Brain Children

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Mon Oct 02 2000 - 22:42:59 MDT

Humankind has been thinking about the thought process--and how to remake
machines in its own image--for centuries.
"Why do people like to think machines can't?" Disney's Marvin Minsky likes to
ask. Samuel Butler (1835-1902) phrased the question more fully more than a
century ago: "Why should not machines ultimately become as complicated as we ...
at any rate complicated enough to be called living, and to be indeed as living
as it was in the nature of anything at all to be?" Butler was the Victorian
satirist who wrote Erewhon, which describes a hidden land whose inhabitants
attempted to suspend history in order to prevent the evolution of machine
intelligence. In 1863 he published an essay on the evolution of technology
called "Darwin Among the Machines."
Homunculus sapiens
The best thing in Bots is University of Maryland computer scientist Ben
Schneiderman, a savage critic of this philosophy: "For those who built stone
idols or voodoo dolls or the golem or Frankenstein, it's long been a dream....
But no mature technology resembles [animal] form. Automobiles don't run with
legs, and planes don't flap their wings.... You need to know that if you issue a
command, you're going to get an exact and repeatable operation.... The data
rates you can get by pointing, clicking, and dragging are a hundred to
one-thousand times faster than natural language typing or voice."
Anthropomorphized agents, Mr. Schneiderman finishes, are "things that think for
people who don't."
Alas, there are plenty of those. Because human consciousness does have limited
bandwidth, agents could mediate a world of endless information. Many
functions--like telling the house to dim the lights--would be more easily done
through speech-based interfaces. In fact, the day approaches when invisible
servants will speak to us from the very air. Microsoft Bob was ridiculed,
although it was only an experimental first step into the marketplace, hardly
equivalent to pre-MS-DOS efforts. Office 97's cartoon Assistants are a clear
advance. The Jesuits, no slouches at child programming, used to boast that if
they were given a child before six, the adult was theirs for life. In October,
as this review was written, Microsoft released an interactive Barney aimed
straight at that preadolescent market. The same month, the company bought a $45
million stake in Lernout & Hauspie, a Belgium-based specialist in voice-enabled
computing. (For more on speech-recognition technology,

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