In the long-term, one day robots like this could build for us in inaccessible or dangerous settings, such as underwater or on Mars. In the shorter term, the same principle applies. So, for instance, if you wanted to position sandbags to protect against rising floodwater , or build in difficult Antarctic surroundings, you can imagine how hardware and approaches very much like this could be used.
In a sense, termites are like cells in your brain, all acting independently but interacting with each other, and out of that comes a higher intelligence . And in a similar kind of way our robots are individuals, moving around independently with no central coordination, and together, hopefully, producing complicated structures.
One spin-off piece of research has already been put into place. A Turkish group has been working alongside us to see if the way the robots and termites operate can actually be captured in a mathematical model to be used in future projects . It’s a fascinating idea and I believe there are similar studies with flocks of birds and shoals of fish.
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