Jewish World Review August 31, 2001 / 12 Elul, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Virtual kids? Log me out -- SCIENTISTS are "raising" a computer program as if it were a child, according to news reports. As a parent, I have a simple question for those scientists: Are you sure you want to do this?

The company called Artificial Intelligence reportedly loves its little bundle of electronic joy. The company claims the program, nicknamed "HAL," has learned about as much language as an 18-month-old child. It reportedly has learned to like toys, bananas, "playing in the park" and bedtime stories.

"He is a curious, very clever child, someone that always wants to know more," said neurolinguist Dr. Anat Treister-Goren who is Hal's "mommy" and readily admits her attachment, according to Reuters.

I am sure the scientific possibilities here are tremendous. Maybe someday future humans will be able to download their own virtual baby, the way some people download music today.

Nevertheless, aren't computers frustrating enough without programming one to behave like a child?

Sure, computer rearing is easy now. The program is young, cute, vulnerable and innocent. No diapers to change. No post-midnight feedings. No spit-up on the shoulders of your nice new suit. No colic.

But just wait until it hits its "terrible two's," the age when a child, once it has learned how to talk, quickly learns how to talk back!

Ah, such a amazing rosy joy lights up in a child's eyes once it discovers the empowering little word, "No."

"Would you like some more mashed potatoes?" I asked my son at the dinner table one evening during this treacherous stage of life.

"No!" he barked indignantly from his elevated perch atop a telephone book.

"Would you like some more applesauce?"


"Would you like some ice cream?

"No…!" He stopped for a moment, realizing he had been had. Then, responded, "Yes!"


Thus begins years of increasingly sophisticated levels of argumentation and debate. A battle of wits immediately ensues between parent and child that does not end until, oh, maybe never.

Wait, for example, until time comes for that little computer to go to pre-school and all it wants to do is rest on its pudgy little algorithms and watch the Cartoon Network.

"You need to get an education."

"This is educational!"

Before you know it, if its plug is not pulled, the computer is entering its teen years, a time of ennui, mercurial moodiness, identity crises and the firm conviction that one's parents are the dumbest creatures on the planet.

At least, you probably won't have to worry about your computer asking for the keys to the car.

But what if it starts dialing up its computer friends behind your back?

What if it makes a deal with your car's computer to run off to Silicon Valley for the weekend?

How are you going to punish your teen computer by ordering it "grounded"? "Grounding," in electronic lingo, is a good thing for sensitive computer circuits.

And, if your cyber-tyke gets through that rough teen patch, what about college? Somehow the thought of a "My Kid Is an Honor Computer at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab" bumper sticker doesn't have much zing to it.

Besides, as my parents might well have asked, does it know enough to come in out of the rain?

So far, computer scientists have programmed computers to solve math calculations that would dazzle Albert Einstein. But, they've taken only baby steps in conquering the mundane, everyday form of intelligence that we humans call "common sense."

For example, the Web site for Cycorp, an artificial-intelligence company based in Austin, Texas, calls itself "the leading supplier of formalized common sense."

Cyc (pronounced like "psych") products, the site says, have "an immense multi-contextual knowledge base" and a highly efficient "inference engine" to capture "a large portion of what we normally consider consensus knowledge about the world."

The result? "Cyc knows that trees are usually outdoors, that once people die they stop buying things, and that glasses of liquid should be carried rightside-up."

Way to go, Cyc. Have a cookie. And don't get your circuits wet.

Frankly, I still prefer to raise kids the old fashioned way. It's frustrating, but it's also fun.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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