Computer Technology

Computer Technology: Computerized Confidants
by Jonathan Kolber

“Computer power continues to double roughly every one and a half years. Today’s supercomputers rival a rat’s brain in their sophistication. Within the next two decades, by every reasonable projection, computers will match human brains and then rapidly outstrip us.”

Around this time of year, the ubiquitous department store Santas make their annual appearance. Among these are the mechanical Santas. Some of these have built-in motion and even speak. At my local grocery store, I recently watched in fascination as a small boy approached a mechanical Santa and seemed mesmerized by it. He had to touch it and even shook its hand when the Santa gestured and moved its arm toward him.

Though I didn’t ask him, the boy seemed to believe he was interacting with a thinking being. How much stronger, I wondered, will this bond be when Santa recognizes the boy’s presence, makes eye contact, smiles at him and can have an interactive conversation? I’ll bet that it will then become harder to convince lots of kids that Santa is only a myth.

Computer Technology: Convincing the Masses

Of course, it’s one thing to convince small children, who are already disposed to blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s another thing entirely to convince adults. Yet the latter is coming as well.

Years ago, the computer scientist Alan Turing devised the now-famous “Turing Test.” It basically requires that a person converse with a computer through a black box, so the person doesn’t know whether it’s a computer or another person. If the computer can fool the person, it has passed the Turing Test and is to be considered intelligent.

Of course, this test is imprecise. Who is the person (or persons) qualified to conduct the test? What kind of “personhood” are we looking for — Einstein, Joe Average or the village idiot? Still, there have been some striking developments.

A computer program was written to perform Rogerian therapy. Basically, this is therapy in which the therapist feeds back the patient’s concerns and reactions. Often, this turns what the patient says into a question. (Patient: “I am feeling sad.” Therapist: “Why are you feeling sad?”) The therapist remembers what the patient said earlier, so not all of this feedback is triggered by the most immediate remarks. But it’s clear that this is ideally suited to a computer program, and indeed, it was turned into one called Eliza.

What’s interesting about this is that in tests, people who are offered the chance to use Eliza do use it. Many prefer it to a person, because it’s always available, doesn’t cut you off after 45 minutes and is free. Most remarkable, even when told that they were conversing with a program, many patients continued to prefer the software.

I believe this is a harbinger for things to come. Today, we can buy advanced “animatronic” toys (the best are made in Japan) that exhibit lifelike behaviors, such as the behaviors of dogs. Indeed, Sony’s AIBO has been called the first toy with a personality, and it’s artificially intelligent — it learns. It’s billed as something that can become “an endearing companion.”

Computer Technology: Computers in the Workplace

Computer speech recognition systems handle a lot of the customer service requests at businesses like utility companies. This has been going on for several years now.

I recently had a weird experience while “talking” to Verizon’s system. Its pleasant female voice had been interacting with me, responding reasonably intelligently to my spoken information. At one point in the conversation, just for a moment, I felt I was talking to an actual woman. This disconcerting moment quickly passed, but I had to wonder: What happens when the pleasant voice, with its simulated warmth and concern that managed to touch my emotions, if only briefly, is backed up by an intelligence capable of making sophisticated decisions?

Lest you think that is a flight of fancy, consider the progress of computer intelligence for a moment. In 1985, there was serious debate whether computers would ever play chess at grandmaster level. By 2000, they had defeated the best human players. Computers already perform medical diagnoses better than 90% of physicians. Computers make investment decisions managing billions of dollars. Computers have even invented things that have been awarded U.S. patents.

And that’s only the beginning. Computer power continues to double roughly every one and a half years. Today’s supercomputers rival a rat’s brain in their sophistication. Within the next two decades, by every reasonable projection, computers will match human brains and then rapidly outstrip us.

At some point, they won’t only simulate humans in ways that fool children, but will simulate us in ways that no one can detect. Coupled with speech recognition and synthesis systems that will rival human accuracy and the ability to depict “talking heads” that seem quite real (consider the recent movie, The Incredibles), it’s only a matter of time before people begin treating their computer companions as living entities.

Today, it’s just your Palm Pilot, but tomorrow, your confidant?

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Jonathan Kolber is the editor of Vantage Point Investment Advisory – a newsletter that uncovers companies with life-changing emerging technologies. We’re talking the kind that could revolutionize the world and your portfolio – at once. And Jonathan knows a thing or two about such technologies.In the 1980s, Jonathan was a top consultant to supercomputer companies. In 1996, he founded Hide & Seek Technologies Inc. – the company that pioneered limited-use, or “disposable,” CDs and DVDs. Plus, he’s co-founded two technology companies… served as senior management for several others… and helped a handful of startups get off the ground.